ATHENS — It didn’t take long for the clock to strike midnight on reality in the aftermath of Georgia’s 33-18 CFP Championship Game win over Alabama.
The majority of the Bulldogs’ elite defense, which carried the team throughout most of the season and once again in the title matchup, is moving on.
Projected first-round picks and difference-makers Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Nakobe Dean are moving on, along with Orange Bowl and CFP title game defensive MVPs Derion Kendrick and Lewis Cine.
Coach Kirby Smart knows better than anyone that the Georgia offense will need to carry much more of the burden than it did this season, and that’s why UGA has been actively working to land a quarterback out of the NCAA transfer portal.
The going price for a premium quarterback in college football skies into the millions, according to those in the know of Caleb Williams’ high-profile transfer out of Oklahoma.
USC is on the pole position, and from all indications, will match all offers to secure Williams, who some say already has bags arrived on the Los Angeles campus.
It’s all moving too fast for some Georgia fans (and like UGA players), who are still celebrating Stetson Bennett’s incredible journey from walk-on to offensive MVP of the win over Alabama.
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To be clear, Bennett comes across as not being not interested in the “cuddly little walk-on story” angle, any more than he wants to become known as the SEC’s version of Rudy.
Bennett said he wants to play another year of football, and he wants to compete.
There might not be enough would-be handlers, all eager to profit from Bennett’s story, to talk him out of pursuing another season even if it’s not at Georgia
RELATED: A closer look at Stetson Bennett’s interview with Good Morning America
Bennett said on Good Morning America the morning after the CFP title game that he wants “to see if he can trust the decisions that are made by the staff” of the Georgia coaches before he decides anything.
Bennett should know by now what he can trust: Smart is going to make decisions that he believes will lead to another championship.
If Bennett fits Smart’s vision, he’ll start.
But if Smart determines more or different is needed at the position, Bennett will go back to the bench where he spent the majority of his collegiate career at Georgia.
The only promise at Georgia, from everything Smart has said in the past, is the chance to compete.
SEC shark tank
Ruthless, yes, but the SEC is a shark tank, and aggressive recruiting and roster management is needed to stay at the top.
There’s no equity in football, and while Smart was willing to forgive and overlook Bennett’s less-than-stellar performances against Florida and in the SEC title game, 2022 is a new story.
The Georgia quarterback who starts against Oregon on Sept. 3 on Mercedes-Benz Stadium might not even be on the current roster.
JT Daniels met with Smart on Sunday to tell the head coach of his intentions to transfer, likely having come to the conclusion that Smart wants a quarterback with mobility at all costs.
RELATED: A look at JT Daniels planning to enter NCAA transfer portal
At least, for now.
Bennett, Vandagriff, Beck and incoming freshman Gunner Stockton have those running and scrambling abilities that drive defensive coordinators mad.
Vandagriff, a bigger, stronger, faster and more accurate passing version of Bennett, would seem to be the in-house favorite.
Beck’s athleticism and knowledge of the playbook, however, makes for an interesting QB duel with Vandagriff in spring drills, the loser of which could leave town in April.
Bennett might be gone by then, too, or he could stick it out again, like he did last spring when he threw only four passes in the spring game.
Turning the page
Smart knows what Bennett can do, so it will be time for the younger quarterbacks to get reps.
Or, the new quarterback, presuming Georgia gets the sort of free agent it’s looking for out of the portal, might be on display.
It’s also possible the Bulldogs aren’t able to land a marquee quarterback out of the portal.
RELATED: Georgia QB room is blurry, a look into the future
That’s when Smart, or any other coach in his shoes, would shift the narrative to knowing there were good enough players on the roster to win a championship all along.
And that would be true, it’s just that elite coaches like Smart and Nick Saban always want more talent, aware a team can never have enough quality depth.
If the past five years have taught Georgia football fans anything, it’s that change is a constant, even in the quarterback room.
The same quarterback switcheroo that happened UGA, and looks to be on the verge of taking place again, happens everywhere, most notably at Clemson (Kelly Bryant/Trevor Lawrence) and Alabama (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa).
Business is business, and as Smart famously said, Georgia’s “not practicing to beat somebody,” it’s “practicing to beat everybody.”
Top of the mountain
It’s up to Smart to stay on top of the game off the field, too, and take advantage of the new NIL and transfer rules.
Smart’s done so well in that capacity that he’s in the midst of negotiating what’s believed to be a 10-year guaranteed contract worth an estimated $100 million.
There are plenty of Georgia players negotiating deals, too, in this new age of NIL contracts and one-time transfers. There’s money to be made, and even former UGA players are swarming the scene in an attempt to get a piece of it through exclusivity and marketing alliances.
Smart’s focus, however, is on bolstering a team that will see no less than a school-record 10 players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, and perhaps as many as 13.
It’s a given there will be free-agent additions through the portal at multiple positions this year for Georgia, and every season to come, with Smart churning out NFL players while UGA backups enter the portal for greener pastures.
That puts pressure on second-year AD Josh Brooks and the UGA decision-makers to figure out how they can find and attach more corporate sponsors, and dollars, to help Georgia remain competitive in that facet of the game.
Recruiting never stops, the quarterback room is fluid.
In a perfect world, Smart would like to have four scholarship quarterbacks on his roster at the start of next season and Todd Monken on the headsets calling plays for what would be a third season.
If Monken leaves, spin the dial in the quarterbacks’ room and a different player could come up a winner in what’s become a game of changes.