Georgia and Kirby Smart pursue ultimate history in 2023

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INGLEWOOD, CA - JANUARY 9: The College Football Playoff National Championship between the TCU Horned Frogs and the Georgia Bulldogs at SoFi Stadium on Monday, January 9, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Orlando Ramirez/CFP Images)

History tells us that three-peats in college football are not to be expected, because they simply have not happened within the confines of the Associated Press poll era – not fully.

Matt Zemek,

The first Associated Press poll was unveiled in the 1936 season. That was the last time a team three-peated as national champion. Bernie Bierman’s Minnesota Golden Gophers added to their 1934 and 1935 titles with the 1936 crown. One of those titles was an AP title, but two of the championships preceded the advent of the poll. No team has ever won three straight AP national titles. If the AP or UPI polls are viewed as final, central arbiters of college football championships before the creation of the BCS in 1998, no team has won three straight officially recognized national titles since the dawn of major national polls.

We have seen several teams repeat as national champions over the past 85 years of college football: Minnesota, Army and Notre Dame in the 1940s, Oklahoma in the 1950s, three different teams in the 1970s, Nebraska in the 1990s, USC in the 2000s, Alabama in the 2010s.

We have seen three teams win three national championships in a four-season span since the AP poll was born in 1936: Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame teams in the late 1940s, Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams of the mid-1990s, and Nick Saban’s Alabama teams from 2009 through 2012.

Winning three straight national championships, though, has eluded so many great coaches even at the height of their powers. World wars have been fought; 14 United States presidencies have come and gone; and humankind has traveled to the moon and beyond since the last time a college football team three-peated.

In 2023, we get a season in which one team can make a very rare and very special kind of history. Kirby Smart, who lived in Nick Saban’s shadow for a very long time, has now made Georgia the “it” program in college football. Saban was the center of the football universe from 2009 through 2021, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney earning equal stature and billing from 2016 through 2019. Smart has elevated Georgia to the place Alabama had previously inhabited. The Georgia coach has joined Saban as a multiple national champion and a giant of the game.

Now, however, Smart gets a chance to achieve something Saban never has. He gets a shot to register an accomplishment which would catapult him and Georgia football to an entirely different level of greatness.

A three-peat, if forged, would be an earthquake roaring through the pages of time. It might not be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, given that Saban had the same opportunity in the 2013 season following his back-to-back national crowns in 2011 and 2012. However, it’s reasonable to say it is a once-in-a-decade opportunity. Miss it, and it might take 10 to 15 years to get another crack at it.

Georgia football helmetGeorgia prepares for this year of destiny with Stetson Bennett in the NFL. Though Bennett was never the same kind of dynamo Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker, or Caleb Williams were, he was certainly up to the task of leading UGA to the mountaintop and not getting in the way of a loaded roster blessed with supreme gifts. He was a more advanced version of great college football “winners” at the quarterback position, guys who weren’t statistical monsters but who blended in well with their teams, provided elite leadership, and expertly managed games en route to national titles: Buck Belue of Georgia, Jay Barker of Alabama, Ken Dorsey of Miami, and other players in that vein. Bennett did have to play in a more modern context in which offenses enjoy more of an advantage in college football, and in which innovation has changed the sport quite dramatically compared to previous decades. He did have to make enough big plays to overcome Ohio State in the Peach Bowl shootout the Dawgs were able to escape last season. Yet, no one would put him in the same class as a Caleb Williams or Hendon Hooker, guys who had to do so much more heavy lifting given the lack of a robust defense on their roster. Bennett did what he needed to do in the circumstances presented to him. It doesn’t make him greater than any other Georgia quarterback who had come before him, but it does mean Bennett was worthy of the moment.

As our focus shifts to 2023 and the pursuit of college football immortality in Athens, we will see if Carson Beck, Bennett’s successor, is worthy of the moment. That’s not where Georgia’s pursuit of transcendent greatness ends, but it’s certainly where it begins. This chase for a third straight championship will require a field general who can stand tall in the cauldron of pressure.

The reminder, though, about the Georgia QB spot is that unlike Caleb Williams or Hendon Hooker, the Dawgs have a defense which enables the quarterback to realize and remember that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. Caleb Williams and Hendon Hooker had to be the best players on their respective teams because their defenses were nowhere near ready or able to carry half (if not more) of the team’s overall burden for the season. Bennett had the luxury of not needing to be at his best when Georgia’s defense swamped Tennessee and corralled Kentucky. USC and Tennessee did not have that same cushion and margin for error.

Carson Beck will have to answer the bell when needed, but the beauty and greatness of Georgia football under Kirby Smart are tied to the reality that the QB doesn’t have to be special all the time. The reality that UGA can put the clamps on several opponents and win games 16-6 or 27-13 create a balance in which both sides of the ball have a substantial share in creating desired outcomes. Far too many programs rely on one side of the ball for everything. Georgia’s crucial advantage is that it has been able to win rockfights, shootouts, and games played between those two extremes.

Michigan couldn’t win a shootout versus TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. Georgia could win a shootout versus Ohio State in the Peach Bowl. Georgia could win a rockfight at Kentucky. Iowa couldn’t win a rockfight at Illinois.

Georgia’s quarterback and its defense don’t have to be great in every game, but they both need to pick up the slack and have each other’s back when necessary. If UGA can pull off that complementary feat, the Dawgs could make history on a scale not seen in college football since 1936.

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