Georgia Bulldogs: Fourth-year players are the secret sauce

Nick Saban, Alabama football, and Kirby Smart of Georgia football (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Nick Saban, Alabama football, and Kirby Smart of Georgia football (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Georgia Bulldogs go into the 2021 summer and season with lofty expectations. The return of fourth-year Seniors points to coming success.

Kirby Smart, Head Coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, is starting to get a lot of smoke. I wrote here earlier about the emerging narrative of “if not now, when?” that is already bubbling from the group-think media.

As pedantic and easy as it is to ponder this openly, there is a reason. The Georgia Bulldogs roster is loaded with NFL prospects, and at every position, and on both sides of the ball. It is the returning fourth-year players, however, who serve as the markers for national success in 2021.

At this point, going into his sixth season as head coach for the Georgia Bulldogs, the narrative bubble around Kirby Smart, from social media naves and corporate media shills, is already fomented and cemented. Namely, that the dude can recruit, but Georgia has always recruited well, and Smart can’t get out of his own way and win the “big game”.

This isn’t to say that this critique, or observation, is necessarily wrong. Technically, most of those things are true enough. But half of a puzzle can be put together correctly, and you still only have half of the total picture.

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While UGA has “always recruited well”, one of the reasons you are seeing a media narrative forming in April around this team is a newfound realization of just how well Smart and company have recruited in Athens.

On the heels of the recent 2021 NFL Draft, folks have started looking to next year, and they realize that it could be littered with Georgia football players in 2022.

On paper, this is easily the most talented UGA football team in my lifetime. Dudes like Nolan Smith, Travon Walker, Jalen Carter, Kelee Ringo, Nakobe Dean, Jalen Kimber, and many others, are all early-round NFL Draft material. And that’s just on defense.

That said, all of those student-athletes listed were underclassmen in 2020. They were not draft eligible. It is the draft-eligible juniors from 2020 who have changed the arc of narrative in Athens this off-season and for 2021.

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One of the more under-discussed and under-reported motifs in college football is that of the “fourth-year senior”. The reality these days is that, if you are a big-time player, at a big-time program, you are probably “three and done”. Meaning, after your Junior year, you have enough good film, and experience, to jump to the NFL, “bet on yourself”, and start cashing giant checks.

It is a rarity for an early-round NFL prospect, with eligibility, to forego that eligibility, and come back to school. When it does happen, however, look out.

What has been the main difference between Georgia and Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State these last five years? Yes, national titles. But dig deeper, please. How did they get there?

Special Quarterback play is the leading indicator. No doubt. But, the reality is that Saban, Swinney, and Meyer (while at Ohio St) have done an amazing job of convincing NFL-ready Juniors to come back and play a fourth year. And when they did that, special things happened.

Bama and Clemson, especially, have been really, really adept at this.

Kirby Smart not so much.

Clemson recently won a national championship with a defensive line comprised of four dudes who all would have been first or second-day NFL Draft picks after their junior year.

Alabama won in 2020 just a few months ago. Devonta Smith and Najee Harris, anyone? Both came back for their Senior year. And they are only two of many who contributed on the big stage.

Now, look at Kirby Smart’s tenure at UGA. After the 2016 season, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, and Davin Bellamy all decided to return for their senior season. In 2017, they lost the national championship in overtime.

After the 2018 season and a loss in the SEC Championship game, Georgia had players like Mecole Hardman Jr, Riley Ridley, Elijah Holyfield, and Isaac Nauta who all bolted for the NFL after their Junior season.

The next year, bereft of those seniors, Georgia lost in the SEC Championship game again.

In fact, 2017 was the only year that Kirby Smart had NFL caliber Juniors choose to return en masse. Until, 2021.

The “if not now, when?” stuff is the easy button for sports writing. But, it’s easy with Smart and Georgia right now because the roster is legitimately the best it has ever been. Certainly, in the last 40 years.

However, it will be the return of Seniors like Jordan Davis, Jamaree Salyer, Zamir White, Devonte Wyatt, James Cook, Quay Walker, Adam Anderson, and others who will decide whether Georgia football can “jump the broom” in 2021, and join that handful of elite teams to have won a national title in the last few years.

We’ve only seen this once before in the Kirby Smart era in Athens. We are about to see if he can capitalize this time. Saban and Swinney certainly have. And look to continue to, as well.

In addition, those earlier players listed like Nolan Smith and Travon Walker, who are Juniors in 2021, could very well all leave after this year. If so, the pattern begins to repeat in 2022.

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So, maybe, if Georgia’s en masse senior return in 2021 is a one-off, it really is “if not now, when?”, after all, and common knowledge is common, indeed.