Rewind the clocks to four years ago in 2015. Georgia fired Mark Richt after an “unimpressive” 9-3 season with the Bulldogs. The argument was that Richt would never get Georgia over that hump for a national championship. The next coaching hire was going to be the coach that would end Georgia’s drought of a national title.
Enter Kirby Smart. Smart had been Nick Saban’s right hand man for a long time with Alabama and even before that. Many viewed the relationship as one of Smart being the next Nick Saban. And that’s what the Bulldogs fans hoped. They rolled out the red carpet similar to what Alabama had done for Saban, Ohio State done for Urban Meyer, and Michigan had done for Jim Harbaugh. They anointed Smart as the chosen one. Adding on, the hopes of Jacob Eason really got Bulldogs fans excited about the future and by year 3-4 a National Championship was expected to hit Georgia’s trophy case.
Fast forward to today. Playoff Selection Day. We know Georgia isn’t going to be one of the four teams picked after an embarrassing, humiliating loss to LSU in the SEC Championship last night. Their second straight SEC title loss after their blown lead to Alabama last year. Adding on, the comparisons to Smart and his predecessor Mark Richt are very parallel and only one playoff appearance to show forth. And instead of being Saban 2.0, Georgia fans are more inclined to say he’s Mark Richt 2.0.
Fair assessment perhaps?
So let’s begin.
Kirby Smart in his time at Alabama was a stout recruiter and year in & year out helped the Tide dominate the recruiting ranks. He took that stout recruiting to Georgia where honestly the cupboard was a bit barren when he arrived (compared to prior years) and even beat Alabama in the recruiting war after the 2017 season. Even when he hasn’t beaten Alabama in that category he has been right behind the Tide. The talent and the recruits have been there.
On the field after the 2016 season where Smart was “testing the waters” of what he had, he installed his way of thinking and so forth and it paid off. Georgia has dominated the SEC East from 2017. Granted it isn’t like the SEC West where they have to see LSU and Alabama yearly (they do see Auburn yearly though) and the East is pretty much a disaster outside of a Florida team who isn’t the one Urban Meyer had.
However, Georgia under Smart, is eerily similar to Georgia under Richt. The philosophy may be different (as Richt’s mentality was a “win is a win” while Smart was “we need to be perfect in every aspect”), but the results have been the same.
So what is happening with Kirby Smart in Athens that is making fans worry it’s more of the same?
(1) SMART IS A STUBBORN BULL: Like Nick Saban at Alabama where he can be very stubborn with the media, Smart has that attitude as well. However, when it comes to the field, Smart believes his semi-obsolete offense (nothing that of a RPO like LSU runs or a spread like Alabama runs) is still good enough to win a national championship with. Saban at least knew he had to adapt after 2013 and did when he hired Lane Kiffin to be the offensive coordinator. People laughed at it, but Alabama won three straight SEC titles and a national championship with Kiffin as the coordinator. Which brings me up to the part where I think that grew tension between Saban and Smart was that the “new era offenses” really puts more strain on even the best defenses around given the quick strikes and fast drives which means a defense that is out there for longer periods of time. Smart wants to keep the defenses fresh and play that typical offense where the quarterback lines up under the center and hands the ball off or hit play action. Teams can figure that out, send a blitz package and even the best offensive lines in the nation can’t handle that. But nope, Kirby still believes the offense style of play he has can win a national championship.
(2) SMART IS SHOWING WHAT KIND OF LEADER (OR LACK THEREOF) HE IS: This will be a hot topic of debate on this assessment. If you look at Saban, Meyer when he was at Ohio State, Dabo, Pete Carroll at USC, and to an extent Orgeron, they will step up and go “yep, this loss is on me, not my players.” Not Smart. It is “well, we did everything right but the players didn’t execute” or “my receivers have to play better.” I get it and it’s probably some honesty there but he has to remember that while he was in a system at Alabama where it felt like a professional football program there, the players are still kids ranging from 18-21. Yesterday’s post-game presser many felt like he threw all his players under the bus and whined about injuries taking its toll. Even healthy, Georgia probably doesn’t beat LSU but what team by Championship Week is healthy?
