‘We’re going to have some grit’

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The key differences between 2020 LSU and 2022 Georgia

Georgia having 15 players taken in the 2022 NFL Draft is unprecedented. It was one of the many records set by the Bulldogs this past weekend.

The other team in recent history to get as close as Georgia did was the 2020 LSU draft haul. The draft success is far from the only commonality between the 2019 LSU team and the 2021 Georgia program. Each had a generational unit, with LSU’s coming on the offensive side of the ball and Georgia relying on its defense. Both schools produced the No. 1 overall pick. And each school ended long losing streaks against Alabama in the process of winning the National Championship.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs will hope that those comparisons to Ed Orgeron’s LSU program come to an end. LSU followed up its championship run with a 5-5 flop. The Tigers were unable to sustain the success they experienced in 2019 and not even two full years later was Orgeron fired.

As we turn the page from the draft to the 2022 season, many national pundits will toss around the idea that Georgia could have a letdown. Consider all the Bulldogs lost and that Georgia just won its first National Championship since 1980. Even Nick Saban’s first championship team at Alabama had somewhat of a letdown, as the Crimson Tide went 10-3 in 2010. That was the last time the Alabama program lost more than twice in a season.

Related: Multiple NFL decision makers give Georgia the ultimate praise in 2022 NFL Draft

It would underscore how truly great the 2021 team was to expect Georgia to match or somehow improve on that in 2022. But there are a few obvious reasons Georgia won’t experience the same drop-off that LSU did in 2020.

For one, let’s remember that LSU team had a handful of expected key contributors opt-out. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin both opted out prior to the season. Then during the year wide receiver Terrace Marshall and tight end Arik Gilbert also opted out. Let’s not forget that LSU’s 2020 season was at the first height of the COVID-19 pandemic and opt-outs were incredibly common.

It would be very surprising to see something like that happen to this Georgia team. Even with the Bulldogs losing a dozen scholarship players to the transfer portal, a number of key players return. Leaders such as Nolan Smith and Kearis Jackson, along with key young players like defensive tackle Jalen Carter and offensive tackle Broderick Jones.

Georgia also did not experience the same level of coaching turnover that LSU did. Consider the Tigers lost both coordinators and replaced them with outside hires as Scott Linehan and Bo Pelini took over for Joe Brady and Dave Aranda as the offensive and defensive coordinators. Linehan and Pelini were not on the 2019 coaching staff and did not have much familiarity with the roster before arriving in Baton Rouge.

The Bulldogs did see four assistant coaches depart the program this offseason, with the most high-profile being Dan Lanning’s exit to become the head coach at Oregon. Georgia though had Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp promoted to the roles of co-defensive coordinator. Schumann is expected to take on a larger role in coordinating the defense this season and he is extremely familiar with what the program is. He is entering his seventh season at Georgia and is the longest-tenured assistant on the defensive side of the ball.

”He’s always trying to grow and get better. He’s never satisfied,” Smart said of Schumann. “We’re always trying to find a different way to do it better. I think Glenn epitomizes that. He’s constantly on Zoom with the NFL guys; he talks to high school coaches; he’s a sponge. He does not think he knows it all. Always trying to find a better way to do it, to reinvent himself as a coach.”

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken is also back in Athens, continuing to shape the Georgia offense. It’ll be his third season of him in Athens. While the offense will need to take a step forward this year, there’s confidence this group will be able to do that because of the added familiarity with Monken’s system.

Just look at what returning quarterback Stetson Bennett did a season ago. After throwing eight touchdowns and six interceptions in five starts in 2020, he threw 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions in 12 starts in 2021. Like Monken, Bennett is back as well.

“Do I think I need to be better than last year? Yeah,” Bennett said. “Do I think that I’m going to need to go out there and win every single game? No, it’s still the University of Georgia. We’re still going to have great players, we’re going to have great o-lines, great backs, great backers, great d-lines and great DBs

“I’m going to be better than last year but this isn’t going to be the Stetson Bennett show, it’s going to be the University of Georgia football team.”

Related: ESPN updates Georgia football rankings in ‘Way-Too-Early’ Top 25

Finally, let’s consider the schedules. LSU saw Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida on its 2020 schedule. The Tigers were actually able to beat the Gators but all three of those teams finished the regular season as top-10 teams in the country. Add in the impact that COVID-19 had on the roster and the lack of depth made it hard for LSU to finish out the season much better than 5-5.

Georgia, on paper, should not face nearly as stiff a test with its schedule. Auburn has crated under Bryan Harsin. Florida is rebuilding under Billy Napier, while Tennessee is still looking to take a leap under second-year coach Josh Heupel. Even with November road games against Mississippi State and Kentucky, a Week 1 game against Oregon might be Georgia’s most-talented opponent. And the Ducks will be led by a first-time head coach in Lanning.

Georgia is likely to be favored in every regular-season game next season. Whether they get back into the College Football Playoff depends on what happens in the SEC championship game, where Alabama likely awaits them.

But there’s a wide, wide gap between losing in the SEC championship game and finishing as a middling SEC team. That’s what LSU was in 2020. For Georgia to become that in 2022, a number of unforeseen disasters would have to strike Smart’s program.

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