Georgia two wins from one of greatest college football achievements

ATLANTA — Georgia enters this College Football Playoff as arguably the most overwhelming favorite in the event’s nine-year history. Not only have the Bulldogs managed to stay unbeaten through a demanding Southeastern Conference schedule, they only even came close to losing once this season, squeaking out a 26-22 win at Missouri on Oct. 1 that seemed more like a case of boredom than a display of vulnerability. 

And yet, as dominant as Georgia has been, what they’re attempting to do in winning back-to-back national championships has proven exceptionally rare in this sport. The last program to do it was Alabama in 2011-12. Before that, it was Nebraska going unbeaten through both the 1994 and 1995 seasons, a few years before the BCS even came into existence. And prior to the Cornhuskers, the last to do it was Alabama under Bear Bryant in 1978 and 1979, a bygone era where the preeminence of traditional bowl game tie-ins meant that the best teams did not always play each other in the postseason. 

In other words, if Georgia were to finish off another title as they are expected to do, it would not only buck historical trends but make a strong case as the greatest accomplishment in the modern history of college football.

‘This is a different year, and we’ve got a very different team,’ said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who would prefer as little discussion as possible about the significance of going back-to-back, at least until it happens. ‘I don’t get caught up in one year to the next. Wipe the slate clean and try to redraw the art piece, and start all over each year with what you’ve got.’ 

While technically true – the Bulldogs’ 15 players drafted last April was an NFL record – the fact Georgia relies on a different core roster only adds heft to the achievement if they’re able to pull it off.

In some ways, it’s remarkable Georgia’s air of inevitability has lasted this long, particularly in the College Football Playoff era where the only path to a championship is excellence in the regular season followed by winning two games against high-level competition. 

Consider what has happened to recent teams that had a legitimate shot at going back-to-back. 

After Florida State’s historic 2013 title run, the Seminoles returned a strong core including Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, the bulk of their offensive line and a bevy of stars on defense including Mario Edwards, Ronald Darby and Jalen Ramsey. 

And yet it was clear from the beginning of the 2014 season that the Seminoles’ chemistry and drive wasn’t the same. Though they survived a series of close calls to get to 13-0, they were only the No. 3 seed in the playoff and were predictably blown out by Oregon in the semifinals, 59-20. 

Ohio State ended up as the surprise champion that year and came back in 2015 as the near-consensus preseason No. 1 with a roster that was loaded top to bottom with future NFL players. But just like the Seminoles before them, the Buckeyes struggled with the weight of expectations and missed the playoff due to a shocking 17-14 loss at home to Michigan State. 

After winning the title in 2015, Alabama was No. 1 the entire following season but couldn’t close the deal in the championship game against Clemson. The same thing happened in 2018, with the Crimson Tide getting to 14-0 before a surprising 44-16 blowout less to Clemson. 

In theory, Georgia should have been susceptible to a post-championship letdown. After all, it when the Bulldogs won last January, they not only exorcised a whole bunch of demons in big games against Alabama, they ended a 41-year national title drought. 

Though the Bulldogs were obviously expected to be good again – they were ranked No. 3 in the preseason coaches ‘poll – it would have been normal for everyone in the program to exhale just a bit. 

‘Those pats on the back feel good,’ Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. ‘And then you start to believe what they’ve told you and it’s never true, good or bad. It’s not true. And then you forget. You literally forget how you did it. It’s the craziest thing in the world. You don’t do what you did last year when you were hungry and there really was no other option if you wanted to keep playing here but to win. And people lose track of that. They lose track of how they felt before they won.’

And yet, there’s been no signal so far that Georgia’s edges are any less sharp than they were last year. Aside from the aforementioned Missouri game and a sloppy quarter the prior week against Kent State, there haven’t been any red flags to suggest that a bad performance is right around the corner. If anything, this Georgia team has played its best when the stakes were highest, blowing out Oregon in the season opener, throttling then-unbeaten Tennessee on Nov. 5 and running away from LSU in the SEC championship. 

‘It comes from the mentality of the head coach,’ said offensive coordinator Todd Monken. ‘I think human nature is to settle, whether it’s recruiting, the way you practice, touching the line when you’re doing some sort of drill when it’s finishing. But that’s just not his DNA, so that carries over to us and the players and that builds a certain culture of there’s a certain way of doing things right and what wins. And the more you continue to win and it shows up, the more it’s easy to sell.’

That has an echo of the way assistant coaches, including Smart at one point, used to talk about Nick Saban. But Smart, who was Saban’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons at Alabama, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time these days reflecting on how the experience of winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 might have played at least some role in how he has guided this team to the precipice of repeating that feat. 

‘I can’t remember that far back,’ Smart said. ‘Like, honestly, it’s too hard. I don’t have a book of notes. In 20 something years coaching, you just try to do the best job you can. There’s not like a magic potion or let me go to the book where you have a team (win consecutive national titles). There is no book for it. You just manage each and every team and each and every season as best you can.’

Of course, as Smart is well aware, the task is still a good ways from being completed. From a talent standpoint, Ohio State is as formidable a team as Georgia could have drawn in the semifinals. The Bulldogs will likely have to play well to win the game, and there’s plenty of history working against a repeat.

But if Georgia can get the job done and go 29-1 with a pair of CFP titles, they will have written an entirely new standard for excellence over a two-year run that will be difficult for any future teams to reach. 

This post appeared first on USA TODAY