On Nov. 1, 2016, Georgia was 4-4, coming off consecutive losses to Vanderbilt and Florida. Even some who believed Mark Richt’s tenure had reached its sell-by date were wondering if, in hiring Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs had bought a pig in a poke.
On Nov. 1, 2017, Georgia spent its first full day as the No. 1 team in the land, as anointed by the College Football Playoff committee.
Department of Duh: Something changed. Today we offer a few thoughts as to what.
1. Year 2 tends to be better than Year 1. Richt’s first season at Georgia saw the Bulldogs go 8-4; his second yielded the program’s first SEC championship in two decades. Urban Meyer’s first season at Florida saw the Gators go 9-3; his second brought a national title. Apologies if you’ve heard this before, but Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama saw the Tide go 7-6 and lose to Louisiana-Monroe; his second produced an undefeated regular season.
Note the differing pedigrees of those three. Richt arrived as a career assistant from mighty Florida State, Meyer off head coaching jobs at Bowling Green and Utah, Saban as a someone who’d worked at Michigan State and won a national title at LSU. That something similar happened in every case suggests that Year 1 palpitations are the rule, not the exception.
No much how much talent a coach inherits, it’s still inherited talent. Nearly all the players who play in Year 1 under a new coach signed to play for someone else. In the press box at Missouri last September, someone close to the Georgia program said, “Kirby’s having a hard time getting through to these seniors.” Georgia was then 2-0. Imagine if they’d lost to Nicholls State.
2. Four inherited players chose to stay. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could have taken their chances in the NFL draft. So could Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. None did.
The fruits of Smart’s first two recruiting classes were never going to be an issue. Those guys did sign to play for him. At issue was whether the Richt holdovers and the Smart imports would ever mesh. That four gifted upperclassmen – two on offense, two on defense – stuck around was biggest endorsement a coach could have asked. After a tempestuous season, four seniors-to-be who had other options said: We’re buying in. In that moment, the Georgia Bulldogs became Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs.
3. The Smart Way, originally a difficult sell, is now accepted and ingrained. Here’s what happens if a player misses a block or gets penalized or errs in any of a dozen smaller ways in a game. He shows up on Monday and, for every sin, does what’s known as an “accountability," which involves running, and not a short distance. A guy who'd thought he'd had a fairly good game might incur a half-dozen accountabilities.
If you wonder if Smart’s gimlet-eyed approach is over the top, be advised that you no Alabama fan asks that of Saban – and there’s no separating master from pupil. A common plaint was that Richt was too nice to beat Saban. The same won’t be said of Richt’s successor.
4. Jacob Eason got hurt. This will sound cruel, but Georgia is a better team without the heralded quarterback. Jake Fromm isn’t a talent of Eason’s class, but he is – for what the Bulldogs want to do – a better quarterback. His ability to change plays at the line has masked the limitations of what remains a so-so offensive line. His ability to manage a game was the reason Georgia won at Notre Dame.
For those who believe Fromm can’t pass – South Carolina safety Chris Lammons suggested as much this week – we note that he leads the SEC in quarterback rating. Also that his completion percentage and yards-per-pass average trump Eason’s from last season.
5. Eason's absence forced Georgia to play to its strength. When an offensive coordinator is handed a big arm, he wants to exploit it. Last year’s offense wobbled all over creation, riding Eason one week and ignoring him the next. Minus that arm, Jim Chaney’s game plan has simplified: Run the ball and throw off play-action. The reason the Bulldogs rank last among SEC teams in passes attempted is that they haven’t often had to throw it.
The caveat: At some point, they will. A big-time defense will force them into third-and-longs, whereupon play-action is moot. The only unknown about Fromm is whether he can throw when handing off isn’t an option. Fact: Georgia hasn’t trailed since 3:35 remained in South Bend. That was Sept. 10.
6. The only SEC East programs of Georgia’s caliber have cratered. The Bulldogs were 0-4 against Florida and Tennessee in Year Last under Richt and Year First under Smart. The aggregate scores of this year’s games: Georgia 83, Gators/Vols 7. One has dumped its coach; the other will soon. Some of this has to do with Smart’s arrival; more of it is due to Jim McElwain and Butch Jones being unfit for prime-time jobs.
Never discount the power of timing. Steve Spurrier’s Florida rose to eminence when Ray Goff was coaching Georgia. Four of Richt’s five SEC East titles came when Florida was (mis)guided by Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Jim Donnan's Bulldogs never faced a Florida team that wasn’t coached by Spurrier or a Tennessee not coached by Phillip Fulmer.
When the door is ajar, you barge through or lament that you didn't. The Gators and Volunteers gave Georgia an opening. That sound you’re hearing is the door slamming shut for every East program but Kirby Smart’s. This No. 1 ranking isn't a one-shot deal. These Bulldogs are going to be very good for a very long time.