ATLANTA — The dragon was slayed, expectations were met and confetti was falling.

And there was Georgia coach Kirby Smart in January, standing on the field in Indianapolis with one overriding thought after ending the Bulldogs’ 41-year drought by beating Alabama for the national championship.

“Is this excitement or is this relief?” Smart said.

It doesn’t matter — because the ride isn’t over.

Winning the national championship for the first time since 1980 doesn’t complete Nick Saban’s famed “Process” — the very formula Smart has used to build the Georgia program.

Of all the unrivaled success Saban has had at Alabama, all the championships and elite recruiting and development of NFL players, nothing is more impressive than the final step of The Process: Convincing players that gold on top of the mountain this year is more valuable than last year.

Smart helped Saban build that Process for 9 years as his top assistant, and there will be no surprises. At least, those he knows are on the horizon.

Those he doesn’t — and how he and his staff react and adjust — will dictate if Georgia can return to the Playoff and win it all again.

“We didn’t build this program on hoping for 1-year wonders, or hoping for 1 opportunity,” Smart said. “This program was built to be here a long time.”

A year ago at SEC Media Days, Smart declared that success comes to those who are too busy to look for it. Within the first hour of walking into the carnival this year, Smart says he was asked about complacency infecting his team “at least 50 times.”

This annual media moshpit wasn’t a celebration of 2021, it was a declaration of 2022. It was obvious from the first words Smart spoke when he arrived, and everything he and his players said over the course of the event.

“We will not be the hunted,” Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith said. “We are the hunters.”

They talked about preparation and staying focused on what you can control, and making the little things the big things. You know, all of those Saban Process tenants.

But it hasn’t been the cleanest offseason.

It began shortly after the national title, when Oklahoma freshman All-American QB Caleb Williams entered the transfer portal and Georgia was 1 of his top 3 targets. Williams took his time making a decision, leaving the quarterback room at Georgia in limbo.

Stetson Bennett, the undervalued and overcriticized hero of the championship season, wasn’t sure if he would continue playing or if it would be with Georgia. He said he needed to meet with Smart to “make sure things were clear.”

Bennett eventually said he would stay at Georgia, and 2 weeks later, Williams signed with USC. Not long after that, Bennett arrived for the first time at spring practice as the unquestioned leader of the quarterback room.

It was then that Smart said publicly Bennett needed to “do a better job of going to class and doing the right thing.” He wanted a team leader, a galvanizing force at the tip of the spear.

Georgia had 18 players named team captain during the 2021 season, and not once was Bennett part of that weekly honor. JT Daniels, who started the season and was eventually forced to a backup role because of injuries and Bennett’s strong play, was a team captain.

But the drama didn’t end with Bennett.

Days later, Amarius Mims, a 5-star offensive line recruit, entered the transfer portal and visited Florida State. He later left the portal and returned to Georgia, but the move underscored a handful of impact players who left after the season.

Jermaine Burton, the team’s No.1 receiver, left for Alabama. Cornerback Ameer Speed left for Michigan State. Safety Latavious Brini left for Arkansas. Daniels left for West Virginia. All started at one point in 2021.

While transfer portal losses aren’t rare and are typical with many national champions, it was more than a bump in the road. Burton would’ve been a critical part of the offense, and Georgia’s biggest weakness on defense this season is coverage in the secondary.

It also doesn’t mean that Smart’s recruiting doesn’t have Georgia set up for success despite the losses. Or as he explained Wednesday, “If you recruit a lot of fast, athletic guys, you’re going to play well on defense.”

But it does mean that the offseason wasn’t as smooth as last year’s uniquely focused ride. Distractions are the greatest enemy of running it back.

Smart lived that in 2010, after Alabama won its first national title under Saban in 2009. The Tide returned a loaded roster, and eventually had 4 first-round NFL Draft picks.

By the end of the season, Alabama blew a 17-point lead to bitter rival Auburn at home, and lost more games than any other Saban team — not including his first season.

Saban still talks about what got away during that 2010 season, and how it set the tone for future Alabama teams. Now Smart is starting at another crossroads season in a similar situation.

Georgia is loaded from years of stellar recruiting. The Dawgs are good enough to win another national title and complete the Process — if it can avoid the trap of complacency.

If it sees games at South Carolina and Kentucky, or a home game against Tennessee, or The Cocktail Party, the same way it saw them last year: dangerous statement games that demand complete focus.

“We’re not going to be passive about it,” Smart said.

Earlier this spring Smart decided he needed a different motivational ploy for this group, something new and fresh that would grab them by the throat and demand attention. So he spent time researching how the mighty have fallen.

Not just great sports teams, but businesses and nations — and how selfish singular ideas eroded the greater good of the whole. They met as a team in breakout groups to discuss the failure, and how to learn from mistakes of others.

“There’s a hunger among this group,” Smart said. “A lot of guys want to want to prove they can replace the other guy.”

The ride isn’t over.