Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (2023)

Are we witnessing the all-time “golden age” of Georgia football?

Since the Dawgs won their second consecutive national championship, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about whether Stetson Bennett is the GOAT, when it comes to Georgia football players, but I think a look at the bigger picture is in order. Where does the program stand?

At the end of this season’s big win over Tennessee, which cemented Georgia’s hold on No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, I tweeted: “These are the glory years. Enjoy every second.”

And, if anything, the “glory years” have gotten more glorious since then.

Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (1)

Injured Nolan Smith cradles Georgia’s second consecutive national championship trophy. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Tony Walsh

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A couple of recent media moments set me to thinking again about Georgia’s place in college football. First, David Pollack said on ESPN that Georgia was the new king of college football, and he did this while sitting next to a stone-faced Nick Saban.

And, I was reading Ari Wasserman’s national recruiting mailbag for the Athletic. Asked a reader: “Do we officially switch the nationwide hatred for Alabama with Georgia now?”

Maybe SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum was right, and Georgia is the new Alabama.

Regardless, after back-to-back championships, with the latest marking the third time in six seasons that the Dawgs have played for the national title, I feel comfortable drawing this conclusion:

We may be just seven seasons into the Kirby Smart era at UGA, but this is the golden age in Georgia football history, surpassing the early 1980s run under Vince Dooley and the 1940s heyday of Wally Butts.

Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (2)

UGA fans at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens watch the telecast of the playoff final against TCU. (Kayla Renie/UGA)

Kayla Renie

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The Bulldogs won only one national title during each of those periods, and, while those coaches spent many more years at the helm than Smart has so far, it’s only fair to point out that they weren’t dominant overall. The Dawgs were mediocre in many of the seasons coached by Butts after the 1940s, and even Dooley’s greatest success came mostly in isolated seasons, aside from 1980-83, though his teams generally were good.

Butts had his program at a high level for five seasons spread out over an eight-year period, and then went into a very long decline, before having one more really good team in his next to last season.

The peaks of the Dooley program came in shorter bursts: He tended to have a very good season and then a few mediocre ones and then another really good one, and so on. Actually, 1980-83 was his longest sustained period of excellence. (Some folks also forget that Dooley was on the hot seat in 1974, when he was hung in effigy by fans in Athens, before bouncing back the next season.)

Meanwhile, Mark Richt, who has the overall second-highest winning percentage among UGA football head coaches, came close several times to having a team contend for a natty, but always fell just short. His time at UGA was closer to Dooley’s in its ebb and flow.

Smart, on the other hand, has broken through whatever glass ceiling covered the UGA program during the Richt years.

Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (3)

Hairy Dawg savors the moment, after the championship game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. (Zachery C. Kelly/UGA)

Zachery C. Kelly

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Also, thanks to Smart’s recruiting success, unparalleled in UGA history for its overall excellence, Georgia doesn’t have to rebuild after a championship season. Heck, it doesn’t really have to reload; the next batch of top-quality players already are in the program and ready to take over.

I’m not alone in thinking this is Georgia’s greatest era of football. This past week, I put the question to a cross-section of UGA fans, ranging from Gen Z to millennials, Gen-Xers, and boomers well into their 60s and 70s.

All but a couple agreed outright that we’re currently in Georgia’s greatest ever era of football, and the other two leaned in that direction.

One of them, Darrell Huckaby, put it this way: “I think we need to go one more year before definitively declaring this to be the greatest, but it sure has all the earmarks.”

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Dawgs defenders Javon Bullard and Chris Smith celebrate back-to-back national championships. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Tony Walsh

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And, Darrell conceded, “I think the past two years have certainly been the best two years Georgia — or any other college team — has produced.”

Athens native Dave Williams also hedged. “I think time will tell,” he said, “but this is certainly a golden era.”

Butts “put us on the map,” Dave said, “and the early ‘80s was a fun time to be in school,” but “one interesting thing to me is that Butts had Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi and Dooley had Herschel Walker. Kirby has done it without a consensus superstar. I see no end in sight with Kirby at the helm.”

