INDIANAPOLIS—When the Georgia Bulldogs filtered back into their locker room after their only loss of the 2021 season, there were tears, there was anger and there was resolve.
The Alabama 41, Georgia 24 scoreline in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 4 wasn’t supposed to happen. Not again. Not this year, of all years, when the Dogs finally had a better team than their nemesis. Right then and there, they set about making sure it didn’t happen a second time this season.
“Want the honest to God truth? I cried,” linebacker Nolan Smith said. “I’m 20 now. I’ve been playing football since I was 4—16 years, haven’t won anything, haven’t won a championship. I won a couple of bowl games, but anything big, any championship, I never won yet.”
For a ringless bunch of Bulldogs, that hunger to win something immediately turned the sting of unexpected defeat into an even higher level of motivation. Their season didn’t end that day in Atlanta. In one respect, it was just beginning.
“The outside noise begins now,” coach Kirby Smart said that Saturday in Atlanta. “We’ve heard it before.”
Oh boy, had they. And now it would be deafening, 41 years of frustration echoing around this team. Alabama and coach Nick Saban had tortured Georgia and Smart, serving as their championship impediment over and over. The 2017 national championship game. The 2018 SEC championship game. A top-five showdown in Tuscaloosa last year that helped decide who would win that national title. Now this.
Before Smart could even begin the postgame address to his team, several of his veteran players performed a miniature intervention. Favored by a touchdown and beaten by 17, they knew two important things: They were better than they played that day, and they would have to face the Crimson Tide again on the way to a championship.
Ultimately, Alabama had to be conquered. And now the Bulldogs knew what it would take to do it.
“We’re burning the boats,” Smart said of the all-or-nothing quest his team had undertaken. “The only way is through.”
Kelee Ringo was running—to daylight, to deliverance, to the end zone. He chased down 41 years of ghosts and five years of Alabama torture. He broke free and took Georgia fans with him on a cathartic 79-yard sprint with an interception of Bryce Young.
The Bulldogs’ first touchdown of this tour-de-force defensive season was a pick-six—the only touchdown of their season-opening win against Clemson. And now their last touchdown of the season would be a pick-six—the capper and Bama backbreaker in a 33–18 triumph in the College Football Playoff national title game Monday.
Ringo personifies the recruiting reach that has turned Georgia into a powerhouse under Smart. He was a five-star prospect from Arizona who was pursued by everyone, taking visits to Ohio State, Oregon and Texas before deciding to go with the Dogs. He was a significant reason why Georgia’s 2020 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the nation, along with the '18 and '19 classes.
Smart was running, too. Along the sideline, chasing Ringo, knowing what that play could mean as the Bulldogs wrapped their paws around this game. But Smart was also yelling as he ran—urging Ringo to go down, to avoid being stripped, figuring his team could run out the clock. “That was the wrong call,” Smart acknowledged afterward, since Alabama still had three timeouts. Ringo did the right thing by taking that interception to the house and making it a two-score game.
Smart’s overpowering defense had been shockingly shredded in December’s SEC title game, producing zero sacks and zero turnovers while giving up its most points of the season by far. The tweak from that game to this: more man-to-man coverage, less zone, more blitzers going after Young. And the Georgia defense got its revenge, producing four sacks and two interceptions of Young, hitting him repeatedly and forcing 22 incompletions. The Dogs’ D kept the Crimson Tide out of the end zone for nearly 50 minutes, rising up repeatedly in the red zone and surrendering just one touchdown. Alabama’s 18 points were its fewest in 40 games, since the 2018 CFP championship game loss to Clemson.
“It’s the defense that kept us in this game while we were stumbling over our own feet,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “The defense won this game.”
And defense is Smart’s calling card. As the first FBS coach to win a national title at his alma mater since Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee in 1998, Smart has acute knowledge of what this decades-long wait has been like for the Georgia fan base. “They’ve become legendary,” he said of his players.
“How great are the dangers I face to win a good name in Athens.” —Alexander the Great
Different Athens, of course. Different time, by two millennia and change. Different leader, too. But Kirby Smart certainly can relate to Alexander the Great.
Smart’s quest to forever win a good name in his home state had to go through the most difficult trial in college football. He had to defeat Saban—the greatest coach in the history of the sport and Smart’s mentor—for the first time.
Many other coaches have failed to beat the GOAT, of course. But Smart was hired off Saban’s Alabama staff for that precise purpose—to awaken the sleeping giant that is Georgia and to elevate it to the exalted plane occupied by the Crimson Tide. The imbalance had gone on for too long.
At a place like Alabama, where the championships just keep coming, it can be hard to distinguish them. Who was the quarterback in 2015? Jake Coker? I’d almost forgotten him. At Georgia, the one undisputed, undefeated title stands out in bittersweet bold type. The 1980 team will forever hold its own place in program lore, when Vince Dooley finally won it all behind an almost mythical freshman running back named Herschel Walker. “A complete team,” Dooley says. “In every phase of the game, we were good. It was a special team.”
