Kirby Smart’s Georgia replaces Alabama as the program to fear

For the entire modern era of college football, the reality of Georgia’s football program did not match the potential. Sure, there had been flashes of greatness in the 1960s and 70s, culminating with the 1980 national title under coach Vince Dooley and star running back Herschel Walker. 

But for nearly 40 years after that, it stood as the outlier in a history of occasionally coming close but always coming up short. Georgia wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t LSU. It wasn’t even hated Florida, which spent the 1990s and 2000s dominating their rivalry while winning three national championships. 

Finally, though, Georgia’s decade has arrived — and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. 

When the College Football Playoff semifinals kick off on New Year’s Eve, the Bulldogs will be as heavy a favorite to emerge as the national champion as any team since this format started in 2014. It’s not that the Bulldogs can’t lose, but it’s just hard to see who among the other three Playoff teams is equipped to beat them. 

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If Georgia finishes the job, it will become the first team to win back-to-back national titles since Alabama in 2011 and 2012. And that would be fitting, since Georgia hasn’t just copied Alabama’s program, it’s stolen their aura. 

What Nick Saban’s Alabama was to college football a decade ago is now what Kirby Smart’s Georgia has become: The program to beat, and also to fear. 

The Bulldogs don’t just win games, they suffocate opponents in a way nobody else in the country — even Alabama — does anymore. Not only do you have to play near-perfect football to beat Georgia these days, you have to hope they’ll help you beat them. 

And that’s not going to happen very often. 

As Georgia enters a semifinal against Ohio State in Atlanta — as if the Bulldogs needed any more advantages — they have won 27 of their last 28 games. Only a handful of those games have even been close. And when Georgia really brings it, there’s just nowhere for opponents to go, no weaknesses to pick on. 

At this point, Georgia simply feels inevitable.

“There’s nothing that we can’t work on during the next four weeks, right?” Smart said following Georgia’s 50-30 victory over LSU in Saturday’s SEC championship game. “We do camp-style practices. Our guys know everybody can get better. Conditioning level, tackling. Football’s a tough, hard sport. Our guys embrace challenges. So I think they’ll embrace the challenge of getting better. You can’t say you’re going to go work on one thing because then you’ll be giving up on some other things. We need to work on a lot of things.”

If Georgia really does spend the next four weeks getting better, the reality is that everyone is probably playing for second place yet again. 

It’s remarkably hard to have that strong of a grip over the rest of the sport, particularly in an era where the transfer portal and the lure of name, image and likeness deals has seemingly spread out the talent a little bit more. The elites are generally going to stay elite, but the norm going forward will probably be a little bit more tilted toward year-by-year variance.

At Georgia, though, none of that seems to matter. After setting a record with 15 players selected in the NFL Draft from their 2021 national title team, the Bulldogs simply reloaded. Or, to be more precise, their well of talent was already so deep that they just moved the assembly line forward. 

It doesn’t mean Georgia is better than last year. On defense, certainly, that’s not the case. But after so many top-five recruiting classes stacked on top of one another, Georgia may be the only program in the country that doesn’t have any glaring personnel weaknesses. When you combine that with Smart’s track record of development and his commitment to build everything around defense and physicality, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong.

And when it works well, it’s simply suffocating. 

“The physicality at our place comes out every day in practice,” said Smart, the former Saban assistant who saw the blueprint up close and has implemented it to perfection. “The thing I’ll never shy away from is that physical wins in our league. You see, our league’s different. Our league’s tough. Our league’s hard. Week in and week out, it’s extremely physical. So you’ve got to set yourself apart and you got to have a culture, build your culture around guys who think toughness matters. If toughness doesn’t matter, you have no chance.”

The thing Georgia hasn’t attained yet is the inevitable backlash that comes with dominating the sport. Alabama got used to being the Death Star by its second or third title and has remained in that role to this day. The Bulldogs are still new at this. They’re not quite there yet. 

But it’s coming, probably as soon as the second week of January. Not only has Georgia surpassed Alabama for the here and now, a second straight title would set them up as the program of the decade with no obvious end in sight. 

Given its location amid one of the nation’s deepest wells of talent, the university’s commitment to win and the attractiveness of its campus, the surprise is that it took Georgia this long to realize its dreams. Smart, to his eternal credit, is finally the one who figured out how to get it all moving the same direction. 

Because in sports, anything can happen — injuries, bad luck, whatever. But Georgia has been the best team in the country from beginning to end, proving it at every key moment from the season opener against Oregon (49-3) to the test against Tennessee (27-13) to the SEC championship tour de force. 

If the Bulldogs don’t win the title again, it will be a massive upset. And given the way Georgia is operating right now, it probably won’t be the last one. 

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