It just means more.

That oft-derided slogan of the Southeastern Conference pretty well sums up Bulldog Nation’s reaction to Georgia’s hard-fought and looooong-awaited College Football Playoff National Championship win over Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide dynasty.

Georgia’s first football national title in 41 years always was going to be sweet for all those invested in the program, no matter who the opponent was. For the players. For the coaches. And, especially, for those fans who lived through too many years of Georgia football being good, but not quite good enough to win on the biggest stage.

However, as sweet as any natty was bound to be, it just means more for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs to have done it the hardest way possible — against an Alabama team with a Heisman-winning quarterback, led by the greatest coach the college game has known, and after losing seven in a row to Bama (especially the overtime heartbreaker four years ago). That, my friends, is a grand manifestation of the SEC credo.

Dawgs linebacker Channing Tindall sacks Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. (Curtis Compton/AJC) (Curtis Compton/Dawgnation)

A famed professional wrestler who used to be a Georgia Bulldogs fan, but who bailed from the bandwagon in a fit of pique before the Orange Bowl win over Michigan, was known for saying, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

Having recruited at an elite level for the past five years, and having seen it finally pay off in a showdown with his mentor, Kirby Smart now is the man.

Of course, the Dawgs made it a little bit harder than it needed to be before finally vanquishing the dragon by a score of 33-18 Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

While the aggressive Georgia defense that wowed observers all season long (except for the hiccup against Bama in Atlanta) played at a national championship level throughout the game, Stetson Bennett and the offense took a frustratingly long time to get anything going consistently.

UGA head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with linebacker Nolan Smith after the Dawgs’ 33-18 win over Alabama. (Curtis Compton/AJC) (Curtis Compton/Dawgnation)

Thankfully, Georgia’s defense got much more pressure on Bama QB Bryce Young than in the earlier game. That, coupled with the Tide losing its best receiver to injury early in the game, meant the first half’s scoring output was limited to field goals, with Alabama up 9-6 at the half.

With the Dawgs’ offensive line looking unfocused and overwhelmed at times, Georgia had been unable to establish a running game (as was also true of Bama), and Bennett had started out the game looking anxious — a situation not helped by constant Bama pressure and too many unforced errors that drew penalty flags.

“Settle down,” Smart said he told his quarterback as the first half ended, “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Despite being a story that television absolutely loved, Bennett never was the favored choice of much of Bulldog Nation. Many thought he just didn’t have what it would take to beat Alabama. Despite the coaches saying they thought Bennett’s running ability gave Georgia a better chance to win than pure passer JT Daniels, the highly touted QB he supplanted during the season, a lot of folks entered the second half calling for the Dawgs’ QB to be benched.

Georgia receiver AD Mitchell catches a touchdown pass in the national title game. (Curtis Compton/AJC) (Curtis Compton/Dawgnation)

And, some fans lost hope completely after a desperation attempt by Bennett to throw the ball away under pressure deep in Georgia territory in the third quarter backfired, with officials ruling it a fumble recovered by the Tide — the sort of mistake you absolutely cannot make in a championship game. Even those of us who stubbornly clung to a belief that the Dawgs could pull this thing out of the fire were about as worried as possible at that point. (My daughter’s heart rate jumped so high that her Apple Watch kept asking her if she was OK!)

Ultimately, though, the 2022 national championship game was a tale of redemption.

Georgia’s offense didn’t look much better to start with in the third quarter, but then came the game’s turning point, as Bama ended a long drive by having a field goal attempt blocked. A long run by Georgia’s James Cook seemed to spark the Dawgs’ running game, and Georgia took a 13-9 lead on a Zamir White TD.

Alabama tightened it early in the fourth quarter with yet another field goal, and then took an 18-13 lead after that failed Bennett pass was ruled a fumble.

UGA's George Pickens hauls in a 52-yard pass in the win over Alabama. (Curtis Compton/AJC) (Curtis Compton/Dawgnation)

But, as he said after the game, Bennett was determined that “I was not going to be the reason we lost this game.” And, on the Dawgs’ next possession, he shook off a sack by the Tide defense and lofted a 40-yard touchdown pass to receiver AD Mitchell, who made a contested grab for the ages.

A poor play call resulted in Georgia’s attempt to go for 2 being unsuccessful, and the Dawgs had a narrow 19-18 lead with 8:09 to play.

