Kirby Smart’s program has seen a lot of player and coaching turnover since the Dawgs won the national championship. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh

Newly crowned ‘King’ Kirby Smart took over college football with resiliency amid heartbreak

ATHENS — Kirby Smart and his Georgia football program have been validated like no other program in the nation.

It goes back to the competitive approach and resiliency Smart preaches, and more importantly, demands from his players and practices on a daily basis.

To that point, Smart and staff surged on the recruiting trail in the aftermath of a heartbreaking 26-23 defeat to Alabama in the 2018 CFP Championship Game, polishing off a No. 1-ranked class while tears were still drying across the DawgNation.

“We had to recruit within two days of that,” Smart revealed, “so I’m in the homes selling the season we had, and the progress we made.”

Recruitniks noted Smart’s top-ranked 2018 class was a feat at the time, derailing a run of seven straight years the Tide’s haul of talent ranked No. 1 in the country by the 247Sports composite.

Most all UGA fans can tell you exactly where they were when Tua Tagovailoa dropped a back-breaking bomb, connecting with future-Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith for an oil painting moment etched in history as “second-and-26.”

Smart, a former All-SEC safety at Georgia who bleeds red and black, had to be as shattered in the moment as anyone.

And yet, the very next day, he found his second wind.

“You can’t let that play beat you twice,” Smart said, explaining his approach and the directions he gave his staff as they headed back out on the road to polish off what would be the No. 1-ranked signing class in the nation of 2018.

“In this profession, you learn quickly there’s gonna be plays that we’re gonna make and win a game, and they made a great play and they won the game,” Smart said.

“I think it’s a lot more important for us to move on to recruiting than to dwell on that.”

It was that unyielding push for greatness at the most that led to the magic of the 2021 season and history made in the 2022 NFL Draft.

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The Bulldogs set a modern-era record with 15 players selected, including an unprecedented five defensive players picked in the first round.

The Bulldogs marched through the season en route to winning the CFP Championship in such an impressive fashion some might not have noticed the adversity within the campaign.

Georgia was forced to change its base offense when the starting quarterback went down with an injury, and later, adjusted on the defensive side of the ball when its sacks leader was suspended during the stretch run.

Smart and his Bulldogs had to show resilience after yet another loss to Alabama, too, and an embarrassing 41-24 defeat that saw the offense falter with three turnovers and a complex defensive scheme prove inefficient.

Five weeks later, it was a simplified Georgia defense in total control holding Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to just one touchdown.

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Many of those same heroes from the national championship game — Quay Walker, Channing Tindall, Jordan Davis, James Cook, Zamir White and Jamaree Salyer — were the same players Smart was visiting with after one of the most disappointing nights in Georgia football history.

That 2018 class was so talented that three 5-star signees finished their careers elsewhere -- Justin Fields (Ohio State), Cade Mays (Tennessee), Brenton Cox (Florida) -- missing out on national championship rings while Smart and his Bulldogs pressed on.

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