If you’re a Georgia fan, here’s the chilling part: The Bulldogs of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Jacob Eason were outscored on the season. Granted, only by the skinniest of margins (one point), but even that’s a bit flattering.
In Georgia’s 10 games against Power Five opponents, it was 5-5. If it was unfortunate in losing to Tennessee and Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech – aggregate margin of defeat: five points – victories over Missouri (one-point win), Kentucky (three) and Auburn (six) were likewise hairbreadth things. And let’s not forget the two-point triumph over Nicholls State. The Bulldogs played an entire season and dominated only Louisiana-Lafayette.
On balance, Georgia earned its record. It could have been better than 7-5. It could also have been much worse. And what’s most jarring is this: The Bulldogs didn’t face a team that will finish its regular season with more than eight wins. They had a bunny schedule and did nothing with it.
To our questions, then. Was Kirby Smart’s rookie season a dud? Absolutely. Does that mean Smart himself is a dud? Not necessarily. Early returns weren’t encouraging, but the key word is “early.” If Georgia is 7-5 next season, we’ll know something is wrong. We can’t know that yet.
The regular-season records of Georgia’s past four first-year coaches (three of whom were career assistants): Vince Dooley, 6-3-1; Ray Goff, 6-5; Jim Donnan, 5-6, and Mark Richt, 8-3. Viewed in that light, Year 1 under Smart wasn’t an outlier. If it wasn’t what we expected, maybe the fault was in those expectations.
The obvious comparison is Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama. The Crimson Tide were 6-6 over the 2007 regular season, all six losses coming by seven or fewer points. From 2008 on, Alabama is 99-12. A near-decade of dominance was worth one loss to Louisiana Monroe.
There’s also an obvious difference: Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa having proved he could win championships as head coach. Smart was a blank slate. He’d done well as Bama’s defensive coordinator, but it must be noted that the Tide defense hasn’t wilted in his absence.
Saban came to Tuscaloosa knowing what to do and how to do it because he’d done it other places. Smart came to Athens wanting to do as Saban had done, which wasn’t the same as having done it himself.
Like every new coach, Smart was charged with fitting inherited players into a new scheme. The defense was mostly OK, though it couldn’t stop Tech over the final seven minutes or Tennessee over the final four seconds. Jim Chaney’s offense went from pillar to post. Remember how important it was to hand McKenzie the ball on fourth-and-1 against Vandy? Know how many touches he got against Tech? Two.
Are Georgia fans feeling buyer’s remorse? Probably. Should they? No. Once Greg McGarity decided Mark Richt was no longer capable of winning titles, the athletic director had no choice but to cut bait.
Should McGarity’s search have been broader? That’s an easy second-guess, but if you’re saying, “He should have hired Tom Herman,” be advised that, at the moment Richt was fired, Herman had just completed his rookie season at Houston at 11-1. (Which was great, but it was still at Houston.) He hadn’t yet won the American title. He hadn’t yet beaten Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. He was a Hot Guy, but once upon a time Gary Barnett was a Hot Guy.
To Georgia, firing Richt wasn’t a prelude to a protracted search. It was the necessary first step in landing the one man McGarity and his inner circle had targeted. Remember, South Carolina was also seeking a coach. If Georgia hadn’t moved on Smart when it did, it could well have been playing against him for the next decade. As bad as not hiring Herman might feel today, imagine if McGarity’s program started losing to a UGA alum on an annual basis.
In the cold light of current events, having eyes only for Prince Kirby seems short-sighted. The business of coach-hiring, however, must be viewed as a long game. Smart wasn’t as good in Year 1 as anyone, McGarity surely included, expected. Prince Kirby looked uptight and coached that way. He relaxed a bit as the season unfolded, but his team never quite coalesced. He kept praising his inherited seniors for “buying in,” but I’m not sure all of them did.
The assumption is that Smart will recruit well. (Let’s face it: Any Georgia coach should recruit well.) The assumption is that this will be his least talented band of Bulldogs. But is he capable of maximizing resources?
At the end of Richt’s rookie — which included the Hobnail Boot in Knoxville and a victory over George O’Leary in Bobby Dodd Stadium — brighter tomorrows winked on yonder horizon. After one season, it was evident that Richt knew what he was doing. I’m not sure we can say the same about his successor.