Why we won't remember any 2022 team as historically elite (even Georgia)
When the confetti fell on each of the past 4 national champions, I remember thinking we had just witnessed history.
Not like, “a team won a title so technically it’s all history.” More like, “we just watched one of the best teams of my lifetime.”
That 2018 Clemson team capped an undefeated season by handing Nick Saban the most lopsided loss during his time at Alabama. The 2019 LSU team beat 7 teams ranked inside the AP top 10 en route to a 15-0 season in which Joe Burrow and the Tigers rewrote the offensive record books. The 2020 Alabama team went unbeaten and took down all but 1 team (Florida) by at least 14 points with an offense that averaged 49 points a game. And of course, 2021 Georgia won it all with a historically dominant defense that only surrendered 14 points 3 times in a 15-game schedule.
All 4 of those teams should be on the shortlist of the best college football teams of the past 30 years, albeit for different reasons. They lost a combined 1 game, and 2021 Georgia avenged that loss a month later with a 2-score win against Alabama to take home a title.
Now that you’ve gotten your (recent) history lesson, here’s a much less optimistic prophecy. The 2022 title winner? It won’t belong in that class. Even Georgia.
Don’t get it twisted. Nobody lucks into a national title. Playing 14 or 15 games and likely beating 3 consecutive top-10 foes to get there — don’t forget about conference championship weekend — is why it’s never been harder to break through and win it all.
But if you look at the way this season has played out, you’ll see that this isn’t setting up for some all-time great season. That even includes Georgia, which could potentially become just the 4th team to repeat as national champs since the Jimmy Carter administration and first since Alabama in 2011-12. While obviously that’s a historic accomplishment, that wouldn’t necessarily elevate the specific 2022 team into that elite tier.
What do I mean by that? And isn’t that premature in a year in which we have 3 remaining unbeatens heading into conference championship weekend?
Perhaps. And it’s not to say someone can’t rip off a remarkable 3-game run like 2014 Ohio State. But would we really put that team, which had a 2-score loss at home to Virginia Tech, among the 5 best teams of the past 30 years? No chance.
To be considered an all-time great team, the margin for error is slim. Having 3 games against significantly lesser competition that are 1-score games in the second half could be a holdup (more on that in a minute), as could playing in a conference without depth.
I decided to break down the remaining teams with a national title path and outline why they won’t be remembered in the same light as any of the previous 4 national champs:
Historically great teams don’t get boat-raced at home by their rival in the biggest game of the year. It’s as simple as that. Could Ohio State sneak into the Playoff and go on a 2017 Alabama-like run as a non-division champ that played with house money en route to a title? It’s possible, especially if the Buckeyes can get their offensive skill-players healthy.
But yeah, Ohio State’s chance at historical dominance ended once the scoreboard read “Michigan 45, Ohio State 23.”
For now, the easiest comparison to make for 2022 USC is 2018 Oklahoma. Yes, there’s the Lincoln Riley connection. There’s also likely a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who is tasked with doing the heavy lifting because the defense isn’t even decent by 2022 standards, much less historic. Of course, one doesn’t need to have a historic defense to be considered a historic team. See 2019 LSU.
But as you see here, even if we considered the offenses and competition a wash (they aren’t), the side-by-side of their defenses isn’t really much of a comparison:
I don’t think a team that ranks in the bottom 15 nationally in yards/play allowed can be considered historically great.
And remember, that’s if all things were equal. If USC makes the Playoff, the semifinal game will be its first against a team ranked in the AP top 10 at the time of the matchup. LSU, of course, already had 5 such matchups at that point. It’s a little bit different to get through the SEC unscathed in dominant fashion than to have 8 games decided by 2 scores or less, 7 of which came against a conference trying to put its first team in the Playoff in 6 years.
Even if USC avenges the Utah loss in the Pac-12 Championship and then upset the likes of Georgia and Michigan en route to a national title, I think we can put to rest any notion that it’s a historically elite team.
I’m so pro-TCU that Sonny Dykes would have my vote for national coach of the year and I believe TCU is already worthy of a Playoff spot, regardless of what happens in the Big 12 Championship. Why? Going 12-0 with a 9-game conference schedule is no joke. The 2019 Ohio State squad is the lone team in the Playoff era to go 13-0 with a 9-game conference schedule en route to the Playoff. TCU can join the Buckeyes with a win against Kansas State.
But historic, this team is not.
The Horned Frogs became the first team since 1975 to win 7 consecutive games by 10 points or less. To say that TCU has “played with fire” would be an understatement. The fire drill field goal to beat Baylor was a microcosm of the entire season.
NO. 4 TCU HOLDS OFF BAYLOR IN A NAIL-BITER TO IMPROVE TO 11-0 ? pic.twitter.com/nqw56ATSm9
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 19, 2022
It doesn’t help that TCU came from the conference that only had 1 other team with fewer than 4 losses. And that conference, the Big 12, has never had a team win a Playoff game in 8 years of the format. Even if the Horned Frogs somehow reached 15-0, I think we’d view it more through the “improbable” lens than anything else.