(3) KIRBY’S NEED TO PUT HIS PRINTS ON THE OFFENSE: This comes back to what I mentioned about his stubbornness. Kirby is a defensive player and therefore a defensive minded coach. Fine and dandy. So Saban was a defensive back and a defensive minded coach. But the difference that is being seen with Saban and Smart is that on offense, both have a different way: Saban tells his coordinators, “hey, run the ball, but mix it up a bit; let’s not be that predictable.” Smart seems to have the vibe of saying “hey, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball.” I think the tone was set early in the season for Georgia that they would be a run first team which may have gotten the receivers and Jake Fromm out of rhythm. And when teams picked up on the patterns, it was a struggle the rest of the way. Sure, it’s one thing to thump the likes of Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky using the run game only. But the minute you start playing a style that the offense isn’t as accustomed to, it normally means bad news. Georgia did try to pass the ball a lot and “try” some options and sweeps against LSU, and it failed miserably. Yes, you can blame James Coley for the offensive woes and rightfully so, but you can also point at Chaney last year for having an offense that was “predictable” as well. Mixing it up evidently meant having “Wild Bulldog” plays and jet sweeps as opposed to maybe doing more bunch sets and 4 receiver sets. And again, this may be more on the coordinator than Smart, but I think Smart’s mentality is “we are not going to be like these other teams where we score at will; we need to eat some time.” You can do that at the right times, but even LSU pulled the ball control on Georgia to start the second half and wear them out. So it really negates what Kirby’s mentality on that. So if he does try to hire Mike Bobo back at Georgia to run the offense, he NEEDS to let Bobo do his thing like he did before when Georgia had a tough as nails offense and having a backfield of Gurley, Chubb, and Michel.
(4) RECRUITING: Yes, Kirby is an A+ recruiter. And the class he’s getting next year is another top class (though currently on 247sports its 6th, which would be Kirby’s lowest class he’s had). Once again, there is a handful of 5-star guys Georgia will have, but none of them a quarterback nor a WR (there is a 4-star guy) but a few receivers have already de-committed and probably what they have seen the last few years really has hurt. As for quarterbacks, well, Alabama took the top dual threat quarterback in the nation in Bryce Young, who loved the development of what Alabama did for Tua (no jokes about the hip bit please). But you saw that Jacob Eason left for Washington because Fromm was Smart’s guy. You saw Justin Fields transfer to Ohio State because Fromm was Smart’s guy but pretty much whenever Fields got in the attitude Smart had to Fields was “well, the game is over, hand the ball.” That isn’t going to bode well for any top quarterback to display what they were made to do as we’ve seen with Fields at Ohio State. But we are going to see quarterbacks in the Playoff this year that were 4-or-5 star guys that will light it up and one of them will hoist the national championship. Maybe Kirby’s belief is that he needs an AJ McCarron, who can manage a game and not be fully reliant on his arm 24-7. It’s great but I don’t know if even AJ McCarron’s skill set would have gotten Alabama to a national title in 2015 or 2017. It’s possible but….
(5) RAH RAH: Yeah, I’ve said this on Smart a few times being super-animated on the sidelines such as yesterday when he jumped up with a Georgia defender after they thought they recovered a fumble. So far, it has worked somewhat at Georgia. “Well Dabo does it at Clemson,” some may say, but he isn’t going screaming and running around. He will get animated at times but nothing over the top. If you look at the other guys that will be in the Playoff, they are not over the top with their rah-rah stuff. Given how things have been turning out (such as not taking blame for losses and his preparations, yelling and running around on the sidelines screaming at refs and assistant head coaches), at some point you wonder when the players begin to tune out off that nonsense, especially ones who he criticizes in post-game press conferences. I’m not saying Kirby is Jon Voight from Varsity Blues where he gets so stubborn everybody stops playing for him, but it’s like “oh here he goes again” bit. If the Bulldogs are losing and Kirby is losing his mind on the sidelines it doesn’t bode well for anybody over there because if you are supposed to be the leader and you do that, what does it say to those players and assistants who turn to you?
In order for Georgia to win their first Championship since 1980 under Kirby Smart, Kirby Smart needs to change a lot. Yes, he’s getting great results since 2017 with Georgia. A playoff berth, a national championship appearance, and three straight SEC Championship appearances, one SEC title. He also has a Rose Bowl win and a Sugar Bowl appearance and a likely New Year’s Six appearance pending. But Mark Richt’s run early on was similar (2 SEC championship games, one SEC title and a Sugar Bowl appearance). But we are also seeing trends in the not-so-good direction such as losing to teams below them (South Carolina this year), getting smashed by stronger teams. The thing though is that Kirby’s issues can all be fixed, but his pride and ego is going to get in the way of that. He needs to adapt to today’s game. I get he wants a championship through his defense, but in today’s game, you need a balance. But at some point he needs to learn he has to change his ways with how he conducts himself and also through his in-game philosophy. If not, it will be more of the same for a very long time in Athens.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat