Just like you must have the cards to win at the tables in Las Vegas, it’s a must to have the players, coaching, circumstance and luck to win big in college football.
For Georgia, one of the top programs in the country, with a seat at the table of legitimate contenders for the grand prize, what’s the wild card to double down and rake in all the chips of the big pot?
Guys have to be guys. Standouts must make the big plays on the critical downs.
Let’s jump in the not too far back machine and Georgia’s outstanding 2017 season. The Bulldogs posted an 11-1 regular season, won the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and the Rose Bowl and played for the national title.
Roquan Smith, the nation’s best defender, dominated against Tech, was Most Valuable Player of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game – the fumble recovery and return putting the Bulldogs on the verge, and made the big third-and-one overtime stop against Oklahoma. Nick Chubb was incredible in Pasadena. As was Sony Michel, who scored the walk-off touchdown in the Rose Bowl. The best players making the biggest plays on the biggest stages is and always has been vital for championships.
Frank Sinkwich did it in the Orange and Rose Bowls, Charley Trippi in the Rose, Oil and Sugar. As they did against Tech, Florida, Auburn and Alabama.
Fran Tarkenton threw the game-winner against Auburn in 1959.
Bill Stanfill was dominant against Florida in 1966, and Kent Lawrence dashed 74 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
Andy Johnson piloted the game-winning drive against Tech in 1971.
Then there were the early 1980s. Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott in Jacksonville. In the biggest win in Georgia history, Herschel Walker was Most Valuable player with 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Scott Woerner had two interceptions.
Terry Hoage had 12 interceptions for the 1982 SEC champions.
The kicks of Rex Robinson and Kevin Butler.
Robert Edwards scored four times in Jacksonville in 1997.
The 21st century is ripe with highlights from the David’s, Greene and Pollack, plus the likes of Thomas Davis, Sean Jones, D.J. Shockley, Knowshon Moreno, A.J. Green, Jarvis Jones and Todd Gurley.
For all the great aerial connections, long touchdown dashes and game-saving interceptions, there was, of course, great line play. Tremendous blocks and blocking, the carrying out of assignments, pressuring the passer, excellent coverage of the primary receiver, containment, every facet of the game that serves as the foundation for those magical moments.
After Georgia won the SEC championship in 2002, in the years that followed, to help prognosticate the Bulldogs realistic hopes and goals, it clicked to compare the projected starters to that superb team and also to the most recent titleholder of the toughest league in the land.
Fast forward to the Kirby Smart era, and the same exercise works for the Chubb, Michel, Smith and Carter-led Bulldogs of 2017.
Buoyed by a series of stellar recruiting classes, these Bulldogs of 2021, ripe with great expectations, may have a roster more talented than the 2017 SEC champs one through 80 deep. But will there be players comparable to Chubb, Michel and Smith?
Heading into his third year at Georgia, Nokobe Dean, sharing so many traits, is on a similar trajectory as Roquan.
Lorenzo Carter blocked the field goal, and teamed with Devan Bellamy for the strip sacks and fumble recoveries at Notre Dame. Can Adam Anderson, who, like Carter, chose to come back for his senior year, make those types of plays?
Georgia is deep and talented at running back. In 2017, D’Andre Swift was third string. The Bulldogs, even with the injury to George Pickens, have a strong corps of wide receivers. Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Javon Wims, the ‘17 headliners, made a myriad of memorable catches. Including South Bend, the SEC Championship Game and Pasadena.
The two starting tackles, Isaiah Wynn and Andrew Thomas both went on to be first round picks. Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner were an elite tight end duo. Jake Fromm, with the battlefield promotion in the opener, was surrounded by this talent and outstanding at quarterback.
On and on.
If these Bulldogs of 2021 compare favorably position by position on offense, defense and the kicking game, well – get ready for a hot take – then this season has a chance to be a very special one.
In the ever-changing landscape of college football, the assemblage of talent is the foundation, but the difference-maker for going ‘next level’ are those players who come back for their senior seasons.
Chubb, Michel and Carter highlighted a terrific senior class of 2017. Clemson brought back a senior-laden defensive line and won it all in 2018. Joe Burrow’s return helped spur LSU to the 2019 national title. A quartet of Alabama standouts bypassed the draft and, along with quarterback Mac Jones staying in the program, preparing for his turn and not transferring, were the foundation of the Tide’s 2020 crown.
Smart and his staff have assembled a deep and talented team for 2021, a corps with the potential to ascend to the very top. For that to happen, it’s going to take winning plays from those players daring to be the difference-makers.