JT Daniels offered his thought process when the time came to make a decision to transfer from USC in 2020. 

There was no reason to turn Georgia down. 

“It’s really difficult to beat Georgia,” Daniels said at SEC Media Days on Tuesday. “It’s a top-five team, good school and great staff. I couldn’t find a reason not to come here.”

The junior quarterback’s assessment of the program is spot on. Coach Kirby Smart has maintained a top-five program through elite recruiting and on-field production since taking over in 2016. 

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In any other conference, that would be more than enough. Georgia, however, technically slid a half-step backward in the SEC in 2020. Florida won the SEC East for the first time under Dan Mullen. Alabama won another national championship.

Georgia is still the blue-blood on the national title clock, one that has been ticking since 1980.

Daniels, whether he knows it or not, is the key piece for Georgia going from No. 5 — where the Bulldogs sit in SN’s Preseason Top 25 — to that long-awaited perch at No. 1. Daniels has a philosophical take on those preseason prognostications that isn’t what you’d expect.  

“It’s cool when they say you’re good,” Daniels said. “It’s cool when they say you suck.”

Daniels could have simply said it is cool to be in the top five every year. Georgia is 52-14 since Smart took over, the fifth-best record among Power 5 schools in that stretch behind Alabama (65-5), Clemson (65-6), Ohio State (56-7) and Oklahoma (56-10).

Of those five schools, Georgia has the second-best average recruiting class ranking according to 247Sports.com in the last five cycles, too. Alabama, of course, is No. 1. 

Recruiting rankings since 2017

YEAR 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 AVG
Alabama 1 5 1 2 1 2
Georgia 3 1 2 1 4 2.2
Ohio State 2 2 14 5 2 5
Clemson 16 7 10 3 5 8.2
Oklahoma 8 9 6 12 10 9

Smart has made Georgia a cool place to be, and not just because he name-dropped rapper Quavo, an Athens, Ga., native, as someone who he texts with when it comes to Name, Image and Likeness. Georgia should continue to be a destination for top-five recruiting classes.

“You think back to the likes of Hines Ward or Champ Bailey at the University of Georgia. A.J. Green and Todd Gurley,” Smart said. “What they would have been able to do with NIL. These young men and women have earned this opportunity. We are excited for them.”

All of those Georgia stars experienced the pressure of that national championship drought, too. Smart’s five-year run is being compared to former Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was a half-game better at 52-13 after his first five seasons in Athens. Richt spent 15 seasons in Athens, but with each swing-and-miss at the national championship, that pressure mounted.

Will Smart bring home a national championship in the next decade? He’s among three best bets to win their first along with Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, but there are challenges. Smart is 5-1 against Auburn and 4-1 against Tennessee, but he’s 3-2 against Florida and 0-3 against Alabama. Plus, this year the Bulldogs open against Clemson in the biggest September matchup of the season.

It’s a long road from No. 5 to No. 1, and Daniels is the key to making up that ground.  Daniels did not play in the losses to Alabama and Florida last season. He won all four starts at quarterback one he took over, and another offseason with offensive coordinator Todd Monken should help.

Smart sees a player in the vein of the last two national championship quarterbacks — LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

“The two guys that were the last two years’ national champions; they were really good quarterbacks. They were great decision-makers. They were actually better athletes than people give them credit for. The decision-making process, TD-to-interception-ratio, protecting the ball, using the playmakers around them. JT has those skill-sets.”

Perhaps there is not a more important player as Smart embarks on Year 6 in Athens. Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and Daniels have been solid quarterbacks, but Georgia transfer Justin Fields totaled 63 TDS and nine interceptions in back-to-back CFP appearances for Ohio State the last two seasons.

Daniels has that elite arm talent that goes well with an offense that features the same-old loaded running back stable and tough offensive line. Smart also worked the transfer portal with LSU tight end Arik Gilbert, West Virginia safety Tykee Smith and Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick.

Georgia is loaded. Georgia is a top-five program. Smart can name-drop Quavo, but he takes a transcendental view when looking at the big picture when it comes to dealing with those national championship-or-bust expectations.

“Success comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it,” Smart said. “That’s Henry David Thoreau. For me, that’s it. I’m too busy working. I’m too busy trying to do the next thing. I’m too busy trying to take the next step to give our team a competitive advantage to really worry about expectations.” 

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