Everyone else I talked with thinks Smart already has brought Georgia football into its peak era.

Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (5)

Kirby Smart is congratulated by the late Vince Dooley in Indianapolis, after Georgia won last year’s national championship. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Tony Walsh

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Of course, you’d expect a bit of recency bias on the part of my great-nephew Gabe Rudd, a recent high school graduate, but he provided sound reasoning, noting that all of Smart’s teams have gone to a bowl and “six out of seven of those were New Year’s Six bowls. Plus, two SEC championships, three natty/playoff appearances, as well as the two back-to-back national championships.”

Also, Gabe said, “Kirby’s recruiting since he’s been at Georgia has been phenomenal. He has brought Georgia back to be the face of college football once again. I personally think this is the greatest era of college football, and UGA is just getting started.”

My son, Bill, who attended UGA in the early 2000s, agrees this is Georgia’s greatest era, “because of two national titles and the level of dominance.”

Also, he noted, teams “have to play more games now, plus the SEC title game, and the playoff is a pretty big extra step to winning a title. So, winning like this now is impressive.”

Among more veteran fans, retired Atlanta sportscaster Bill Hartman, whose daddy was a UGA player and longtime assistant coach, put it this way: “We are living in the greatest era of Georgia football, because the measuring stick is more precise than it was when Vince Dooley and Wally Butts won their national championships.”

Many Dawgs fans see the Smart era as UGA football’s best ever (6)

Vince Dooley and some of his players show off their rings commemorating Georgia’s 1980 national championship. (AJC file)

AJC file

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He added that Smart could have won a third natty, and “he’s done it at a time when there are more great players than were around when Butts and Dooley coached.”

And, Bill said, “Now, Georgia football is in the headlines all over the United States. And there is no end in sight.”

“From a data perspective,” Scott Peacocke said, “there is little dispute that this is the greatest era. Whether you take the last six years under Smart, and compare it to Dooley’s and Butts’ best six-year stretches, or you take Kirby’s entire seven-year span and compare it to Dooley’s and Butts’ best seven-year spans, Kirby comes out on top.”

Over the past six years, Scott noted, Smart has a winning percentage of .879 and two national titles. Dooley’s winning percentage for his best six years (1978-1983) is .816, with one national championship. And, Butts’ best six years (1941-1946) saw his winning percentage at .815 and one national title.

Make it each coach’s best seven years, and Smart has a winning percentage of .844, compared with Dooley’s .783 in 1978-1984 and Butts’ .779 in 1941-1947.

“To be honest, college football has changed so much from 1940 to now, that it’s hard to do apples-to-apples,” Scott admitted. “But, I think Kirby has separated himself from Butts/Dooley with the culture he’s established.

“For Butts’ full career, the game was fairly stagnant, from the rules of play to roster management. … Dooley had to deal with the first scholarship cap and the biggie: integration, which, of course, was more tumultuous at SEC schools. To his credit, by most accounts, he handled it well (which is more than his critics would say about how he handled rule changes designed to benefit passing offenses!)

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Wally Butts and some of his coaching staff are seen in this Pandora yearbook shot. (Hargrett Library)

Hargrett Library

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“But, in my opinion, Kirby is at the helm during the most disruptive era in college football history: NILs, the transfer portal, conference realignments, playoff implementation (and now expansion), COVID eligibility, four-game redshirt rules ... it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

“And, yet, Kirby has not just weathered the endless chaos, he’s thrived, arguably better than anyone else coaching today. At worst, he shares the honor with Nick Saban.”

To gain more historical perspective, I put the question to Jason Hasty, the UGA athletics history specialist at the Hargrett Library in Athens.

Said Jason: “I hesitate to make direct comparisons between eras in football because, unlike with baseball, there isn’t a clear set of statistics that can give us guidance, and because football rules, strategies, the responsibilities of the positions (especially quarterback), and the physical attributes of the players have changed so radically throughout the years.”

