Kirby Smart and Georgia finally built a better version of Bama

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Georgia’s national title run in 2021 was in no way a plucky underdog story. There were no upstarts here, no blessed run of close wins. It was, first and foremost, simple regression to the mean. The universe had proven incredibly effective at coming up with creative new ways to keep a ring off of Georgia’s proverbial finger, and it finally ran out of ideas.

From 1981-2020, this was one of the most steadily successful programs in the country. The Dawgs’ average percentile rating in SP+ in those 40 years was 84.8%, ninth best in FBS. Each of the eight teams above them — Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, Alabama, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma — won national titles.

The eight directly below them — USC, Penn State, Notre Dame, Auburn, Tennessee, Texas, LSU, Clemson — also won at least one. But Georgia, which rode freshman Herschel Walker and a string of tight wins to the 1980 championship, had come up dry ever since.

They came close in the years that followed 1980’s run, and with demonstrably better teams on paper. They lost only two regular-season games from 1981-83, but fell to eventual national champion Clemson early in 1981 and lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 Sugar Bowl to Penn State in 1982.

They came close in 1992. After slipping to something closer to top-15 status in Vince Dooley’s final years as head coach, they charged back under Ray Goff and, with Garrison Hearst carrying the load, came within five points of an unbeaten record.

They came really close in the Mark Richt era.

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