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Defending champs for the first time in 40 years, how Georgia fights off complacency: "We will not be hunted."

Defeating him in the national title game wasn't the ultimate test if Kirby Smart had mastered Nick Saban's lessons. That comes now.

Kirby Smart has earned the ultimate first-world problem in coaching. He's got to figure out how to make a well-fed team work like it's starving. He's got to figure out how to motivate a team coming off a national championship. 

Though it's the first time Georgia has done this in four decades and the first time he's done it as a head coach, Smart is well practiced in this rare art. In fact, 2022 will mark the fifth time Smart has coach a team fresh off a national championship.

The first came at LSU in 2004, coming off a championship he was not a part of. That was a learning experience for Smart. That was probably one of the toughest jobs that's ever -- because you had complacency," he said. "You had guys that were going to be first round picks, no matter how they played, off of how they played the year they won the national championship." The results showed; the 2004 Tigers slipped to 9-3 and finished outside the AP Top 15. 

Six years later, Smart got to try it again. Coming off the 2009 national title and with many of the '09 title pieces still in place, Alabama went 10-3. It remains the last time Nick Saban finished outside the SEC West's top two and the last time he finished lower than No. 8 in the AP poll.

In 2012, Smart got another try. The Tide shook off a November loss to Texas A&M to win the BCS national title. It remains the only time in college football's championship era (since 1998) a team has officially repeated. In 2013, the Tide brought a 15-game winning streak into the final week of the regular season until the Kick Six ended their 3-peat hopes. (Smart won the 2015 national championship with Alabama, but left to take the Georgia job.)

Armed with all that experience, Smart is attacking the problem -- such that it is one -- from multiple fronts. He's also well-experienced in answering the question about battling complacency.

"I've done the rounds this morning, I'll bet you at least 50 people have asked me the question, so feel free when we open up for questions to ask me, the concern there is for complacency. That does not concern me in the least. To be complacent, you have to have done something and achieved something. The men on this team for this season have not done that. They have not. We had 15 players that have now gone to NFL camps or draft picks. They're gone. We have some returning players, but they're hungry as ever," Smart said Wednesday.

"People ask the question, How does it feel to be hunted? We will not be hunted at the University of Georgia. I can promise you that. The hunting we do will be from us going the other direction. We're not going to sit back and be passive about. 

"Our guys have asked questions, and we've done a lot of studies on how the mighty have fallen. We have skull sessions, 15-minute meetings, 20-minute meetings and breakout groups. We talk about how the mighty have fallen. I'm talking about in business, sports, history. You learn from the mistakes of others. 

Though no team has gone back-to-back since 2011-12 Alabama, the College Football Playoff era has been kind to defending champions. Of the right teams to defend a championship thus far, seven finished in the AP Top 5 and four reached the title game. 

Defending ChampResult

2014 Florida State

CFP Semifinalist

2015 Ohio State

Fiesta Bowl champ, No. 4 AP

2016 Alabama

CFP Runner-up

2017 Clemson

CFP Semifinalist

2018 Alabama

CFP Runner-up

2019 Clemson

CFP Runner-up

2020 LSU

5-5, no bowl

2021 Alabama

CFP Runner-up

Turns out, as the college football season has gotten longer, having more talent than everyone else has become even more important. On that front, Georgia is doing just fine. The Bulldogs rank second in the 247Sports Team Composite ratings, a smidgen behind Alabama (1,001.89 to 1,001.79), a comfortable 15 points ahead of No. 3 Ohio State, and a relative mile ahead of the rest of the field. 

Smart believes his culture gets more out of the considerable talent stockpiled in his locker room. 

"For us, it really steers down to one cultural belief: That we have a connection that's greater than our opponent," Smart said. "We're all going to be tough, we're all going to be physical in the SEC, but can we be better connected together? Can we have 1 plus 1 equals 3? For us, 1 plus 1 equals 3 means we get more together than we do apart. This team believes that."

The fight against complacency isn't about treading water, it's about swimming faster than you did the year before. As the coaching maxim goes, You're either getting better or you're getting worse. That effort has started at the top, as Georgia's coordinators have pinpointed ways in which the 2021 team struggled -- the Bulldogs were merely average in the red zone, for instance, scoring touchdowns on just 61 percent of opportunities -- and trying to improve. In other words, it's no different than how any other coaching staff in football handles the offseason. 

"I give a lot of credit to Coach Monken and Coach Schumann. Both those two guys, they love getting on Zoom. They love talking to NFL coaches and figuring out a new way to do it. How deep do you play your safety? How do you run your mesh route? What's something new you're doing on the inside zone? We're constantly looking to get better," Smart said.

"Our staff does a lot of projects. We've got a lot of quality analyst guys that bring a lot of information to our staff and have made us a better program."

There isn't a lot of recent precedent for how coaches perform after winning their first national titles, thanks to all the trophy-hogging by Saban Urban Meyer. The last two first-time champion coaches before Smart are Dabo Swinney (2016) and Ed Orgeron). Swinney won his second title two years later; Orgeron was out of a job less than two years later. Before them, you'd have to go back to Jimbo Fisher (2013) and Gene Chizik (2010), then Les Miles (2007) and Mack Brown (2005). Of that group, only Swinney has won another crown. 

Smart spent more time at Saban's right hand than any other assistant coach -- 10 seasons, which probably felt like 10 decades in ways both good and bad. He wasn't the first to defeat Saban, nor the first to win a title -- Jimbo Fisher claims both honors. But he does have the best opportunity to prove he learned the ultimate lesson from The Master -- how to conquer human nature and, in the process, how to conquer college football. 

"We started this thing off last year with the quote: Success comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it. Well, we embraced that last year. Guess what? That doesn't change," Smart said. "For our team, it's embedded in what we do. We didn't build this program on hoping for one-year-wonders or hoping for one opportunity. We built the program to be sustained. You sustain it by what you do every single day."

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