Hayes: Georgia is on the verge of completing the greatest 2-year run in college football history
They’re not the most talented team to reach this point, not by a long shot.
They haven’t been through the most adversity, or navigated the toughest schedule or dealt with debilitating drama.
But Georgia is a game away from the most impressive back-to-back championship run ever.
That’s right, ever.
“There’s just as much pressure from year 1 to year 7,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of his time in Athens. “The expectations don’t change. We embrace that.”
It’s not so much the expectations as it is the product on the field. And it’s not so much years 1 through 7 as it is the past 2 seasons — where Georgia is 1 win from tying the major college record of 29 wins over 2 seasons.
It’s also in the way it has happened, in the middle of a seismic shift of NCAA rules determining how programs procure and retain players. In a brief stretch where uncertainty is the rule, the one unrelenting force has been Georgia.
They don’t have the talent of Miami in 2001-02, and USC 2004-05. Or even Alabama 2020-2021.
They haven’t exactly played in the roughest 2-year stretch in the best conference in college football, either. In 29 games over 2 seasons, Georgia has played 12 ranked teams at the time of the games — nearly half of those teams (5) in SEC Championship Games and Playoffs.
But there are 2 defining intangibles that make this Georgia run more impressive than either of the previous 2 programs (Alabama, Nebraska) to win back-to-back titles since 1957: Georgia did it during unprecedented player free agency, and did it with a former walk-on at the most important position on the field.
Georgia had 15 players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, including 5 in the first round. The 15 players selected were the most since the league went to 7 rounds in 1994.
Georgia also lost 14 players to the transfer portal, a handful of which were starters at Power 5 programs. That’s 29 players from the 2021 national championship team — or 34 percent of the 85 scholarship players — who weren’t around when the team began its pursuit for a second straight championship.
“That’s not only key players and backups, that’s part of the chemistry and culture of the team,” former Georgia coach Jim Donnan said. “You’re just lopping off that number and bringing in new guys that don’t yet understand the expectations and culture.”
So while every other team in the SEC was loading up on transfer players — including Alabama with 5 impact starters from the portal — Georgia didn’t sign 1.
Smart tried to land former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, but when Williams decided to sign with USC, Georgia was back to option 1 at quarterback: former walk-on turned 2021 national championship hero Stetson Bennett.
The same quarterback Smart and the Georgia staff tried for 3 years to keep off the field, yet couldn’t. Tried 4-star recruit D’Wan Mathis and former 5-star recruit JT Daniels, and neither stuck.
Tried to recruit blue-chip high school stars over him (Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff, Gunner Stockton), and none could get on the field.
Somehow Georgia won it all in 2021 — in an era of quarterback is everything — with a 5-11, 190-pounder (and that’s being generous) who looked more physically suited to run a frat offense than the best team in college football.
If Georgia beats TCU Monday in the National Championship Game, Bennett will have gone a full recruiting cycle — 4 years — of winning more national titles than all 14 5-star quarterback recruit combined over that span.
Think about this: In the past 4 years, 5-star quarterback recruits are 3-7 in Playoff games. If the Bulldogs beat TCU, Bennett will be 4-0 in Playoff games.
Again, in an era where quarterback is everything, where offenses have moved to vertical passing games and defenses are at a disadvantage because of rules favoring the offense and strong-armed, athletic, dual-threat throwers, Georgia is doing it with a beautiful overachiever at the most important position on the field.
If Georgia wins Monday, Bennett will be the first quarterback to win back-to-back national title since AJ McCarron of Alabama in 2011-12, and only the 3rd since 1994 (Tommie Frazier, Nebraska).
Alabama in 2011-12 is most similar to Georgia, though the Tide did it with 4-star quarterback AJ McCarron and in an environment when Tide coach Nick Saban was stockpiling 4- and 5-star recruits on the roster like game day traffic on McFarland Blvd. The Tide also didn’t have to navigate a Playoff.
Nebraska got hot in the mid-1990s when USC and UCLA were down, and the Huskers were going into Los Angeles and landing elite recruits. Nebraska also was fortunate when the best player in the talent-rich state of Florida — quarterback Tommie Frazier — couldn’t get Florida, Florida State or Miami to recruit him as a quarterback.
So he went to Nebraska and — along with an upgraded roster of speed and athleticism that Nebraska lacked for so long in big bowl games — orchestrated one of the greatest 4-year runs in college football history.
But Nebraska didn’t have to play in a conference championship game and 2 Playoff games to win it all. The road — including the early days of the Big 12 vs. the current SEC — was significantly easier.
“What they’ve done the last couple of years is rare,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said.
So rare, in fact, that 1 more win will leave Georgia all alone among the greatest back-to-back champions in the modern era of the sport.