The Georgia Bulldogs started 2023 as regular season undefeated champions of the SEC and national college football. Although they would not end the year as either, they still stand strong and ready to conquer the College Football world in 2024.
When the clock struck midnight, 2023, UGA kicker Jack Podlesny punched in a field goal that would seal the victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes, 41-42 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes Benz Stadium. The 2022 SEC Champs started the new year knowing they were going to compete for a second national CFB title.
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That victory was not easy to get. The Dawgs struggled in the first three quarters trying to keep up with the Buckeyes. UGA scored 24 points in quarters 1-3 while the Buckeyes racked up 38 points. But UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett stepped up his game and brought up his teams’ in the process. He made two big passes, the biggest a 76-yard pass to Ladd McConkey for the first of those two game-saving touchdowns. A successful two-point conversion and a Podlesny field goal lifted the Dawgs over the Buckeyes in the 4th quarter to send them to LA, to compete for their second natty.
Miserable weather turned out to be the only nuisance to the Bulldogs’ victory quest in the City of Angels. They had no problems defeating the TCU Horned Frogs 7-65 for the National CFB Championship. While rain and wind howled outside of SoFi Stadium, the Dawgs raged. Bennett went 18 of 25 for 304 yards, with four TDs. TCU’s QB Max Duggan went 14-22 for 153 yards and 2 interceptions. The Bulldogs pulverized TCU in total yardage, 589 to their 188. The Dawgs totaled NINE touchdowns to the Horned Frogs’ single appearance in the end zone. TE Brock Bowers turned in 7 receptions for 152 yards and a TD. RB Kenny McIntosh had 8 carries for 50 rushing yards. When it was over, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart was holding up the National Championship Trophy for the second season in a row.
But a horrific tragedy would cut the festive feelings in Athens short. UGA offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting staff member Chandler LeCroy were killed in an auto accident less than 24 hours after the Dawgs’ victory parade in Athens. Two other passengers, OL Warren McClendon and UGA football staff member Victoria Bowles were injured. Another UGA athlete, Jalen Carter, got probation for his involvement in the crash. The ensuing controversy over who was at fault for the accident, media reporting of the accident, and legal matters and athletic future of Carter, a top CFB prospect, consumed the state and the nation.
The campaign to get a third national championship would start soon after.
Bennett would move on to become QB for the LA Rams. Carson Beck would take over as the Dawgs’ new QB in a new season filled with new players. It wouldn’t be long before questions as to whether Beck could repeat Bennett’s feat of helping the Dawgs win back-to-back championships. As training cranked up in late summer, coach Smart had to defend his team’s tough practice sessions as the national media focused on football injuries pilling up in pro and college football during practice. He told the press he wasn’t changing his team’s approach to practice.
“Better never rests,” coach Smart’s comment to the press before the regular season, became the team’s unofficial mantra for 2023.
As it turned out, the Bulldogs powered through the regular 2023 season without a single loss. From the opening game against UT Martin to the regular season closer against rival Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs won each game, often decisively in at least eight cases. Their most impressive victory would come against Ball State on September 9th, a 45-3 near shutout.
But even with these non-stop victories, injuries and slow starts became a season-long concern for the Dawgs. The team had to do without the services of Bowers in mid-October after an ankle injury and subsequent surgery put him out of action until mid-November. The injury list for the Bulldogs seemed to get longer as the season progressed. Fans and observers also noticed in some games that it took the Dawgs the first and even second quarters for the team to start imposing its will on opponents as they did in previous seasons.
But the Bulldogs persevered and won. Consistently.
Until the game that would determine their championship future.
Georgia faced rival Alabama on December 2nd. Earlier in the season it seemed there would be no post-season need for the Bulldogs to win this game, which would make them SEC Champs for a second straight year, but this season was top-heavy with undefeated, winning teams, and the Dawgs would need this game to stay on top of the CFB playoff rankings. Georgia wound up losing to Alabama 27-24. And a day later, they would learn if they did enough to go to compete for their third national championship.
They didn’t. Michigan would finish first, Washington would finish second, Texas third, and Alabama would place fourth, jumping from 8th the previous week under the strength of beating the undefeated, number one UGA, which fell to sixth place and out of natty competition.
Their consolation prize: Facing another undefeated team, #5 Florida State University, who many also felt should have been in championship competition, in the Orange Bowl on Saturday, December 30th. Georgia is favored to win this game against FSU.
The Dawgs fell short of their championship 3-peat desires, but they end their year with 25 consecutive regular season wins, back-to-back national championship wins, an SEC championship, and to top it off, a strong slate of newly signed athletes, including 3 5-stars, ready-to-compete in 2024 for a national CFB championship thanks to a successful signing day earlier this month. And Beck will be returning to the Dawgs for his second season as quarterback.
2023 was quite a year for the Dawgs.
By Brian Allen, editor and founder, Sports In The ATL
Coming up Wednesday: The Atlanta Braves in 2023.
Image credit: Georgia Bulldogs/Instagram