Dawgs’ 2022 season has been a little weird, but wonderful

Tight end Darnell Washington leaps over an Oregon defender for extra yardage. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

It’s been kind of a weird but wonderful season so far for Kirby Smart’s 2022 Dawgs.

On the one hand, they’re undefeated and have spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the land. The opening game against Oregon in Atlanta was as impressive an outing as I’ve ever seen from any Dawgs team.

And, the week after the College Football Playoff committee ignored the Dawgs’ No. 1 ranking in the AP and Coaches polls and instead placed media flavor-of-the-month Tennessee on top of its first rankings (with Georgia third, behind Ohio State), Smart’s Dawgs proceeded to put Vols Nation in its place, with a thoroughly dominating win in one of the loudest games ever played in Athens.

On the other hand, unlike last year’s Dawgs, this team tended to play at the level of its opponent — up for the better teams, a bit less focused and intense for the more mediocre ones.

A memorable image: Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter lifts LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels during the SEC title game. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

Still, even in the games where the Dawgs let outmanned opponents hang around longer than they should have, the outcome never really was in doubt. (And, yes, I include the Mizzou game in that, despite the fact that the Tigers led early in the 4th quarter; I had no doubt in my mind that the Dawgs would pull out a win.)

So, what do we make of this year’s Georgia Bulldogs? They haven’t always blown out opponents like last year’s team did, but they do have a better record at this point of the season than last year’s national champions, plus they brought home a trophy the 2021 Dawgs failed to win — the SEC championship.

It’s been an especially incredible and impressive season when you consider all the NFL-caliber talent that was lost from the national championship team.

Again this year, as was the case last season, Georgia has overcome injuries to complete an undefeated regular season, and, after the SEC Championship Game win over LSU, sits at 13-0 for the first time in program history. As Jeff Dantzler of the Georgia Bulldogs radio team pointed out, 12 of those 13 wins were by double-digits. As he said, that’s “pretty damn strong.”

And, there’s at least one game, hopefully two, still to be played. So, there likely will be more opportunities for the Dawgs to make this a second straight season for the ages.

Georgia defensive back Kelee Ringo intercepts a pass intended for Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Getty Images, Dawgnation

You also can make the case that the 2022 Dawgs have overcome adversity that last year’s team didn’t face. Smart said after the tough Kentucky game: “We’ve built some of those DNA muscles that maybe last year’s team never got to flex.”

As lifelong Dawgs fan Dave Williams told me this week, “I think this team probably has more team in it than last year’s — more cohesive and all-in.”

Regardless of what happens in the playoff, there is much for Bulldog Nation to celebrate and savor in a season that has seen Smart named SEC Coach of the Year, Christopher Smith and Jalen Carter named unanimous picks to the five leading All-America squads, Stetson Bennett named a Heisman Trophy finalist (over Hendon Hooker, much to the dismay of Vols fans), Brock Bowers named the nation’s top tight end, and Jack Podlesny named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year.

So, I decided to ask a couple of dozen Dawgs fans — ranging from pensioners to fresh out of high school — to join me in taking stock of this season’s highlights, and also to cast a wary eye toward what’s to come in the playoff (we are UGA fans, after all).

When it comes to favorite game of the season, the overwhelming choice was the “slobber-knocking of the Tennessee Hillbillies,” as my brother Jon put it. Both Dan Pelletier and Owen Scott also noted that, in that game, the Dawgs debunked the idea that the Vols had an “unstoppable” offense.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett runs 64 yards for a touchdown against Auburn. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

I thought Darrell Huckaby summed it up well: “There was so much hype about ‘Tennessee gonna score 50,’ and the atmosphere was just so loud and electric ... and we just stuffed them.” He said it ranks as his all-time favorite Dawgs game in Sanford Stadium. Indeed, Allan Cason, who runs the Dawg Bites group on Facebook, noted it was an “amazing atmosphere, even in the rain.” Added Carlton Powell: “Beautiful game plan. The Dawgs abused Tennessee that day.”

While the win over the Vols is one of my two favorites from the season, I wasn’t alone in looking back in awe on that Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game domination of Oregon. “I have never seen a Georgia offense like the one that day,” said retired Atlanta sportscaster Bill Hartman. And, Helen Castronis, whose daddy was UGA’s legendary “Coach Mike,” thought the win over the Ducks was “our best four-quarter effort.”

Meanwhile, Jason Hasty, the UGA athletics history specialist at the Hargrett Library in Athens, also picked the Tennessee game as his favorite, but said that “a close second would have to be Auburn, not only because it’s always nice to notch another win against our oldest rival, but because that was a picture-perfect day in Athens.”

On the topic of a favorite play or moment from the season, there were a couple that drew considerable support, with the most mentions being quarterback Stetson Bennett’s 64-yard scamper for a touchdown against Auburn, while the other favorite was, as my brother Tim said, “Jalen Carter striking the pose, holding the LSU quarterback in one arm and flashing the No. 1 sign with the other.”

The latter play against Tigers QB Jayden Daniels was, Jason said, “one of the most thoroughly dominant sacks I’ve ever seen.”

After making an incredible catch, tight end Brock Bowers runs for a 73-yard touchdown. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

I have to agree, and I’ll be shocked if that scene doesn’t get turned into a print or painting that finds its way onto the walls of numerous Bulldog rooms.

