The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

The Smart approach: This UGA team hasn't won a thing

136 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

You can talk about the record number of defensive players Georgia lost to the NFL Draft, the heart of an all-time great defense that locked down the program's first national championship since 1980. Kirby Smart loves those guys, but the Georgia coach came to SEC Football Media Days 2022 to talk about the players, leaders and winners he has coming back. Like senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith.

Don't bend over. Whatever drill you're doing. It's a Georgia mantra, Smart said, because "we think it shows weakness." Smith shows no weakness, and if you do, he'll let you know. Loudly.

One day, the Bulldogs were running 40s with Smart's 10-year-old son, Andrew, among them. Andrew was gassed, he bent over and Smith started yelling. Andrew, well, "he popped up real fast," Smart said. "When Nolan screams at you, you wake up quick."

Perhaps Smith can issue one of his wakeup calls at full volume on behalf of chronically underappreciated quarterback Stetson Bennett. Not sure who needs to hear this, but Bennett is a national champion not just because of where he plays but how. In the National Championship Game, he capped two critical fourth-quarter drives with TD passes as Georgia pulled away from nemesis Alabama.

Georgia keeps signing blue-chippers at his position, and Bennett keeps showing up under center. He started the 2021 season as a backup and ended it as the offensive MVP in both of Georgia's playoff games.

"Look, Stetson is one of the least respected good players in this country," Smart said. "Guess what? We get to see it every day. The kid is a tremendous athlete. He's got good arm strength. People keep doubting him, and that's fine with me."

Bennett is on track to graduate with an economics degree. You could say he profits because he's lost and learned. He's lost games, like last year's SEC Championship against Alabama when his three TD passes were offset by two interceptions. In the playoff wins over Michigan and Alabama, he rebounded to throw five touchdown passes with no interceptions. He's also lost the starting job before, but his confidence never vanished.

"When you go so long not being the guy," Bennett said, "you don't want to go back."

Bennett surprised a lot of people when he refused to ride off into the sunset, returning instead for a sixth season. He's bought into Smart's message that this year's team has yet to win a thing. Earning the national championship "was cool," Bennett said. "It was super cool. It has nothing to do with this year."

Smart was the defensive coordinator for four national title teams at Alabama. Only once did the Crimson Tide repeat the next year. Of the SEC's last 17 national championship teams, dating to Georgia in 1980, Alabama 2012 stands as the only repeat champion.

Georgia has studied history "on how the mighty have fallen," Smart said. "We have skull sessions, 15-minute meetings, 20-minute meetings and breakout groups. We talk about how the mighty have fallen. I'm talking about in business, sports, history. You learn from the mistakes of others."

Because Georgia is not interested in being known as "one-year wonders," Smart said. "This program was built to be here for a long time."