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Kirby Smart Has Built an Alabama Clone. Is That Still Good Enough to Win a Championship?

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Allstate Sugar Bowl - Baylor v Georgia Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kirby Smart has achieved the goal that Georgia fans had for him when he arrived on campus. When Smart was hired in December of 2015, the Bulldog faithful dreamed that he one day might build something similar to the type of team he coached for in Tuscaloosa. In his fifth year, Kirby Smart has done just that.

With Georgia just losing to Nick Saban and the Tide for the third consecutive time, you might be a bit confused by that statement. Let me explain what I mean.

Nick Saban built Alabama into a dynasty with Smart as his right-hand man by pulling in as much talent as possible. He took that talent and built strong defenses designed to stuff the run without bringing help from the secondary, and brought in corners and safeties who could cover wide-receivers in man coverage. On offense, he bulked up the line and made sure the Tide were immovable up front. He stuck stud running-backs behind those big lines, and played a ball-control style of football.

14.3, 12.6, 14.1, 7.7, 11.6, 15.1, 18.8, 13.9, 13.7 - That’s how many points the Alabama defense surrendered per a game from 2008 to 2015, Kirby Smart’s last year as the Crimson Tide defensive coordinator. At no point did the Tide rank lower than 5th in the nation in points surrendered per a game, and they won four national titles during that nine year span.

When you know your defense is going to shutdown the opposition’s offense you don’t have to take very many risks on offense, and Alabama didn’t. Alabama fielded some very good offenses during that span from 2008 to 2015, but they never played offense at a truly elite level. They often ranked somewhere in the teens in points per a game. During Nick Saban’s first national championship season of 2009, the Tide scored 31.1 points a game, ranking 24th in the country.

If you think back on the years of the Alabama dynasty that Smart was present for, you think of elite defenders and running backs. Landon Collins, Reuben Foster, Marcel Dareus, Javier Arenas, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram... Those are the names that come to mind when you think of the Saban teams that built the Alabama program into a behemoth. The Tide churned out first-rounders on the line of scrimmage and backend of the defense while fielding Heisman winning running-backs.

The quarterback position was often an after-thought. If I asked everyone reading this to name the quarterbacks who have won national titles under Saban, very few of you would remember Jacob Coker. Almost all of you likely remember Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry and Reggie Ragland...

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Look at what Smart has built in Athens…

Georgia has brought in two of the last three number one recruiting classes in college football. They have bulked up on both lines of scrimmage. Under Smart, Georgia became a team with an incredible defense and an offense that runs the ball and controls the game.

There have been people comparing Smart to Mark Richt after Georgia lost to Alabama again last weekend. Anyone who that Georgia’s program is in the same place now as it was then should simply go back and watch the 2015 Georgia vs Alabama game.

In 2015, UGA fielded a team that looked like a bunch of high-schoolers next to the Tide. Alabama had superior athletes at nearly every position on the field. Go back and watch the game from last Saturday night and you will see two teams that look like equals in almost every way.

Smart’s best Georgia team relied on a pair of stud running backs and a nasty defense to get to the national championship game in 2017. In the first-half of that game they held Alabama scoreless. They moved the ball methodically on the ground, and tried not to screw anything up when passing. This is what they always did on offense in 2017.

Kirby Smart and Georgia were running the Alabama formula to perfection, and in a moment that was surely humbling, Nick Saban realized that his protege was employing his philosophy better than he could in the moment. Then Saban scrapped his formula and changed the trajectory of his football team.

Instead of continuing forward with the very good Jalen Hurts, a quarterback who was 26-2 as a starter but not an elite enough passer to win a game against that Georgia defense, he went with true-freshman Tua Tagavoila.

Tua was more likely to make mistakes, and he did, but he was also more likely to make the transcendent level hero plays that Alabama needed to produce to score on a Georgia defense that was strong at every level. For the first time in his career, Saban chose risk over reward.

Until that point Alabama had run their offense in a manner designed to protect its defense. Taking time off of the clock and limiting the possessions the defense had to play was just as important, and at times more important, than scoring points. Since that moment, Nick Saban has run his program with the belief that having a great quarterback and an offense that can score in bunches is more important than anything else.

Alabama has ranked third in the country in points scored per game the last two seasons, averaging over 45 points a game. So far in 2020 they’re ranking second in college football by scoring 48.5 points a game.

