The defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs are back in the College Football Playoff National Championship for the second consecutive year and the third time since 2018.
The Bulldogs defeated Alabama in a Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship rematch during last season’s title game. They spent much of this season as the No.1 team in the country despite losing 15 players to the NFL Draft from their title-winning team.
Georgia opened the 2022 season as the No.3 team in the country and made a statement with a 49-3 win over No.11 Oregon in the season opener in Atlanta. It looked as if Georgia would coast through the season. For the most part, that was true, but some unexpected challenges did arise.
The first challenge came from the Missouri Tigers. Georgia was able to dig itself out of a 16-6 hole and secure a four-point win. Georgia’s passing game eventually made a difference, but Missouri gave Georgia fits at the line of scrimmage.
“They knocked us back up front,” head coach Kirby Smart told reporters after the game. “We didn’t get doubles. We didn’t get guys moved off of the ball, and then we didn’t hit our perimeter plays … Eventually, we wore them down. I feel like we could run the ball in the fourth quarter against a loaded box … But we have to be able to do that earlier in the game.”
The next challenge came from the Tennessee Volunteers, widely considered the strongest competition in the SEC for the Bulldogs at the time. The Volunteers came into the game ranked No.1 in the nation and boasted an offense that averaged nearly 50 points per game.
The Georgia defense flexed its muscles and held Tennessee to 13 points while making things very uncomfortable for their star quarterback Hendon Hooker.
“The players had to unselfishly buy into the plan because the plan included not rushing up the field, not running past the quarterbacks level, pushing the pocket. We wanted him to be uncomfortable in the pocket and our kids did that,” Smart said after the game.
A few weeks later, Georgia faced a fading Kentucky team. Kentucky opened the season as a potential sleeper team in the SEC, but injuries had derailed a potentially big season. Nonetheless, the Wildcats came into the game as healthy as they had been all season and featured an elite defense.
Kentucky was able to move the ball, but the Georgia defense ultimately made plays to keep the Wildcats from scoring.
The most difficult challenge of the season came in last weekend’s semifinal matchup against Ohio State. After the Buckeyes had lost to Michigan and failed to reach the Big Ten Championship game, many were not sure Ohio State belonged in the semifinals.
Yet Ohio State led most of the game against the consensus No.1 team in the country. The Buckeyes were able to gain 467 yards of offense against a defense that gives up less than 300 yards per game and held a two-score lead entering the fourth quarter.
Georgia ended up winning 42-41 as a potential game-winning field goal by Ohio State sailed wide, but the message was received.
“If we want any chance of winning the national championship, we’ve got to play a lot better football than we played tonight, but we’ve got to keep our resilience,” Smart commented after the game.
The final challenge for the Bulldogs this season will be TCU, and the team is concentrated on a more complete performance.
“We didn’t play our best game,” defensive back Javon Bullard told the media. “But there’s a whole lot we can fix … communication and things like that, just the basic things like that, knowing your leverage, talking. I know we’ve got to talk better throughout the secondary.”
That secondary will be especially tested when it comes to quarterback Max Duggan and his receivers.
“They have a lot of size outside so they can cover you up on the perimeter game and they can launch shots and they had a ton of good plays throughout the year,” Coach Smart said of the Horned Frogs’ offense.
“He’s got great players to do it with,” he continued, referencing Duggan. “He understands defenses. I think he’s very smart. There’s no defense he’s going to see that he hasn’t seen before. You’ve got to do it better than they do it. You’ve got to out-execute them. There’s no tricking them.”
Smart also sees similarities between his program and the one Sonny Dykes is building in Fort Worth.
“I think when you start looking at the character and identity of these two teams, they mirror each other in terms of the leadership at the quarterback position and the heart and soul of the team,” he said on Tuesday.
“He’s done a great job,” Smart said of Dykes. “Their kids believe. They have a lot of similarities to our kids in terms of the culture created there, the way they play, the way they believe.”
“They create really tough situations defensively, do an incredible job on special teams. Have one of the best returners I’ve ever faced in the return game and score a lot of points on offense with the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback. So it’s a recipe to be playing for the national championship.”
Georgia gets its chance at back-to-back national titles when it faces TCU on Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.