Can Georgia be back-to-back champs?
LOS ANGELES — The question hovering over Georgia all season was whether the Bulldogs could repeat as national champions. It’s one of the toughest tasks in any sport. And should the Bulldogs accomplish such a difficult feat on Monday night, they would become just the seventh team to ever repeat as outright national champions since the AP Poll began in 1936.
The last team to do it was Alabama in 2011 and 2012, and Kirby Smart played a major part in it while serving as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator.
Each season, there is an overwhelming narrative around teams like Alabama and Georgia “reloading” their respective rosters. On Sunday morning, the day before the Bulldogs take on underdog TCU in the College Football Playoff national championship game at SoFi Stadium, Smart explained how simply being in this moment on this stage helps his team maintain excellence even after losing a historic 15 players to the NFL last year.
You see, the scout team and second-team players who didn’t play in last year’s championship game against the Crimson Tide still got their reps and turned their experience and preparation into starting jobs one year later. That “reloading” storyline isn’t just in reference to incoming five-star prospects; it’s also about taking advantage of the talent you already have and helping it thrive.
“I really think a lot of the reason we were able to turn our roster over from last year to this year was the practices and preparation we had at this time of year,” Smart said. “As we were finishing the year last year, we were getting really high-quality work out of about, I would say seven or eight kids starting for us.
“So the guys that are playing now that were the 2s last year, in some cases 3s, they got a lot of work.”
Smart took it a step further, saying that in this transfer portal era, the way he gets guys to stick around is by selling that example of development.
“We’re going to show Jordan Davis, from his freshman and sophomore year, working on the scout team and say, ‘Hey, look where this guy was and look at what he became doing it this way,’” Smart said of his former defensive tackle who was taken 13th overall in last year’s draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“And selling that within your program becomes a selling point to them to stick and stay and truly develop and grow in the organization.”
Smart has been the head coach at Georgia since December 2015 and has had years to build the program and culture in his image. Sonny Dykes isn’t at that point yet at TCU, despite miraculously turning around the Horned Frogs and leading them to the CFP and title game in his first season in Fort Worth.
Despite preparing to take the second-smallest Power 5 school to college football’s biggest stage on Monday, Dykes knows his program still has a ways to go to reach the level at which Georgia and Alabama sit.
“I’ll say this: You look around college athletics and look at the NCAA basketball tournament, and you see teams that you don’t expect to be there end up in the top eight or Final Four,” Dykes said. “That’s something that’s an annual occurrence these days.
“You know, college football is different. It just is. There’s a lot of plays that go into a game. There’s a lot of players. Instead of five guys and one or two guys get really hot, you’ve got to have an entire team doing it and execute at a high level. So I think it’s more difficult to emerge from the shadows in football than it is maybe in basketball.”
Usually, it takes time to build a culture, establish relationships with players and keep everybody invested. But for TCU, everything clicked in the right way all season. Now the Frogs are hoping to capture the program’s first national championship since 1938.
“To our players’ credit, for whatever reason, it didn’t take as long this time as it usually does,” Dykes said. “Our guys were hungry and they were mature. They had a chip on their shoulder. And they bought in quickly.
“Now, the challenging thing as we move forward past Monday, is where do we go from here? And there’s a standard now that — and a set of expectations that accompany this kind of success. And to me that’s the exciting part. It really is. I mean, you really get to find out how good you are.
“It’s one thing to get to the top. It’s another thing to be able to stay there.”
That’s what Alabama has been able to do for so long, and it’s what Smart’s Georgia team is on the cusp of accomplishing. Ohio State and Clemson — programs that have tasted winning at the highest level time and again — know this feeling to an extent, too.
Whatever happens on Monday, Dykes and the Frogs will always have this “magical ride,” as the coach has called it. And starting Tuesday, both programs will use this experience to build for another run next year.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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