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Georgia opens and closes season as national champs – but a lot happened in-between

Ivan Maisel01/12/23
Article written by:On3 imageIvan Maisel

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Kirby Smart and Georgia have won back-to-back titles; nobody has won three in a row in the poll era, which started in 1936. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

One of the most entertaining, exuberant college football seasons in recent memory concluded the same way it began, with Georgia as national champion. That’s not to say that nothing changed. That the Bulldogs (15-0) won their second consecutive College Football Playoff in a season when so much changed is a testament to the recruiting ability and coaching acumen of Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his staff, not to mention the talent, skill and fortitude of the players themselves.

It didn’t matter that Georgia lost 15 players to the NFL draft, that the Bulldogs could enjoy the 2021 national championship whenever they needed validation. Georgia cruised through 13 opponents easily, including TCU in the championship game Monday night. The Dawgs also called upon their reservoirs of self-belief in fourth-quarter comebacks at Missouri and against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl CFP semifinal.

Those two games are among the many nail-biters that set this 2022 season apart. The entertainment may be a product of the exuberance that erupted in the absence of the most debilitating effects of COVID-19. After two seasons truncated (2020) or interrupted (2021) by the virus, college football luxuriated in the return of full locker rooms and full stadiums. The exuberance alone didn’t trigger the number of important games decided in the final seconds this season, but surely fan interest contributed.

There’s a reason the preceding paragraph didn’t include the phrase “return to normal.” College football has no normal, at least not when compared to the pre-portal, pre-NIL days of 2019. The strategic deployment of the portal had a lot to do with the unpredictability – i.e., excitement – of the season. How else to explain how 15 teams unranked at the beginning of the season finished in the AP top 25? No one used the portal more astutely than Sonny Dykes, the first-year coach of TCU, who brought in 14 players not only to fill holes and supply depth but transform the Horned Frogs from mediocrity to a team that came within 60 minutes of the national championship.

Sixty minutes and no closer. Anyone who saw Georgia’s 65-7 takedown of TCU on Monday night can attest to that. Zoologists may tell you that horned frogs lay eggs in the desert from May to August, but the breed you capitalize proved capable of laying one in the chilly dampness of southern California in January.

History has a tendency toward recency bias. Smart talked in his news conference Tuesday morning about asking team captain Nolan Smith to remain with the Bulldogs. The linebacker suffered a season-ending pectoral injury against Florida in late October.

“He was going to check out and go train and go work out,” Smart said. “I said, ‘Nolan, it will be the greatest mistake of your life if you leave right now and don’t finish this because people will remember how you finished.’ ”

We define a team by how it finishes, too. It would be a shame if one bad performance canceled the 13-1 season that qualified TCU to lay that egg. Smart said pretty much the same thing from the other side of the equation. He is 47 years old, has an 81-15 record as Georgia’s coach and will have the opportunity to lead the Bulldogs to a third consecutive national championship, which no team has done since the AP poll began awarding titles in 1936.

“I get it,” Smart said. “I get that’s what you define Joe Montana on, Tom Brady on, LeBron and Kobe and Michael Jordan, on the number of championships. I don’t want these young men to be defined by that. I don’t want my career to be defined by that because I know tons of coaches and players out there that didn’t get one that had unbelievable careers.”

Smart is onto something there. It’s especially easy to label a team when its performance confirms the prevailing sentiment or, to put a finer point on it, the sentiment of the prevailing. TCU played as if it didn’t belong on the same field as Georgia, which is what SEC fans already believed.

The Horned Frogs earned their trip to the CFP Championship Game. The debate on the first Sunday in December centered on No. 4 Ohio State being slotted ahead of No. 5 Alabama. TCU validated its No. 3 ranking when it defeated No. 2 Michigan, the same Wolverines who throttled the Buckeyes to close the regular season, the same Buckeyes who nearly beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

The Horned Frogs failed the same eye test at Sofi Stadium on Monday that they failed against the Wolverines. TCU won that Fiesta Bowl with quickness, smarts and toughness, the same tools it had used all season. Either the Horned Frogs didn’t have those tools against Georgia or Georgia had more of them. The game didn’t reflect the season that created it, but the game did reflect the dominance of the team that won.