This is where it gets interesting. Michigan fans might feel like this is the program’s best chance to win a national title in the 21st century, which they could absolutely be right about. It certainly felt like a historical beatdown against No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus. The Wolverines have 2 blowout wins against teams who are currently ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll, and like TCU, they’re 1 win from pulling off the impressive feat of a 13-0 start with a 9-game conference schedule to reach the field.
So what’s the holdup? A few things.
The Big Ten didn’t do Michigan any favors. The Ohio State win was dominant, and doing it without a healthy Blake Corum was darn impressive. Not so dominant? Sweating out unranked foes at home like Maryland and Illinois, both of which were within 1 score in the final 4 minutes (Illinois led until Michigan’s go-ahead kick with 9 seconds left).
The MOOD is good in Michigan ?
— For Future Considerations (@PodcastFFC) November 20, 2022
A halftime deficit at 4-win Rutgers and a tie game in the middle of the 3rd quarter at 4-win Indiana weren’t signs of dominance, either.
To Michigan’s credit, disaster was avoided in those 4 games. Not to Michigan’s credit, a nonconference slate didn’t feature a Power 5 team or anyone who has even recently flirted with being a Power 5 team. It doesn’t help the historically dominant argument that an unranked Big Ten West champ Purdue awaits the Wolverines in the conference championship.
Maybe this would be a different story if Michigan had an average scoring margin against Power 5 competition of +30.0. But at +19.7 currently, that’s pretty far off from 2018 Clemson (+30.4), who might be the closest comp if Michigan wins it all. Then again, Michigan isn’t about to win it all by handing the greatest coach of all-time his ugliest loss during a decade of dominance. Kirby Smart doesn’t have the reputation of being as bulletproof as Nick Saban. At least not yet.
Speaking of Smart …
Two things can be true at the same time. One is that if UGA repeats, it’ll be remembered as one of the best runs we’ve ever seen. To win it all after losing 15 (!) players to the NFL Draft would be an all-time feat, especially if it’s because of a No. 1 scoring defense that lost 8 starters to the next level and had its senior captain go down with a season-ending injury in late-October.
Having said that, I think even UGA fans would agree that the 2022 squad has been more touch-and-go than the 2021 squad or really any of those 4 aforementioned national champions in recent memory.
Remember the 10-point game in the middle of the 4th quarter against 5-win Kent State? How about not scoring a touchdown until a furious 4th quarter comeback at Mizzou? And as recently as last week, it was a 1-score game in the middle of the 3rd quarter at home against 5-win Georgia Tech until Brock Bowers salvaged a poorly-thrown 4th-down attempt with a shoestring grab in the end zone to give UGA its first multi-score lead of the day.
BROCK BOWERS GRABS IT FOR ANOTHER TD pic.twitter.com/X0HQGF6Aim
— Barstool UGA National Champions? (@ugabarstool) November 26, 2022
Yes, the individual showings against Oregon and Tennessee were phenomenal. The Tennessee game specifically was the most impressive defensive performance of the Playoff era considering the Vols’ No. 1 scoring offense didn’t score a touchdown in the first 55 minutes.
But outside of those 2 games, this hasn’t been some gauntlet schedule. Tennessee will be the only team on UGA’s pre-Playoff schedule that heads into the postseason with fewer than 3 losses. Oregon and Tennessee were the only 2 teams that were ranked at the time of the matchup (South Carolina and MSU are both currently ranked in the AP Poll). In the SEC Championship, UGA even gets an extremely rare 3-loss West champ that just got pounded by 5-win A&M.
Maybe part of that sentiment is because the Dawgs likely won’t have to conquer Alabama like last year. It doesn’t feel like UGA has some Goliath waiting because even Michigan, who could be the best chance to stand in the way of the Dawgs, got whipped by Georgia a short 11 months ago. If Michigan, TCU and USC round out the field, those teams are a combined 0-1 in Playoff games. And if you think about it, beating Oregon meant a 4th win against Bo Nix while beating Tennessee meant continuing a winning streak that dates back to 2017.
Perhaps the bar was always going to be too high for 2022 Georgia to be considered an all-time great team. We knew the defense would regress at least somewhat (it’s been much less of a drop-off than I could’ve imagined), and outside of the tight end room, nobody is putting any element of Georgia’s offense on par with 2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU or 2020 Alabama.
What feels possible is UGA wins a national title and the “D” word becomes more realistic than ever. As in “dynasty.” With another ring, the “team of the decade” title would certainly belong to the Dawgs until further notice.
But just because a dynasty is unlocked doesn’t mean every team within it is historically great. We wouldn’t automatically say that all 6 of Michael Jordan’s title teams with the Chicago Bulls rank as top-10 teams historically (the 1995-96 squad who won 72 games definitely did).
Georgia could be heading down a similar path with its 2022 squad. And who knows? With the talent that could return, maybe it’ll be like the ’90s Bulls and 3-peat.
For now, though, let’s settle on this; the 2022 season didn’t yield a team for the ages.