Tour de SEC 2022: The Georgia Bulldogs are Still Elite
Every week in the lead up to the 2022 season, I'll break down a position group, a Crimson Tide player and an SEC team here on Tide 100.9. With it being the first week, I'll start with the team that toppled the Crimson Tide back in January, the Georgia Bulldogs.
That image above still stings for Alabama Crimson Tide fans. It taints the Crimson Tide's SEC Championship victory. It taints Bryce Young's Heisman Victory. It reminds us of Jameson Williams and John Metchie's unfortunate injuries. It reminds us of how dominant the Bulldogs were in the NFL Draft.
It's an annoying peer into the future.
Sure, wishful thinking among the Crimson Tide fanbase shouts the Bulldogs will go the way of the 2019 LSU Tigers: Use a roster full of NFL talent to finally get over the Alabama hurdle, have a first overall selection and settle back into obscurity within a few years.
The problem with that thought process is the consistency and slow-burning build with which Kirby Smart has built his juggernaut. Yes, he'll have to do some rebuilding, but the fact remains that at just 46 years old, Smart isn't going anywhere.
Still, a path to repeating as college football's national champions will not be an easy road. The Bulldogs did lose 15 players to the NFL, two of which were the best offensive skill players on the roster in 2021 and the vast majority of college football's best defense in 2021 makes up nearly the rest. On top of that, a marquee opponent in the form of the Oregon Ducks will meet the Bulldogs in Mercedes Benz Stadium to kickoff the 2022 season.
Learning to Reload
Kirby Smart, like it or not, is one of college football's best recruiters. He's also a brilliant on-field strategist defensively. Both of which make him more likely to do what Ed Orgeron failed to do at LSU and Dabo Swinney is struggling to do at Clemson: reload.
See, Nick Saban could lose 15 players to the NFL and not bat an eye. The rest of the country's head coaches would feel like the weight of the world was suddenly thrown onto their shoulders.
All but one other, and that's Kirby Smart.
Kirby rebounded from the national championship and the NFL Draft by signing the No. 3-rated recruiting class in the nation for 2022. Since 2019, only one other program has been in the top four of national recruiting classes as often as Georgia: Alabama. There's no reason not to believe Smart's program isn't prepared to reload.
Over the past two recruiting cycles, the Bulldogs have brought in nine 5-star prospects, seven of which will play defense, the two others are an offensive tackle and a quarterback.
Based on the ratio of what Georgia lost heading into 2022, the math adds up proportionally for the Bulldogs.
New-Look Dawg Defense?
Georgia's defense will have to replace the likes of:
- Travon Walker
- Jordan Davis
- Nakobe Dean
- Devante Wyatt
- Darion Kendrick
- Lewis Cine
- Quay Walker
With the exception of defensive lineman Jalen Carter, that makes up the vast majority of the elite members of the 2021 defense. Throw in Adam Anderson, who won't be returning, and Smart must effectively replace his entire linebacking corp.
The defense is expected to lean heavily on Carter, linebacker Nolan Smith and defensive back Kelee Ringo to preserve Georgia's status as one of the most feared defensive units in the game.
While Georgia's front seven will be completely revamped, much of the secondary carries enough experience to be relied upon early in the season. The plan will remain the same for Smart's strategies regardless: stuff the run and create turnovers.
It sounds simple, but in the era of explosive offenses, Smart's defenses have dominated college football with that simple mentality.
Georgia's Offense Remains Bland but Effective
On the other side of the ball, Georgia's strength remains in the trenches and in the running game. Center Sedrick Van Pran-Granger is likely the best in the country at his position and right tackle Warren McClendon is one of the best in the country at his position. Senior back Kenny McIntosh and junior Kendall Minton make up a strong backfield.
Throw in three of the country's top tight ends, Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington and the returning Arik Gilbert, and the Bulldogs are pretty nasty between the hashes. With Stetson Bennett IV firmly cemented as the starting quarterback and massive question marks at wide receiver, the Dawgs have little choice but to lean on its strengths as a run-first offense.
Still, despite having more talent in 2021 (especially at running back) that mentality is what made Georgia so dangerous last year. The Bulldogs controlled the clock, took away the run from opposing offenses and created panic on the opposite sideline. It's unconventional in today's game, but it was frustratingly effective in 2021.
We aren't going to just glide past Stetson Bennett. Yes, the unlikely hero of the 2021 champions is returning, and while he is coming off of the best two-game stretch of his life, he and Smart both understand that his game is firmly in the "game manager in a bad way" lane.
Georgia doesn't, and likely won't have to, play from behind often. This makes Bennett's job much easier, but his leash remains at an uncomfortable distance this season as well. Redshirt freshman 5-star Brock Vandagriff or redshirt sophomore Carson Beck is the future of the program and either will likely be better passing options should Smart find himself needing a spark.
SEC East Makes a Beefier Schedule
The SEC East is not what it once was. Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida all have better quarterbacks than Georgia. While Florida won't likely be a national contender in Billy Napier's first season as head coach, Anthony Richardson's ability at quarterback will create headaches in Jacksonville this October. Kentucky and Tennessee are both in a serious position to threaten Georgia's presumed seat in Atlanta if either Will Levis or Hendon Hooker reach their respective ceilings. South Carolina is a massive wild card with Spencer Rattler leading the Gamecocks.
Unlike previous years, Georgia won't be cake-walking through its conference schedule.
On the SEC West side of the lineup are Mississippi State and Auburn. While the latter is expecting a down season, the Tiger Voodoo learned to travel last year. The other Bulldog team has a roster fully bought into Mike Leach's insanity.
As previously mentioned, Georgia "hosts" Oregon to start the season, and while Bo Nix doesn't make up for the loss of Mario Cristobal, the Ducks have a solid defense heading into 2022.
Last year you could mark Georgia down for the SEC East representative in ink. This year, use a pencil.