The pressure to win never fully goes away. Once a team wins a championship and still has lots of pieces in place to make another run at glory, the thirst for success remains deep and intense. Moreover, the failure to win a second championship or a follow-up championship can have lasting effects at a program.
By Matt Zemek
College football provides examples of this.
Miami won it all in the 2001 season, and then came back with a loaded team in 2002, hungry for more success. It seemed the Hurricanes would remain a long-term fixture at the top of the sport. After all, they had been nationally relevant and formidable for the vast majority of the previous 20 seasons before that 2002 campaign with Ken Dorsey and a bunch of future pros. Yet, after Miami lost the national championship game to Ohio State in a heartbreaker at the Fiesta Bowl, the Canes didn’t recover. Their holdovers from the 2002 team were good enough to win the Orange Bowl in the 2003 season, but that was it. From 2004 through 2021 with the sole exception of a strong 2017 season. Miami faltered and fizzled out.
Consider USC under Pete Carroll. The Trojans won it all in the 2004 season but then lost that heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl to Texas. The Trojans continued to field very good teams from 2006 through 2008, but they never got back to the national championship game after losing in their bid for back-to-back BCS titles 16 years ago. The program still hasn’t made a single appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Not winning a back-to-back championship might seem like a very minor problem – to be sure, it is a first-world problem in college football – but history shows us that when an opportunity exists, and it isn’t grabbed, the future guarantees no assurance of an extra chance.
Those who partake in sports betting will be scratching their heads trying to determine which way the Bulldogs of 2022 will go. Will they be better or worse?
Georgia had Alabama on the ropes in the 2017 season’s national championship game before allowing that contest to slip through its fingers. Georgia had to wait four years to get back to the national title game and finally win it, snapping the school’s national championship drought at 41 years.
Nothing is guaranteed. When another championship trophy is sitting on the table, waiting to be claimed, it is urgent for that team to pounce on the opportunity. That is Georgia’s challenge this year: Striking while the iron is still hot instead of losing intensity and hunger due to having won last year’s championship.
If one was to predict the SEC before this season begins, the odds-on favorites for the SEC Championship Game are Alabama in the SEC West and Georgia in the SEC East. Georgia figured out the Tide in a second attempt last season, but one thing Kirby Smart hasn’t yet done in a college football season is to sweep Nick Saban – once in the SEC Championship Game, once in the College Football Playoff. Georgia has achieved its supreme goal, winning the national championship, but there are achievements UGA has not yet forged, milestones it hasn’t yet reached. The desire to arrive at a new frontier and conquer still-undiscovered territory must be Kirby Smart’s message to his team.
Winning a repeat title feels like something old and already achieved, which could make the (extraordinary) achievement seem stale. Kirby and his staff need to frame the pursuit of this year’s championship as a chance to create a new piece of history and a new display of superiority. Lending freshness and originality to the pursuit of a national title, even though Georgia just lifted a trophy in January, is the Jedi mind trick Kirby Smart needs to pull off with his newest crop of athletes.
Let’s talk about that new crop of athletes for a moment.
Georgia just had a record 15 players get picked in the NFL draft, a testament to both the quality of athletes Kirby Smart had in Athens last year and to the level of player development which emerged within the UGA program. Keep in mind that the 15-player draft haul provided to the NFL by Georgia does not even include undrafted free agents. Note that a lot of undrafted players – Justyn Ross of Clemson, C.J. Verdell of Oregon, Kennedy Brooks of Oklahoma – were legitimate college stars or, at the very least, key players on their respective teams. The depth of the 2022 draft class extended well beyond the 262 players actually picked in the draft. A good number of UDFAs are going to stick on rosters and carve out good careers. Georgia, therefore, will have nearly 20 NFL-caliber players from its 2021 roster when it’s all said and done.
It’s clear that the talent on the 2021 team was national championship-caliber. Smart and his staff got out of their own way and let that talent do its job. Now, as the scene shifts to 2022, the question is if Smart and his assistants can cultivate the same football IQ, leadership skills, and steady weekly work habits the 2021 team manifested.
Nakobe Dean, who fell on the draft board because of a medical issue, was a phenomenal leader on the field. More than just a great tackler and hitter, Dean was the quarterback of an all-time-great Georgia defense, the guy who played traffic cop and made sure everyone was in the right place before the snap. Having an extension of the coaching staff on the field was an especially critical piece of a national championship formula. With over a dozen players gone to the pros, Smart and his staff need to make sure that a Nakobe Dean-level leadership figure emerges in the locker room on the defensive side of the ball. Stetson Bennett can be the leader on offense, but given how great the 2021 UGA defense was, it will be a priority to find locker room voices on defense. That’s the most direct path to a 2022 season in which Georgia does not regress – or relent – to any degree.
That’s how Georgia can do this thing all over again and go back-to-back on the victory podium.