In the confetti-drenched aftermath of Georgia’s national championship last season, Coach Kirby Smart conceded it was slightly sweeter coming against Nick Saban’s Alabama, the standard-bearer of excellence in college football.
Saturday brings college football’s measuring stick of the moment, when 8-0 Tennessee, the SEC’s only other unbeaten team, travels to Athens, Ga., to contest the most anticipated regular season game in years.
It’s a battle of top-ranked Georgia (8-0) against No. 2 Tennessee, according to the latest Associated Press poll. But the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday installed Tennessee at No. 1 and Georgia at No. 3.
Regardless of who’s doing the rankings, it’s a clash fans are clamoring to see.
According to online ticket broker TickPick, it set a record for the most expensive regular season game on the resale market, with $626 the cheapest price for securing a last-minute spot in 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium.
CBS TV ratings are expected to eclipse the season-high 11.557 million viewers the network drew for its Oct. 15 broadcast of Tennessee’s 52-49 upset of Alabama, which ended with a goal-post dismantling melee in Knoxville.
And the outcome will go a long way toward revealing whether Georgia’s national championship from the 2021 season heralded a changing of the guard atop the sport or just reflects the next step in Smart’s promising work-in-progress at his alma mater.
Gary Danielson, CBS Sports’ lead college football analyst, believes it’s premature to proclaim Georgia has supplanted Alabama as the game’s gold standard. But he believes that under Smart, the Bulldogs are on track to turn an elite program into a perennial power.
“I personally wouldn’t categorize them as having overtaken Alabama, but I would be able to argue that they have pulled even with Alabama,” said Danielson, a former NFL quarterback, who will be in the booth for Saturday’s game.
It starts with Smart’s success in recruiting elite prospects to compete against what he calls “the top of the food chain” — Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson.
“A lot of coaches have been able to go up a year when they have a special class, like LSU did with Joe Burrow [winning the national championship for the 2019 season],” Danielson said. “But you could almost tell that when those guys left, there would be somewhat of a rebuild. Kirby Smart [is] using all of the great history of Georgia football and the availability of great players located around them.”
It has been a steady build of five-star prospects since Smart arrived at Georgia in 2016 after eight seasons as Alabama’s defensive coordinator under Saban.
His recruiting classes consistently rank among the top five in the nation. Over the past five years, Georgia has landed 25 five-star recruits, according to the 247 composite rankings.
That, in turn, ensures quality depth on Georgia’s roster that enables the Bulldogs to weather inevitable midseason injuries, such as the torn pectoral muscle suffered by linebacker Nolan Smith in last week’s 42-20 victory over Florida. He’s expected to miss the balance of the regular season.
Georgia’s pass rush will be essential against Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, the Virginia Tech transfer who has transformed himself into a Heisman Trophy contender under second-year coach Josh Heupel. The Volunteers lead the nation in yards per game (553) and touchdowns (52). They haven’t scored fewer than 34 points in a game this season. They also arrive in Athens on the heels of a 44-6 rout of Kentucky and the swagger that comes with the CFP’s No. 1 ranking.
The challenge facing all college coaches, of course, is keeping top players on their rosters long enough to sustain success in an era in which transferring carries no penalties and moneymaking opportunities abound through largely unregulated name, image and likeness deals.
It’s simply not as easy to stockpile outstanding players, as Saban has famously done, when they now have options to walk away for the promise of more playing time or a payday.
But in Danielson’s view, Smart’s roster-building success doesn’t revolve around stockpiling players. It’s more about investing in their growth and success, much like gifted teachers do, through tough times and good.
He cites the example of starting quarterback Stetson Bennett, who returned to Georgia for a sixth season after being named offensive MVP in the national championship victory over Alabama.
“Stetson was not a superstar as he grew into being the starter,” Danielson noted. “In fact, he had some really rough games. There was a lot of clamor from the fans: ‘Why don’t we play one of our elite five-star players?’ But Kirby, I think, by sticking with Stetson, showed everybody on the team, ‘You have a chance to play, no matter what.’ And ‘I’m not going to bury you the first time you make a mistake.’ ”
And though many on his roster have their sights set on the NFL, Smart has tempered the quasi-pro culture by instilling a team-first ethic.
The upshot, ideally, is that players see their biggest payback not in an NIL deal dangled by a rival school’s boosters but in staying in Athens to develop their skills.
In Georgia’s case, last spring’s NFL draft was a powerful example of just that. Fifteen Bulldogs were drafted, a single-school record. Among them, five defenders were chosen in the first round, led by edge rusher Travon Walker, taken No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
At 46, Smart is a generation younger than Saban, 71, his foremost mentor, with decades to build college football’s next dynasty in Athens. After Georgia officials rewarded him with a 10-year, $112.5 million contract for winning the national championship, he has another reason to stay the course.