Friday, January 28, 2022

From Georgia’s national title win to shocking coaching changes, 2021 college football season was a wild one

No one could have predicted many of the events that happened over the last 12 months

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INDIANAPOLIS — The celebration in Athens, Georgia, was as big as Widespread Panic ’98, Kirby Smart said. Wait, what’s Widespread Panic ’98?

“Google it,” said an indignant Stetson Bennett, the quarterback who largely orchestrated Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years, sending a gush of emotion through the Athens streets Monday night.

We did. Turns out the reference is from a legendary free open-air concert held a quarter century ago by a band that lives in the hearts of Athenians just like their latest national title.

“First thing I thought of was Widespread Panic,” Smart said. “I was like … there’s people on signs. There’s people on poles. You can’t see the street. I was pretty blown away. Hopefully, everybody is safe.”

Twenty-five years ago, Smart was headed toward his senior season as a defensive back at Georgia. Who knows, he might have been part of the crowd that day? Not so secondarily, who would have thought that a Widespread Panic reference would be used to describe the widespread joy Dawg Nation is experiencing?

These are among the who-would-have-thunk-it moments that populated the 2021 college football season.

Somehow, football intervened in a year in which college athletics were redefined by the U.S. Supreme Court and the NCAA stood down, letting name, image and likeness rights spread unchecked. The transfer portal became such a tool it created staff positions on programs across the country just to monitor it.

As for the College Football Playoff National Championship, we knew Georgia was good, especially the defense. We didn’t know it would be the sixth team since 2001 to play for a national title without winning its conference.

“If we’d beaten them the first time, I wouldn’t have felt as bad,” Smart said of Alabama. “And we would’ve had an SEC championship, which I always argue is as hard to get is a national championship.”

We’ll never know, at least in 2021. In these day-after looks, it’s customary to speculate on repeating. Not so much with Georgia. Eight Dawgs will participate in the Senior Bowl on Feb. 5. That’s not counting underclassmen Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean, Outland Trophy winner Jordan Davis and linebacker Quay Walker, all of whom are expected to declare for the NFL Draft. Running back Zamir White, defensive back Lewis Cine and linebacker Nolan Smith all have decisions to make.

When asked about his future, Bennett said it was “personal” between him and Smart. Bennett has another year of eligibility, but does Georgia want him back? That could be an uncomfortable process with five-star Brock Vandagriff and rising redshirt sophomore Carson Beck waiting in the wings.

If not, there are plenty of QB1s in the transfer portal willing to lead the defending champions.

“I don’t know that our team … that’s coming back is prepared for what they’re about to see because there’s a sense of entitlement, there’s a sense of the disease that has always crept in at Georgia,” Smart said. “[It’s] a huge anointment and entitlement that can affect your program.”

Back to sheer joy. Five years ago, Bennett was a walk-on quarterback who could sling it “like Baker Mayfield” … against the scout team, according to Smart.

On Monday, Georgia’s long wait was flushed. So were the almosts and could-have-beens of years past. Smart still hasn’t flushed “second-and-26,” the down and distance when Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa slung the national title game-winning pass to DeVonta Smith in the 2018 CFP National Championship.

“I don’t know if that pain will ever be numb because you put so much into those years,” Smart said. 

Finally, flushed were the cheeks of Bennett, who played his game of football. Ever. He had been crying tears of joy Monday night.  

“We all feel the weight of the state of Georgia on our shoulders,” Bennett said.

There wasn’t a hint of panic in his voice.

Here’s more that would’ve been hard to believe at the beginning of the 2021 season:

  • Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC (at some point) touching off the most active round of realignment in history. When the wheels stopped turning, five conferences (American, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC, Sun Belt) saw a combined 20 schools move through their ranks.
  • The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Bryce Young, earning $1 million (in NIL) more than a year before he’s able to turn pro.
  • A conservative Supreme Court installed by a conservative president (Donald Trump) making the most pro-labor decision in the Alston v. NCAA case. The decision basically pushed the NCAA to the sideline as the Court said the association built “a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are fairly compensated”. Unless Congress intervenes, the decision set the stage for college athletes to perhaps become employees at some future date.
  • Texas winning five games — tying a 32-year low — as NIL deals were arranged that will allow Longhorns offensive lineman to be paid $50,000 per year. If you can’t beat ’em, pay ’em.
  • In the space of 11 ½ months, Florida‘s Dan Mullen playing for the SEC title, losing to Alabama twice by a combined eight points, beating no ranked teams, outgaining Georgia but lost by 27 points, mishandling his quarterback situation, giving up 52 points to Samford and getting fired a day after losing at Missouri in overtime. The meltdown was one of the more spectacular in recent years for a coach who, at least at one time, was considered among the nation’s elite. Mullen was just part of a wave of coaching changes at 28 schools in the space of 99 days.
  • Brian Kelly affecting a Southern accent at halftime of an LSU basketball game and Lincoln Riley looking over his shoulder at the Los Angeles Coliseum during a press conference marveling at USC‘s tradition. In the space of three days, a pair of mega coaches at Notre Dame and Oklahoma each left top 10 jobs … for other top 10 jobs. The winningest coaches at both programs, who had combined for five CFP appearances, departed ostensibly for better access to the CFP.
  • The nation’s No. 1 high school prospect, defensive back Travis Hunter, committing to play away from the bright lights at Jackson State in the FCS for a coach in Deion Sanders who defined the position. Sanders snatched Hunter away from his own alma mater, Florida State.
  • Nobody blinking as Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett, a Heisman finalist, opting out of a New Year’s Six Bowl to protect his body before the draft. The backup who replaced him, Nick Patti, broke his collarbone in the Peach Bowl. That alone should end any criticism of opt outs.
  • A coach who is 16-14, Michigan State‘s Mel Tucker, becoming one of the highest-paid coaches in the country at $9.5 million annually for the next 10 years. These 10-year contracts became the new two-year extension.
  • A Houston Baptist transfer, Western Kentucky‘s Bailey Zappe, not only leading the country in passing but posting the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. In other words, Zappe set an unbreakable record. His 62 touchdown passes broke Joe Burrow’s only two-year-old record of 60.
  • Jim Harbaugh rebounding as arguably the best coaching bargain in the country. For his $4 million base salary (reduced in January), Michigan got a win over Ohio State for the first time in a decade, a Big Ten championship and its first CFP berth. Next challenge for Michigan: stiff arm the NFL and keep Harbaugh in maize and blue.
  • Spencer Rattler getting booed by his own fans and transferring to South Carolina after beginning the season as the Heisman favorite at Oklahoma and possessing two free cars as part of his NIL deal. He ended it with a 75% completion rate, but it wasn’t enough to stave off Caleb Williams from replacing him as starter. Oh yeah, Rattler gave the cars back.
  • Cincinnati becoming the first Group of Five team to earn a playoff berth as Clemson was falling from the ranks of the elite (at least temporarily) and failing to make the playoff for the first time in seven years.
  • Three Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Pac-12) missing the CFP. (The Pac-12 extended its streak of missing the CFP to 1,837 days.)
  • George Kliavkoff, a 54-year-old president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International, becoming Pac-12 commissioner and tweeting a shout out to the Georgia defensive coordinator after the Dawgs’ national title win.
  • Georgia finishing with the best scoring defense in a decade (10.2 points per game) under 35-year-old coordinator Dan Lanning. After winning the national championship, Lanning will face his old team in less than eight months as Oregon opens the 2022 season facing Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.

Happy trails, 2021. 2022 can’t be any wackier, can it?

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