The Boys of Fall
By Johnathan McGinty | Photos courtesy of Getty Images
It’s safe to say the vibe in Athens has been, well, quite positive the past few months.
The sun shines a bit brighter.
The beer tastes a little colder.
The barks are a tad louder.
Such is the case when you’re home to the reigning national champions.
On January 10, Georgia ended a 41-year title drought, dispatching long-time nemesis and perennial college football powerhouse Alabama 33-18. The victory exorcized countless demons of close calls, heartbreaks and dashed dreams, bringing home that long elusive championship to the community for the first time since the legendary Vince Dooley roamed the sidelines.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, longtime fans laughed, hugged and wept. Countless hours of work productivity were lost to YouTube replays and story swapping. “What did you do when they won?” became the question every Bulldog fan was eager to both ask and answer.
It was a game that transformed the entire identity of the program and the team, and such a monumental shift wasn’t lost on the coaches, players and support staff who delivered that title.
“I’ve spoken to many of them in the aftermath, and they get it,” noted Seth Emerson, the Georgia beat writer for The Athletic. “The memory that stands out is going up to Jamaree Salyer at the Senior Bowl, and I didn’t need to reference anything, I just said, ‘Has it sunk in yet,’ and he knew what I meant.”
But as fast as Kelee Ringo could weave his way past Crimson Tide pursuers into the endzone that fateful night in January — a play that ultimately clinched the crown for the Bulldogs — it’s already time to turn the page. A new season is upon us, and delirious fans, eager students and curious pundits all seem to be asking the same question.
Can Georgia do it again?
For most observers, the answer is … why not?
Tony Waller’s day job is assistant dean at UGA’s School of Law, but he’s also well-known in college football circles as one of the hosts of the popular podcast “Waiting Since Last Saturday” that focuses on Georgia football. For him, it’s all about the team keeping its focus and maintaining that competitive edge that has kept Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs hungry the past six seasons.
“Georgia is coaching, recruiting and developing at the level that now has them included in the exclusive group of programs that will always be considered national championship worthy,” he said. “The biggest hurdle is convincing people that it is actually harder to accomplish something two times in a row than it is to accomplish it the first time.”
It’s a tough path to navigate, but Georgia has put itself in position to make another run.
The team returns possibly one of its deepest and most talented units on offense in program history. While most of the attention went to the defense on last year’s squad, it’s worth remembering that Georgia had one of its most efficient and effective offenses in some time in 2021. Statistically, it ranked as the best in the conference when it came to yards-per play and yards-per-pass-attempt, which teased the big-play ability the Bulldogs possessed last year.
Returning to lead the way on offense is Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on who has achieved an almost mythical status among Georgia’s passionate fanbase. From running scout team drills in 2017, to taking a celebratory swig of ultra-exclusive Pappy Van Winkle bourbon following the national championship game, the senior has ensured he’ll go down as one of the most beloved Bulldogs in program history.
And, for the first time, the quarterback job is exclusively his. For the previous two seasons, it always felt as if he was looking over his shoulder, splitting time with other quarterbacks off and on. That won’t be the case in 2022 as Bennett now is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, giving a measure of cohesion, confidence and stability at a position where those traits always are in need.
“The only reason he’s not getting more buzz this preseason is perception,” Emerson said. “He’s a former walk-on, lost his job in 2021, didn’t look good in the SEC Championship, etc. But in the macro sense we’re talking about the reigning offensive MVP of the Orange Bowl and national championship, who led two 75-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter of the title game.”
Bennett will have plenty of weapons on offense to help out. Brock Bowers, the talented tight end who was named SEC Freshman of the Year, is back, and he’ll be joined by 6-foot-7 giant Darnell Washington and the athletic Arik Gilbert, who can play both tight end and wide receiver.
Additionally, the wide receiver position is very deep with skilled players like A.D. Mitchell, Kearis Jackson, Ladd McConkey and several others eager to make a name for themselves. When you factor in a veteran offensive line, anchored by preseason All-SEC pick Sedrick Van Pran at center, the Bulldogs figure to be able to put plenty of points on the scoreboard.
“Last year’s offense just didn’t put up more gaudy stats because it didn’t need to, taking the foot off the pedal in so many games,” Emerson said. “This year it won’t necessarily have to carry the team, because it’s not like the defense will be bad. But the offense could take things up a level, especially with the star power at tight end, and the underrated group it has at receiver.”
This isn’t to say the vaunted defense that Smart’s Bulldogs have become known for is going to take a step back. Nolan Smith, Jalen Carter, Christopher Smith and title game hero Ringo will be joined by a host of younger five-star talent eager to make a name for themselves, ensuring Georgia’s defense remains one of the best in the country.
Which leads us back to the original question — can the Bulldogs repeat? The talent and coaching is there, though a season-opening contest against Oregon looms and improving squads at Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida all pose threats to Georgia’s grip on SEC dominance.
Still, it’s hard to blame Bulldog fans for wanting to bask in the glow of that magical night in January just a little bit longer before embarking on another championship quest.
“I haven’t worried about departures, coaching changes, recruiting, injuries, arrests, grades, or scheme since the evening of January 10th,” Waller said. “It’s been glorious.”