The expectation was that this was the start of something big. Bear Bryant’s powers were finally waning at Alabama, and Walker would lead the Bulldogs to multiple titles.
It never happened. The Dogs went 21–3 the next two seasons with Walker but were denied another title before the running back became the extremely rare player of that era to turn pro early. The window of opportunity closed, and stayed closed for a maddeningly long time.
“We had a chance to win three in a row,” says the quarterback of that 1980 team, Buck Belue. “And now you go 41 years without one? Amazing.”
The drought defied logic and geography. Located just 70 miles from Atlanta, one of the great talent hotbeds in America and in a state full of prospects, Georgia became a perplexing underachiever. They tried everything in terms of coaching—a Dooley assistant (Ray Goff), a successful head coach at a lower level (Jim Donnan), and a hot assistant from a national championship staff (Mark Richt). Finally, they hit it right with Smart.
He quickly began recruiting at a Sabanesque level, then built the program in a Sabanesque manner—defense first. Smart’s record has mirrored Saban’s at Alabama: one unsteady season while getting started, then relentless winning. Saban started 7–6 in 2007 and then has won 10 or more games ever since; Smart was 8–5 his first year and has fielded top 10 teams the rest of the way.
But every season, there was a hiccup. One game where everything seemed to go wrong. One Saturday when composure escaped the Bulldogs, and bad things multiplied.
In 2017, it was a 23-point loss at Auburn. In ‘18, a 20-point loss at LSU. In ‘19, a stunning home upset against South Carolina. In ‘20, a debacle in the Cocktail Party game against rival Florida.
Smart made composure one of the themes for this team. They would not let one bad play become six bad plays and turn into a wheels-off meltdown. He had the veteran core to do this. When mammoth defensive tackle and potential first-round draft pick Jordan Davis opted to stay in school, the anchor of a great defense was in place. The foundation had been laid years before, on the recruiting trail.
The 2018 freshman class featured eight players who are key members of this defensive unit. More were added in the ’19 class: five-star linebacker Smith, four-star defensive end Travon Walker, four-star safety Lewis Cine. Then came the December signing-day drama with four-star linebacker Nakobe Dean of Horn Lake, Miss. Georgia coaches came into the office on Dec. 19, 2018, not knowing what Dean was going to do (he says he woke up at 8 a.m. that day still undecided). When Dean spurned the rest of the SEC and pulled on a Georgia shirt on live TV, the celebration was on in the Bulldogs’ football facility. “I started doing cartwheels down the hallway,” says defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
The prowess of that unit was unveiled immediately this past September. On a sweaty night in Charlotte, giddy Georgia fans flowed out of Bank of America Stadium after a 10–3 suffocation of Clemson and partied into the wee hours downtown, then vainly tried to get Uber rides in an overwhelmed city. They knew this was the start of something big, as Smart sought to deprogram the offensive revolution of the sport.
“We have a goal for our defense: allow no explosive plays and hold teams under 15 points,” Smart said that night. “People say, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do that in this day and age.’ Well, why can’t we?”
Georgia held its next eight opponents to less than 15 points, then allowed a regular season-high 17 to Tennessee before getting back to shutting down all offenses. There were no close games. The average margin of victory in going 12–0 was 33.8 points. And that Dogs D was on pace to become the first in a decade to allow fewer than 10 points per game.
Then came the meltdown against Alabama in December. And here came all the old questions. One of the biggest and loudest being asked: Could the undersized former walk-on quarterback, who had done so much good work this season turning doubters into believers, really get this done?
When Ringo and Smart finished running, Stetson Bennett started crying. The emotion poured out right there on the sideline, as the weight of what happened hit him. “I can’t articulate it,” he said. “I’m not that smart.”
Bennett is plenty smart and plenty confident, perhaps more than his physical gifts should logically allow. The national title game served as the full Stetson Experience, from the struggles to the successes, to the title and full vindication.
Bennett’s fourth quarter was a wild swing of emotions. With Georgia clinging to a 13–12 lead, he did something that looked like it might cost his team the national championship. Pursued to his right, Bennett attempted to throw away a pass while being hit, but wound up with an empty hand going forward as the ball squirted sideways. Alabama defensive back Brian Branch nonchalantly grabbed it just before stepping out of bounds, seemingly thinking it was an incomplete pass. But it was ruled a fumble, and Alabama recovered in the red zone. Suddenly, this was a catastrophe.
Five plays later, the Tide scored to take an 18–13 lead. Georgia fans lost their wits over the stunning turn of events, but Bennett retained his. “I was not going to be the reason we lose the game,” the quarterback told himself.