And, how ‘bout them tight ends? Scott summed up Darnell Washington as a “selfless blocker who finally got some passes thrown his way,” while Dave said that he thinks Bowers “is the best football player in the country. He needs 10 touches per game.” And, Tim said he thinks Washington and Bowers are the best tight end tandem ever, “college or pro”’

Also drawing support was Chris Smith picking up that blocked LSU field goal attempt — “in spite of coaches and a player telling him not to,” as Dan noted — and returning it 96 yards for a touchdown. Owen, who lives in Baton Rouge, liked the fact that LSU’s “special team forgot that a blocked field goal is a live ball.”

Another fan favorite was “that bouncy catch,” as Tom Hodgson put it, where a ball careened off a Florida defender and Bowers managed to twist around, make the catch (after bobbling it a couple of times) and then took it 73 yards to score.

Also mentioned was Aussie punter Brett Thorson booming a 75-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Tennessee 1-yard line; and the interception in the end zone by Kelee Ringo on the long pass intended for Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman. “That was critical,” Carlton said.

Christopher Smith runs back a blocked LSU field goal attempt 96 yards for a score in the SEC Championship game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

A personal favorite was Bowers making a terrific catch with his fingertips, just shy of the grass, on a low throw by Bennett for a Georgia TD in the third quarter against Tech.

Favorite player this season? Bennett just edged out Bowers in this category, but there also were multiple fans picking Washington and Ladd McConkey. Also mentioned were Carter, Nolan Smith and Jamon Dumas-Johnson.

When I asked my fellow fans what surprised them the most about this season, brother Tim spoke for several of the others when he answered, “the defense being as good as it is, considering the loss of players” from last year. As Jason noted, “we’re doing it in different ways than we did last year.”

Tom and Darrell both were surprised by the ease with which Georgia beat Oregon in the opener. At the other end of the spectrum, the biggest surprise for Owen was “trailing Missouri in the 4th quarter!” That game also was Helen’s big surprise; she’d given up hope before the Dawgs came from behind, she said, but “that win opened my eyes to this team.”

What surprised Scott the most was “that none of our wide receivers progressed to be legitimate vertical threats, and they still have trouble getting separation.” And, Alan gave a very honest answer when he said the biggest surprise to him was “that we’re undefeated! I am shocked that, with all the talent we lost, we just reloaded and kept getting better.”

Carlton also was surprised that the Dawgs are 13-0, adding: “Some of the games weren’t as pretty as I would have liked, but they did win them.”

Among the other superlatives mentioned, brother Jon thought the Redcoats honoring Vince Dooley on his 90th birthday at halftime of the Oregon game was “very special”; my great-nephew Gabe Rudd singled out Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint as “comeback player of the year,” for his return from injury to become a key receiver; and Jeff noted that “Georgia has won five straight against the Jackets, five of six against Florida and six straight against both Auburn and Tennessee. This is a sixth straight major bowl game, and the Bulldogs are guaranteed to finish in the Top 10 for a sixth straight season. The back-to-back perfect regular seasons and back-to-back 8-0 SEC regular season records are phenomenal accomplishments.”

Several fans also singled out Bennett, whom Tom praised as “just a winning quarterback,” while Alan and Dan both were impressed by No. 13′s improvement this year.

Kirby Smart celebrates Georgia’s SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Kayla Renie/UGA)
Kayla Renie, Dawgnation

Said Alan: “I’ll be honest, I kinda hoped he would walk away with his [national championship] ring [after last season], but he proved us all wrong!”

Added Helen: “What a privilege it has been to watch the Mailman deliver. In the movie version, he would have won that Heisman!”

Of course, Dawgs fans are notorious worrywarts, so going into the playoff, what concerns them? The most frequent answer was the inconsistent play of the defensive secondary, especially with Ohio State, led by quarterback CJ Stroud, on the horizon. Plus, as Tom said, “Ohio State has a chip on their shoulder. They will be ready.”

“I’m from the Dooley/Munson school of worry, so I am really worried that our offense will go into hiatus as it seems to do in stretches, and that our defensive backfield will get torched,” said Darrell, adding: “I am much more worried about Ohio State than either Michigan or TCU, if we get that far.”

Gabe said he thinks the key against the Buckeyes won’t be the secondary, but “keeping pressure on Stroud.”

For Dan, it’s a matter of odds. “I think if we play each of the other playoff teams five times, we would beat each of them at least four times, but nothing is guaranteed.”

Said Jeff: “Ohio State is a tough matchup. They had an extra week, and one less game. … The Buckeyes are talented, well-coached and hungry. It should be a great game in Atlanta.”

Not all Georgia fans are pessimists, though. Helen’s only concern for the playoffs is “that we don’t beat ourselves, because I don’t see anyone else doing it.”

Jason did admit that “Ohio State’s aerial attack worries me. Marvin Harrison Jr. is the best receiver in the country, and is due all of the respect he’s earned.”

But, he added, “That being said, there’s no reason, at this point, to have any doubts about what Coach Smart and his staff can put our players in position to accomplish. There’s nothing about any of the three teams that are in the playoffs that would make me think that we couldn’t beat them.”

As for Alan, he’s “living in the moment. These are the good old days. I think we match up well against all three teams.”

And, Bill said confidently that, “going into the playoffs, nothing concerns me. We are in a different era of Georgia football.”

Elaborating on that line of thinking, Darrell said that “it has been amazing to watch Kirby Smart develop and grow over the past six years and assume his own personality; he is amazing.

“We are living in the Golden Age of Georgia football,” he added. “I hope everyone realizes that.”

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