With that in mind, however, Jason said he has “broken down our program into four ‘Golden Eras’: 1910-1921, 1941-1948, 1980-1983, and from 2017 to the present.” One thing that jumped out to him is how the first three eras were built around a great coach and one or two great players (starting in 1910 with the arrival of head coach Alex Cunningham and All-American Bob McWhorter), but “our current era is centered around a great coach and an ever expanding host of great players, many of whom could, arguably, be among the very best to ever play their positions at Georgia.”

Jason also noted that this era is different in how radically college football has changed, just in the time since Smart took over as head coach.

“The overall landscape of college football is vastly more competitive,” he said, “with the playoffs, the transfer portal, NIL, the pressures that traditional and social media put on players, and the 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week recruiting cycle, where all teams have access to high school players nationwide.”

Jason said he would “hesitate to put one era over another, especially when we are in the midst of this Golden Age, but we have to recognize how difficult building and maintaining a program is in this time. What Coach Smart is doing is so unique in the current era of football, and we have to recognize the difficulty — if not the near impossibility — of what he is accomplishing.”

Alan Cason, who runs the Dawg Bites fan group on Facebook, thinks the Smart era is “well above the threshold” to be considered the greatest at UGA, what with “playing for three natties in six years, bringing home two, and being plays away from participating in others.”

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Kirby Smart celebrates at Sanford Stadium, amid speculation about a possible threepeat. (Kari Hodges/UGA)

Kari Hodges

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Amid all the speculation about Georgia’s chances of a “threepeat,” Alan said he thinks Smart’s success is, indeed, sustainable, because “the entire school is behind [the program], unlike some times in the past.”

Tom Hodgson noted that, under Smart, the Dawgs are considered a dominant program, and, thanks to the playoff system, have earned that designation, unlike some earlier college football “dynasties.”

Owen Scott, who’s been a Dawgs fan since the latter years of the Butts era, thinks that, despite being head coach for “only” seven years, Smart “clearly has accomplished the most of any UGA head football coach. I would give Mark Richt credit for a high level of success, and for leaving the program in great shape for Smart, but, as everyone knows, he never got the program to the very top, i.e., winning a national championship, despite having some extremely talented squads. …

“In any case, Smart’s three finals and two wins in seven years is an amazing accomplishment, achieved through recruiting, hiring outstanding assistants and creating a culture of toughness, resilience and connection. He has the best winning percentage and has dominated Tech, Auburn and Florida, and beaten Bama in a Final. … I expect the Dawgs will continue to be perennial contenders under Kirby, and are likely to accumulate more national championships before he hangs up his visor.”

Carlton Powell, another lifelong Dawgs fan, agreed: “I think Kirby understands what needs to be done to make this a sustainable thing. He’s building something that’s going to be hard to knock down.”

Along those lines, let’s return to that recruiting mailbag I mentioned earlier. As part of his answer to the question about Georgia being the team that every other fan base hates, the Athletic’s Wasserman wrote: “Georgia is set up to be the king of this sport for a long time. It is in one of the deepest states for talent and it has the unique recruiting advantage of having the pick of the litter there. .... Georgia also can go national for top-rated players, which will only get increasingly easier as the Bulldogs’ reign atop the sport continues.”

And, he noted, “we aren’t even to the February signing period for 2023 and the Bulldogs already have commitments from six top-100 players in the 2024 cycle. If you don’t like how good Georgia has been, I have bad news for you. It’s going to be like this for a while, because the amount of top-tier talent walking through those doors is unbelievable.”

Earlier, when the 2022 playoff was about to commence, USA Today columnist Dan Wolken noted that, “if Georgia were to finish off another title, as they are expected to do, it would not only buck historical trends, but make a strong case as the greatest accomplishment in the modern history of college football.”

Or, as longtime UGA fan Dan Pelletier summed up: “Any way you look at it, it’s a great time to be a DAWG!”

LET ME HEAR FROM YOU!

I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, and I’d like to know what your favorite moments were from this past season. Also, feel free to ask questions — or share your views on anything related to UGA athletics — by emailing me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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