ATHENS – There were times in Kirby Smart's first season when he used the, “It takes time to turn around a big ship” analogy, which probably weren’t the best choice of words to fall back on because the program he inherited was coming off consecutive 10-win seasons and, therefore, clearly not heading straight into a fishing wharf.
But there’s little question Smart, created in the Nick Saban coaching laboratory, had a different way of doing things than Mark Richt. He worked at a faster pace. He seemed more demanding of players and staff. He operated on a clock in which every waking minute would be squeezed into submission for maximum win-potential. So yes, there would be an adjustment in Athens.
But that’s over now.
To suggest Georgia must win the SEC or go to the college football playoffs in Smart’s second season as head coach would be overstatement. To even set a specific win-total or bowl mandate without knowing how good opponents like Florida or Auburn will be this season is difficult. But there’s no question the Bulldogs need to look better coached and appear better prepared in Smart's second season. They can’t have a 1-4 stretch again. They can’t finish 4-4 in the SEC again. For the love of Wally Butts, they can’t wind up in the dollar store of bowl games again, the Liberty Bowl.
Smart addressed the media before Georgia began pre-season practices Monday, five weeks before the team’s season opener against Appalachian State. He understands expectations go up this year and he’s fine with that. At least this time he can fall back on something with more substance than a big-ship analogy. Richt and Saban are among several coaches whose programs struggled early in their tenure, then took a significant jump in their second or third seasons.
Saban went from 7-6 in his first year at Alabama in 2007 to 12-2 (8-0 in the SEC) in the second. Smart was an assistant on that staff.
“I think it’s a great analogy," he said. "Last night I had a guy that we used consulting with our team, Trevor Moawad, who sent me some bits and pieces of video from this day, the second year at Alabama, of just the players talking about how they felt much more comfortable understanding what the standard was, what the expectation was and that no matter what, you can't really relax out at practice because you don't know what's coming — to expect the unexpected.”
Smart and his Georgia staff ramped up summer practices, changing the players’ expected workouts without warning to gauge how they would react and get them to accustomed to feeling “uncomfortable.”
“I draw back on that year, coming off a pretty average year, asking, ‘How are we going to get to the next spot?’” he said.
There are two significant differences between Georgia in 2017 and Alabama in 2008: 1) Alabama had a senior quarterback, John Parker Wilson. Georgia has Jacob Eason, who is coming off a true freshman season and, talent notwithstanding, is still trying to figure things out; 2) Saban was already a proven commodity as a head coach, having won a national championship at LSU. Smart isn’t a proven head coach, yet.
But there are several examples of coaches who took a leap after their first seasons. Richt went from 8-4 in 2001 to 13-1 in 2002, and led Georgia to its first SEC title in two decades. Florida's Urban Meyer went from 9-3 to 13-1 at Florida; Ohio State's Jim Tressel from 7-5 to 14-0; Oklahoma's Bob Stoops from 7-5 to 13-0.
Travel back decades. There's more evidence of great head coaches who stumbled out of the gate, then improved: Bryant’s first four years at Alabama went like this: 5-4, 7-2-2, to 8-1-2, 11-0. John McKay at USC improved from 4-6 to 4-5-1 to 11-0. Joe Paterno’s first four years at Penn State: 5-5, 8-2-1, 11-0, 11-0.
A thought: Georgia has a chance to be really good this season.
A warning: I’ve typed those words before. Several times.
There will be an early road test at Notre Dame. There are games at Tennessee, at Auburn and against Florida. Georgia’s pain of 2016 included a blowout loss at Ole Miss, losses to Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and blowing a 27-14 lead at home to Georgia Tech with less than seven minutes left.
The Dogs barely escaped with wins against Nicholls, and Missouri, and Kentucky -- not quite the superpowers on the schedule.
But they should have one of the best defenses in the SEC. They should have one of the best running attacks in the nation with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom bypassed turning pro. They should have better decision-making from Eason.
The offensive line is a question. Isn't the offensive line always a question?
But the biggest questions surround Smart. Can he elevate Georgia's program like so many in Athens hoped when the school hired him off of Saban's staff after a fourth national championship with the Tide?
Saban's Alabama team became a national punchline in 2007. It lost four straight games to close the regular season, including one to Louisiana-Monroe. Saban's bowl that season: Independence -- Liberty's sister in bowl hell). So there's a parallel to Georgia's 2016 season.
But Smart said he doesn't remember many doubts surrounding the Alabama program before the second year, and added, "I don't think it's that way here. I had coached against Georgia. I had recruited against Georgia. I pretty much knew what was here and I knew the expectation level was here, and I also knew the expectation didn't necessarily meet the quality of players that were here. That's indicative of what the NFL thought of our roster last year.
"Moving forward, you say: Where are we going from here? Are the kids buying in and doing what they have to do? I think they are. They are adjusting well. They know what to expect."
So there's one more reason to feel good about this season -- or one less excuse if things go sideways.
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