The Journal Gazette
 
 
Wednesday, January 12, 2022 1:00 am

Title was payoff for Georgia's Smart move

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – There's a new top dog in college football.

Georgia finally broke through against Alabama, dominating the fourth quarter of Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on the way to a 33-18 victory and the Bulldogs' first national title since 1980. 

Was that surprising? In a micro sense, yes. Georgia had lost seven straight to the Crimson Tide, including a 41-24 thrashing in the SEC Championship barely a month earlier that saw Alabama quarterback Bryce Young rip apart Georgia's vaunted defense on the way to the Heisman Trophy. 

But when one zooms out, this result was far less of a surprise. In some ways, it was close to inevitable.

Georgia has been building to this moment since it hired coach Kirby Smart away from Alabama prior to the 2016 season. The former Tide defensive coordinator immediately went about putting together the kind of recruiting juggernaut his former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, had been running for years in Tuscaloosa.

It took a few years to get rolling and the Bulldogs took their lumps along the way – a 26-23 overtime loss to the Tide in the 2017 CFP title game among the most gutting – but Smart's machine is now fully operational and the envy of all but Alabama. 

According to 247sports.com, this year's Georgia and Alabama teams are the two most talented in the recruiting services era (dating to around 2000). The Bulldogs had 19 five-star recruits on their roster and had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2018 and 2020. Only Alabama, with its 14 five-star recruits, 60 four-stars (compared to 47 for Georgia) and the No. 1 class in 2017, 2019 and 2021, could hope to compete. 

“It's every single day,” Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said of Saban's recruiting strategy. “It's 365 days a year that he recruits, that we all recruit. And he leads it. And I think that's what it's about in college football is developing relationships with the player and his family and showing him what you're all about.

“That's really what it's about. It's a relentless approach to recruiting, not just a relentless approach to football coaching. And that's what Coach Saban has done here and it's been proven and it's been awesome.”

Smart, armed with nearly unlimited resources and fertile recruiting ground in Georgia and Florida, took that blueprint and built his own powerhouse with it. In the end, the Bulldogs' victory is not surprising – they were too talented to fail forever.

What does this mean for the rest of college football? In a sentence: The arms race continues.

Either Georgia or Alabama had the No. 1 class in the country for five straight seasons, but “only” won three national championships between them in that span. LSU found a way to reach the top with a string of top-five classes and the unearthing of a generationally talented quarterback in Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow. Clemson followed a similar path with Trevor Lawrence at the helm.

But the Tide and the Bulldogs are the sport's gold standard right now, sharing the pedestal and likely sharing the bulk of the championships until someone knocks them off. There isn't room for Cinderella stories in college football – talent is going to win in the end.

There has been a growing recognition of this in recent years among the teams in the tier a notch below Alabama and Georgia. Notre Dame, for example, beefed up its recruiting operation in the late years of the Brian Kelly Era in response to repeated shellackings at the hands of the nation's top teams.

New coach Marcus Freeman appears intent on bringing Notre Dame to recruiting parity with, if not Alabama and Georgia, at least Clemson and LSU. Though it's early, the 2023 Irish class is currently No. 1 in 247's rankings after Notre Dame came in at No. 7 in 2022.

Ohio State, the team closest to the top two in recruiting for several years, has loaded up on five-star quarterbacks and wide receivers, hoping to outscore the top teams. Texas A&M went out and landed the nation's top class in 2022, breaking Alabama and Georgia's hegemony. 

In college football, the only current path to a national title is through the acquisition of talent, talent and more talent. There is plenty to love about the sport – passionate fanbases, traditions both hallowed and wacky, heated rivalry matchups – beyond the national championship hunt, but the quest for a title has never been more straightforward, nor more daunting.

Dylan Sinn covers college football for The Journal Gazette. He may be reached at dsinn@jg.net


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