ATHENS – This time last year, Georgia football players were riding in buses every day to get to practice for the Liberty Bowl. Their coaches were trying to convince recruits that a 7-win season was nothing to worry about. The start of the Kirby Smart era didn’t look like anything to be too excited about.
“It’s a little hard to believe,” Lorenzo Carter said this week, one year later, as he was surrounded by media members asking him about winning the SEC championship and preparing for a slightly different bowl: The Rose. “The guys who were here, we realize how far we’ve come.”
When assessing the state of the program, many might look at how quickly Georgia ascended into the national picture under Smart, only in his second year at the helm. But the better question may be: What happened to turn the Bulldogs around in just one year? After finishing 8-5 and celebrating a win in the lower-tier Liberty Bowl, they’re now 12-1, SEC champs and two wins away from the program’s first national title in 37 years.
So, what happened? How did the Bulldogs get to the College Football Playoff and the national semifinal on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.?
The first, and obvious answer: Experience. Georgia took its lumps last year, losing to Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt at home, but 10 starters returned on defense, while running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel also returned to help an offense that had been moribund. All of that talent coming back was the main reason the media accurately picked Georgia to win the SEC East.
But as to how the Bulldogs took it even further, here, in no particular order, are more subtle reasons:
Indoor facility and practice logistics
The further players get from 2016, the more they admit that having to bus every day to makeshift practice fields was more than annoying. It cost the team in different ways.
“It’s hard, just knowing you’ve got to ride the bus 15 minutes to go practice in the middle of nowhere,” Chubb said. “It makes it a lot easier to go out there in our backyard and practice.”
The normal practice fields went back in service when the team’s new $30.2 million indoor facility opened. That facility paid immediate dividends, according to coaches and players. They could go indoors at least once a week to get a break from the deep South heat, preserving and refreshing their bodies.
Leadership by example
The moment that Chubb, Michel, Carter and Davin Bellamy all announced they would come back for another season proved a pivotal one, as did the return of defensive backs Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis. Their on-field abilities were one thing. But the personality and character of the leadership class became a force as the year went on.
This is how Isaiah Wilson, the freshman offensive tackle who’s redshirting this season, put it:
“Our best players come to practice and just grind every single day. Like Sony and Nick, those two guys are our running backs. But Isaiah Wynn, our left tackle, he might be the biggest name on the O-line right now but the guy still comes out and works just like a true freshman trying to get on the field. Being around talent like that, work ethic like that, it rubs off you and makes you better.”
The decision to pursue Jake Fromm
When Smart took over, the quarterback commit in Georgia’s 2017 class was Bailey Hockman, while Fromm was headed to Alabama. Smart, having helped get Fromm to commit to the Tide, preferred him.
No one can say for sure what would have happened if sophomore Jacob Eason hadn’t injured his knee early in the season opener. All that is known is that Fromm, the precocious freshman with the “it factor,” was able to take over, keep the job and quarterback the team to the SEC championship.
“He came in ready in the spring and had spring practice, he practiced every day in workout and camps, and had him ready for it,” Chubb said. “That’s all that matters.”
Better depth equaled better special teams
When Smart signed the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class last February, there was talk of many starting right away. That didn’t quite happen. Andrew Thomas was the only freshman to start every game. Tailback D’Andre Swift was a key contributor. And, of course, there was Fromm.
But what the signing class did – along with very little attrition from current players – was improve the team’s two-deep, and thus the special teams, which was a weakness last year. This year it was a strength.
Jay Johnson and Scott Fountain
Both were coordinators at Power 5 schools last year, Jay Johnson the offensive coordinator at Minnesota and Scott Fountain the special teams coordinator at Auburn. Both were free agents late in the hiring season, so Smart scooped them up as special advisers, each charged with helping units that struggled for Georgia in 2016.
They weren’t the ones solely responsible for the turnaround. But they have been around for the ride, and advising.
The Year 2 effect
Smart isn’t exactly making history by having a big second-year leap. Mark Richt took Georgia from 8-4 to 13-1 and the SEC championship in 2002. Bob Stoops won the national title at Oklahoma in his second year. So did Urban Meyer in his second year at Florida. Nick Saban went from 6-7 to 13-1 his second year at Alabama. Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Gene Chizik (Auburn) won national titles in their second seasons.
Those who have been through it offer the familiar reasons: It takes a year for everyone to settle in and get comfortable with each other and for players to get used to the system. Chubb said he could sense in the summer that this year would be different. There was a different mindset from 2016.
“We used to look for days off, days where we’d say, ‘We don’t feel like practicing today’ so we would kind of half-do it,” Chubb said. “But now we go in and we’re a full-go 100 percent. And no matter what situation we’re in or how we are we’re gonna go, we’re gonna have a full day.”
But what about …
The coaching change? Does all of this trace to the decision to fire Richt and bring in Smart? Perhaps. Chubb, though, was noncommittal when asked this week.
“I mean, who knows. Who knows what happens if things didn’t change,” Chubb said. “We’d probably still be right here? We probably wouldn’t? No one knows. That’s kind of a hard question to ask.”
Here’s what Chubb and his teammates do know: It’s happening now.
“That’s kind of what we envisioned, me and the guys that came back. We envisioned a great season, and we did,” Chubb said. “We started with a goal, and we achieved it. We’ve got to keep going with it.”