He then backed it up, just when Bulldog Nation was giving up on him for the umpteenth time. Bennett immediately led a five-play drive to retake the lead, completing all three of his passes with the touchdown coming on a bomb to A.D. Mitchell, who made a leaping catch. After forcing a three-and-out, Georgia got the ball back and Bennett led one more drive. This one was powered by the running game (“We played Georgia football on that drive,” Bennett said), but the TD came on a lob in the flat to tight end Brock Bowers.
All that was left after that was the Ringo pick-six before Bennett had a celebratory cigar in his hands on the field afterward. “To think [he] would come this far,” said Smart, “what a story.”
Bennett’s story is indeed the stuff of screenplays:
Bennett’s locker assignment when he joined the team in 2017 was No. 122A. His walk-on roommate was 122B. In other words, they shared the same locker.
The scholarship players weren’t sharing space like that. His assigned jersey number was 22, which could have been construed as a less-than-subtle invitation to change positions. Or quit.
“That sucked,” Bennett says with a laugh. “I mean, talk about a humbling experience. I was the rare quarterback who was excited to be on the scout team so I could wear the other team’s quarterback number. At least then I looked like an actual quarterback and not an idiot.”
Bennett showed potential leading the scout that fall, but then Georgia signed Justin Fields, the No. 1 QB in the country. His path to playing time blocked, Bennett transferred to a junior college in Mississippi. After a season there, he was prepared to sign with Louisiana when Fields decided to transfer to Ohio State. Georgia called again on signing day with a scholarship offer.
They requested an immediate decision. Bennett balked.
“‘I’m not going to give you an answer now,’” he recalls telling Georgia. “Because it’s a pretty big decision. You can hold that offer in your hand, or I’ll just go to the school I’ve already picked, because I was fine this morning. I’m not going to come crawling back on my knees.”
But Bennett did come back to the school where he always wanted to play, figuring he would back up Jake Fromm for a season and then have a shot at the starting job. “I played all my cards on Fromm leaving, and it made me look like a smart man,” Bennett says. “Then this whole fiasco happened.”
The “fiasco” began with Jamie Newman and JT Daniels both transferring in for the 2020 season, from Wake Forest and USC, respectively. But Newman opted out before the season began and Daniels was still rehabbing a knee injury, so Bennett figured he had his shot.
That didn’t come to pass immediately. Georgia went with the highly touted D’Wan Mathis to start last season. He was ineffective, and Smart turned to Bennett while Bulldogs fans impatiently waited for Daniels to be cleared and take over.
That didn’t happen until late in the season. Despite Bennett’s solid play, Daniels led Georgia to a Peach Bowl victory against Cincinnati and started the 2021 season as the starter and projected Heisman Trophy candidate.
But Daniels couldn’t stay healthy, and Bennett was back in the starting lineup for good by the fourth game of the season. He is on pace to break Aaron Murray’s single-season pass efficiency record at Georgia, but many fans continued to declare Bennett could never win a shootout game against a quarterback the caliber of Alabama’s Young. When he threw two interceptions in the loss to the Crimson Tide in December, the “outside noise” Smart referred to was deafening.
“If my mom said it, it would hurt my feelings,” Bennett says. “But these guys—the Twitter guys, or whatever they are—I don’t pay two cents to ’em. But it is weird, though. They’re fans of the team, and some of them are wishing I get hurt or something. I’m like, ‘Good Lord, I’m glad I’m not in your family, because you sound like a miserable person.’”
The miserable people are all on Stetson Bennett’s side now. The former walk-on is on scholarship for life now, taking his place next to Buck Belue in Georgia’s Forever Hero throne room. If he doesn’t have a membership to Augusta National by the end of this week, they’re doing it wrong.
When the game was won and ESPN’s Rece Davis stuck a microphone in Smart’s face for his thoughts, the coach had a mike-drop moment. “There’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baaaby!”
It was the perfect callback to 1980. Famed Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson made the most famous play call of that championship season, when receiver Lindsay Scott’s 93-yard catch-and-run allowed the Bulldogs to escape an upset at the hands of rival Florida in Jacksonville.
“Do you know what is gonna happen here tonight?” Munson said on the air. “And up at St. Simons and Jekyll Island and all those places where all those Dog people have got those condominiums for four days? Man, is there gonna be some property destroyed tonight!”
No furnishings were safe in Indy late Monday night.
Smart recalled how, on Sunday night at the team hotel, he got off the elevator and was greeted by the sight of the 89-year-old Dooley sitting on a bench. He had locked himself out of his room and was waiting for hotel staff to bring him up a key. “God put him there for me to see him the night before the game,” Smart said.
The 41-year quest between titles came full circle. All it took for the Bulldogs to beat their nemesis—for Kirby Smart to finally take down Nick Saban, for Stetson Bennett to never have to hear another doubter—was everything they had.
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