Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Georgia football and the willful suspension of disbelief

Saturday January 28, 2023

Georgia’s victory parade and celebration was worthy of the back-to-back champions. Fans turned out in numbers and enthusiasm comparable to the party that followed last year’s drought-breaking triumph. Players and coaches had a blast interacting with a crowd several rows deep as the parade crawled down Lumpkin Street.

But for all of the revelry there was a weird vibe that hung over the celebration.

It’s difficult and rare to repeat as a champion. Roster changes, coaching moves, and a shifting competitive landscape require almost a reinvention from year to year. Coaches must hold onto and fortify the few constants while adapting to change and starting all over. That’s true of any program, but the complacency that can set in after a taste of success adds another layer of difficulty. Elite performance makes unnatural demands of players and coaches. Long and unpleasant hours, the discipline required to put in the daily work, and almost-guaranteed physical pain are things few of us would or could sign up for. The shiny goal of a championship hangs out there for a handful of contenders, and that helps to give some direction to the day-to-day effort.

What happens when a team reaches its goal? Players and coaches might have cared far less about 1980 than we did, but even they were caught up in the collective release of angst last January in Indianapolis. How would they refocus in 2022 on a goal that’s already been met? Georgia’s draft results became a useful point to that end for Kirby Smart: many of the key contributors to that title were in the NFL now. Last season’s title belonged to last season’s team, and the 2022 team claiming that title would have been unearned. Fair enough.

“Rat poison” has become a running joke since Nick Saban introduced the term, but players believing their own positive press and adoring fans can be a legitimate problem when there are real issues to fix and new puzzles to solve. Basking in the glow of wins can detract from the process-oriented approach favored by Saban, Smart, and other successful coaches. To counter the praise, coaches, players, and fans will latch on to slights – real, exaggerated, or even invented – to keep the fire burning.

None of that is novel stuff – coaches look for any mental edge they can find. At some point it doesn’t even matter if that mental edge is grounded in reality. Could a Georgia team never ranked worse than third claim a legion of doubters? Repeating as champion is difficult enough, and you didn’t need more than the constant reminder of players lost to the NFL and offseason attrition to credibly suggest that someone might dethrone Georgia. That suggestion was apparently enough to serve as a motivator during the season. The defense might be OK, but there’s no way it can remain elite after losing that many players. We can keep going: the offensive line took the Joe Moore Award personally. Erik Ainge’s comments before the Tennessee game were turned into a challenge to Georgia fans, and that challenge was met. Disrespect is a universal motivator.

It’s one thing for a coach to convince himself that he’s up against the world. Coaches seem to be paranoid by nature. It’s another to get an entire high-performing organization aligned behind the same concept. These young men aren’t monks and are immersed in the same social media as the rest of us; they know when they’re being fed a line. At the same time they’re not like their peers. Anyone disciplined and gifted enough to play major D1 football has spent years learning how to work towards collective goals and follow leadership. Successful leaders are able to align individuals in the service of the group, and that begins with a unified belief in the legitimacy and virtue of a goal and a rejection of any perceived challenge to that goal. Georgia player interviews during the season were fascinating because they showed how effective the coaching staff had been at hammering home the week’s message. It’s no surprise then that coaches could be as effective getting buy-in on the bigger picture.

Fans can appreciate in a general sense that performing at the highest level requires an unusual focus. We’re a bit fuzzier when it comes to the tactics coaches use to maintain that focus. We understand that an opponent shouldn’t be given bulletin board material, but it all comes with an implied wink-wink that it’s all just cut from the same cloth as the Vince Dooley “long-snappah” meme. So it was attention-getting to hear the coaches and players continue with the same fervor at the celebration. Smart praised his team saying, “They took advantage of the opportunity in front of them to prove people wrong.” The tone of the celebration was as much defiant as it was triumphant.

That same motivation played out on an individual level. In Stetson Bennett’s case though the doubt that fueled him was very real. The tale of Bennett’s path at Georgia has been sanitized enough that even the most casual football fan can recite the story of the plucky former walk-on whose drive led him to became a Heisman finalist and two-time national champion. What often gets lost is the bitterness that helped to fuel that drive. Some of that bitterness bubbled to the surface as his Georgia career approached its end. At the celebration there was the immediate “did he just say that?” jolt that woke up fans numbed by an hour of polite congratulations from dignitaries. Then there was a short period of “surely he didn’t mean us” soul-searching among the self-conscious. The realization that Bennett was mostly talking about the media was almost an absolving relief, but the uncertainty and unease remains. This wasn’t jolly Jordan Davis riding off into the sunset. Bennett’s farewell wasn’t all the tidy lovefest we’d prefer, and given his backstory it probably shouldn’t be.

Yes, the media doubted Stetson Bennett. But so did I. So did you. It’s something we’ve never really come to terms with as a fan base, and the reason Bennett’s comments were so jarring is that it cut through the suspension of disbelief that we had created for ourselves. Bennett is now the larger-than-life fan favorite “The Mailman.” He’s the fun guy swigging Pappy after winning a national title. He’s the cocky Stequavious whose Samson-in-reverse haircut was watched as closely as the injury report.

But this was also the same Bennett who was a last resort to avoid a shocking loss at Arkansas. He was the placeholder for J.T. Daniels as we waited impatiently during the 2020 season for the switch to be made. Bennett was quickly forgotten in the 2021 offseason as the Daniels Heisman hype took over. He was again the stand-in during 2021 as we nervously wondered whether Daniels’ lingering injury would cost Georgia a shot at a special season. Right up through the 2021 playoff in the wake of a disappointing loss to Alabama there was still sentiment for someone other than Bennett. He was a temp whose assignment was renewed from week-to-week.

Fans weren’t creating this impatience and doubt on their own. Very Serious Analysts made the case for Bennett to sit throughout his career. But even the media were following the lead of Bennett’s own coaches. Todd Monken was brutally honest about the staff’s assessment of Bennett’s prospects to play. “All we did was try to bury him for the couple of years he was here,” Monken admitted. The staff entertained the quarterback uncertainty through 2020 and even 2021 sticking with the noncommittal “best chance to win” answer right up through Orange Bowl preparations.

To be fair, a lot of the reckoning going on is hindsight. The Bennett of 2022 isn’t the Bennett of 2020 or even 2021. He had deficiencies, made some poor decisions, and might not have had the measurables that coaches wanted in their quarterback. An important lesson of Bennett’s story is how he used – and continues to use – that criticism and doubt to improve himself. The Bennett we saw at Tech in 2019 and into 2020 is a far cry from the a Heisman finalist and playoff MVP we know now. You’d expect growth and development over a college career, but Bennett did it without much support at first – and even in the face of outright hostility at times. A part of Bennett might actually need that conflict in order to thrive. Kirby Smart continued to push that button even after a comeback for the ages against Ohio State, and Bennett responded with a masterpiece against TCU.

As Bennett begins his next phase he’ll again have plenty of people questioning his draft position and then his prospects for sticking in the NFL. That might be just what he needs.

Leave a Reply