By the spring, Kirby Smart figured he would be coaching a quality Georgia team.
Yes, 15 players would be drafted into the N.F.L., a record for a seven-round draft. He was not bothered by a transfer portal toll that would stand at more than a dozen departures — and that not one new Bulldog had come in through it.
“I thought in the spring we were going to have a good team,” Smart said last month. “We were a long way away defensively from where we needed to be during the spring, but I knew we had a good football team. I knew we had a good football team when the season ended last year because we have a core of good players.”
The Bulldogs wasted little time proving it: In their opening game this season, they thumped Oregon, then ranked No. 11, 49-3.
So it has gone this season for Georgia, which dismantled almost every team it faced with slumber-inducing ease. Until the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, when the Bulldogs survived Ohio State by 1 point, Georgia’s closest margin of victory this season had been in an intrasquad scrimmage. (In the regular season, Georgia’s narrowest win was a 4-point survival over Missouri.)
The Bulldogs pounded South Carolina, which would go on to beat Clemson and Tennessee, 48-7. When Tennessee arrived in Athens ranked No. 1, Georgia won by two touchdowns. After shakier-than-usual wins over Kentucky and Georgia Tech, Georgia beat No. 14 Louisiana State, 50-30, for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Smart was correct about the returning core.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett, whose collegiate odyssey has taken him from Georgia walk-on in 2017 to Jones County Junior College and then back to Georgia for the 2019 season, rose to become a Heisman Trophy finalist less than a year after some wondered whether Smart should keep him as the starter. Entering Monday night’s game, he had passed for 3,823 yards this season, been intercepted seven times and completed about 68 percent of his throws.
Through the air, Bennett’s most productive target has been Brock Bowers, a tight end from California who was Georgia’s leading receiver last season. But Bennett has also turned routinely to Ladd McConkey, Kenny McIntosh and Darnell Washington — all returning Bulldogs who spent this season logging at least 426 receiving yards each.
After sticking around Athens for another season, tailbacks McIntosh and Daijun Edwards anchored Georgia’s attack on the ground; the two accounted for more than half of Georgia’s 3,013 rushing yards this season.
Then there is the Georgia defense, which has allowed an average of 14.8 points per game (fifth-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and could set a school record for red zone defense. It is a fortress against the run, allowing an average of 80 rushing yards per game, but decidedly more vulnerable to an aerial attack.
And it is stocked with veteran Bulldogs, too. Georgia’s leading tackler, Smael Mondon Jr., is playing his second season for Georgia, just like Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who has a team-leading four sacks. Javon Bullard, another sophomore for Georgia, was the Peach Bowl’s defensive most valuable player after a performance that included three tackles, and Christopher Smith, who arrived at Georgia in 2018 and has been around ever since, has had three picks, the most of any Bulldog this season.