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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart during the Bulldogs’ game against Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday. Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

Kirby Smart welcomes challenge of Georgia football-Oregon opener: ‘I want that every year’

It’s a busy week for Georgia coach Kirby Smart. Between SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., and a massive recruiting weekend in Athens, he’s got a lot on his plate at the moment.

But as the coach balances future conference schedules, NIL and official visits, he’s still got his eye on the main thing. That would be Georgia’s first game of the 2022 season against the Oregon Ducks.

“I’m concerned with the schedule I’ve got. I’m worried about Oregon,” Smart said on Tuesday. “That’s just the truth. Does it excite me that our conference is strengthening and growing? Yes, but I’m not thinking for one second about the 2025 schedule.”

The Bulldogs and Ducks will meet on Sept. 3 in Atlanta, with ABC airing the contest between what should be two top-15 programs.

It’s the second-straight year that Georgia opens with a non-conference neutral site game. While Oregon may not have the cache that Clemson did last season, it’s still a sizable carrot to keep Georgia motivated through the long offseason.

“I want that every year. I mean, I’d love to have an opener of that caliber,” Smart said. “That’s the goal, is that your offseason’s geared around your conference play, but who do you open with? What kind of excitement can you generate for the offseason, and Oregon gives us that opportunity.”

Georgia faces plenty of questions coming into the 2022 season. The Bulldogs must replace 15 NFL draft picks, a record for a single draft. Most of those came on the defensive side of the ball, as Georgia had five defenders taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Yet the cupboard isn’t bare, Defensive tackle Jalen Carter is expected to be one of the top defensive players in the country, while cornerback Kelee Ringo is similarly poised for national stardom. There are also some exciting young players expected to break through, such as linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson and cornerback Kamari Lassiter.

The new-look defense will see some familiar faces on the Oregon sideline. The group’s former defensive coordinator is now running the Oregon program, as Dan Lanning’s first game as the program’s head coach will come against Georgia.

Lanning could understandably have some growing pains due to him being a first-time head coach. Smart himself had some in his 2016 season, as Georgia went 8-5 and lost home games to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.

But in the long run, Smart is confident in his former star defensive coordinator.

“He had great opportunities, and he’s done a great job at the opportunities he’s had,” Smart said. “He’s taken advantage of those. Everywhere he’s been, he’s got a reputation of being a great leader and being tremendously enthusiastic. I think that helps him be a leader and the kind of person that he is. I know he’s going to be successful.”

The other face Georgia will recognize is that of Bo Nix. The former Auburn quarterback transferred to Oregon this offseason. And while he’s yet to be named the starter as battles Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield, he’s an experienced option for an Oregon team that needs to improve offensively if it is to join the college football elite.

Georgia did beat Nix in each of the three times he was under center for Auburn. But Smart vividly remembers the headaches Nix caused with his athleticism.

“He’s grown from being a freshman that was thrown in there to playing under multiple coordinators, and going back to a coordinator he’s familiar with should make him comfortable,” Smart said. “He’s very talented. We had a lot of draft picks on defense last year, and we struggled to get him on the ground. So, he’s a tremendous player.”

Georgia has not lost a season-opener under Smart, with the Bulldogs going 2-0 in neutral-site openers against Power 5 foes. The Bulldogs have often been able to start the season on the right foot.

Doing so against Oregon will be a difficult task, given the deep understanding Lanning has about this Georgia team, to go along with the talent level at Oregon.

But Smart likes it that way. It gives him something to think about as he balances all that comes with being the Georgia head coach.

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