Then, the Georgia defense proceeded to shut down the Bama offense, and Bennett led the Bulldogs down the field again, with running backs Cook and White getting some traction against a tough Tide defensive front, and a pass interference flag against the Tide helping. The culmination of that drive came when the season’s breakout player, freshman tight end Brock Bowers, snagged a pass and raced his way into the end zone.

After that, it was redemption time again, as Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo, who’d had a rough time against Bama receivers for much of the game, sealed the win by intercepting a Bryce Young pass and returning it 79 yards for a pick-6 with 54 seconds remaining on the clock!

No one who watched this game ever will forget the ensuing shots of QB Bennett on the sideline, tears streaming down his face as he embraced teammates.

Asked afterward about his emotional display Bennett said: “That just hit me. I hadn’t cried in, I don’t know, years, but that just came over me. When you put as much time as we do into this thing — blood, sweat, tears — it means something.”

Kirby Smart and his team show off the national championship trophy. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/Dawgnation)

Like I said, it just means more.

Throughout Bulldog Nation, fans young and old felt as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders after a couple of generations of waiting.

In Georgia’s school record 14th win of the season, Bennett finished the game 17 of 26 passing, for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Making his comeback from injury complete, medical marvel George Pickens hauled in a career-long 52-yard catch in the game.

Meanwhile, the Dawgs managed 140 net yards on the ground, led by White’s 84 yards on 13 carries and Cook’s 77 yards on 6 carries (including a 67-yarder, the longest run this year by a Dawg).

Bama was held to just 30 yards net rushing, and Young completed 35 of 58 passes for 369 yards, 1 TD and 2 interceptions. He was sacked 4 times, which was 4 more than in the earlier game in Atlanta. The game’s MVPs were Bennett on offense and safety Lewis Cine (7 tackles and a pass breakup) on defense.

And, so, a wonderful season comes to a magical ending. Of course, for some fans, anything short of winning it all in what always seemed a season of destiny would have meant failure, despite an undefeated regular season. Natty or bust, they always said.

I never saw it that way. Having lived through way too many years of mediocre football in Athens, I appreciated what an achievement it was just to make it to the title game. Going into Monday’s championship, I already considered it an amazing season.

But, of course, I badly wanted the Dawgs to prevail in Indy.

Four years earlier, my son and I had been sitting in the upper deck of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, watching these same two programs battle for the national championship, and as the Dawgs entered the fourth quarter with a 20-7 lead, I allowed myself to think, “Georgia’s going to win a national championship!” Of course, it didn’t happen, and in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable.

Offensive MVP Stetson Bennett soaks in a glorious moment. (Curtis Compton/AJC) (Curtis Compton/Dawgnation)

This time, watching at home on television, I held my optimism in check until Ringo’s interception and score. Still, after Georgia had taken a 26-18 lead, I did briefly consider how I’d celebrate if the Dawgs somehow managed to hold on and win.

And, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, I decided to act on that notion. Bounding upstairs from the den where I’d watched the game, I rushed through the living room. I didn’t say a word, but my daughter, Olivia — who’d been watching the telecast there while on the phone with a former roommate with whom she’d attended many football games while at UGA — knew immediately what I had in mind. “My Dad’s going to go honk his car horn, like he does at midnight on New Year’s Eve,” she told her friend.

And, that’s just what I did, blasting a series of honks for a good 20 seconds. A small gesture, sure, but it felt great. “Wake up,” I said to my neighborhood. “Georgia’s just won a national championship!”

Not long afterward, my son, Bill, called from Raleigh, where he and his wife and infant daughter live.

Having grown up in a family that bled red and black, he became a UGA double-grad and die-hard fan himself. But, having been born five years after Georgia’s 1980 championship, he’d never had a moment like this before.

“I finally got to see them win one!” he said with a mixture of amazement, elation and exhaustion.

That was a sweet moment.

And, then, came another. “Aw, Uncle Jon,” my daughter sighed, as she perused Facebook. Monday would have been my father’s 99th birthday. As I’ve written here before, he was a lifelong Georgia Bulldogs fan, and he raised me and my brothers, Jon and Tim, to be Dawgs, too. What Olivia was reacting to was a post my middle brother had put up:

“Happy birthday Dad,” it said. “Here’s you a National Championship.”

I’m sure, somewhere, Dad’s big smile was absolutely beaming.