Now the quarterbacks and receivers are the stars at Alabama. Tua and Mac Jones are a far cry from Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson. Saban has never publicly said when he decided his internal philosophy needed to change. Maybe seeing Deshaun Watson tear his defense apart in the national title game two consecutive years made the lightbulb go off.

What we do know is that Saban’s timing was impeccable. The last four college football national championships have been won by Watson, Tua, Lawerence and Burrow. College Football has been taken over by star quarterbacks.

Kirby Smart has built Georgia into a spitting image of Alabama, but he built it into the Alabama teams from five years ago. When the two teams met last Saturday night, one had a quarterback who was capable of reading the field quickly and delivering to wide-receivers who can take the top off of a defense. One did not.

Mac Jones and his receivers versus Stetson Bennett IV and his receivers was the only lopsided matchup on the field, and it swung the game in the Tide’s favor in the second-half.

Make no mistake, the Georgia program is in a beautiful place. There’s only a handful of teams in college football that have any business being competitive with the Bulldogs over four quarters. The question that has to be asked now is what Kirby Smart needs to do to get his team over the final hump.

The game that Todd Monken called on Saturday night was one of the most creative we’ve ever seen from a Georgia offensive coordinator.

Admittedly, I spent most of the 24 hours following it wondering why Georgia didn’t run the ball and try to keep Mac Jones, Devonta Smith and Jalen Waddle on the bench by limiting the number of possessions in the game. Having now rewatched the game multiple times, I’ve spent most of this week seeing wide open Georgia receivers in my nightmares.

The Bulldogs had open targets streaking around the Alabama secondary all night on Saturday. Even when Stetson Bennett IV completed passes there was often an open man who would have been the better option to throw to. Unfortunately, Georgia also had open receivers on a lot of the downs where Bennett didn’t complete his passes. If I was Todd Monken and I was watching Alabama’s linebackers let their man run free over and over I would have been calling passes too.

Irregardless of the results, all that passing, might be symbolic of Smart recognizing what his old boss did when it comes to offense. Smart would love nothing more than to run the football and play defense to win games, but if circumstances dictate that he has to play a riskier type of game to win then he will. Smart’s hiring of Monken this off-season was basically an open admission that Georgia needs a more explosive passing game.

All of the pundits saying Kirby Smart needs to realize that elite quarterback play is necessary to win big should look at all of the signs pointing to the fact he has.

The problem is that trying to win a game through the air doesn’t work when you don’t get a high-level of play from the quarterback position. Georgia has Stetson Bennett IV right now. For one half he played well enough for Georgia to win. In the second half he did not.

There seems to be a lot of people angry with the fact that Georgia is in a position where they have to start Bennett. Jamie Newman and JT Daniels were brought to Athens to play. One of them decided to leave and the other hasn’t been healthy. That isn’t bad planning on Smart’s part. It’s bad luck.

Now Smart and Georgia have a decision to make. There’s a decent chance that Bennett can do enough to get Georgia through the rest of their schedule unscathed. If he does, Alabama will be waiting again in Atlanta. However, Georgia likely can’t win that game and the ones that would come after it in the playoffs unless they get more production from the quarterback position.

If they want to run an offensive attack that throws 40 times in a game then Bennett needs to be coached to make better situational reads.

Georgia faced 25 1st downs against Alabama on Saturday night. They ran on 11 of those downs and passed on 14 of them. When running on 1st down the Dawgs averaged 5.6 yards a play. When passing on 1st down they averaged 5.1 yards. When you take away one 36-yard pass play Georgia only averaged 2.7 yards passing on 1st downs.

Basically, by not hitting check downs on early downs Bennett and the Dawgs were behind the chains all night. Alabama continued to leave running-backs, tight-ends and receivers uncovered underneath, but because Bennett was often facing 3rd-and-long situations he couldn’t throw to his check downs on later downs. If Bennett can play better situational football and not turn the ball over then maybe Georgia can beat Alabama playing the style of game they did last Saturday.

To be fair, there is a chance that he can’t identify open receivers running routes at shorter depths because he can’t see over the line. If Kirby Smart and Todd Monken don’t think Bennett can do that then Bennett needs to be replaced. The problem is that it’s hard to imagine Dwan Mathis being a better answer right now, and the status of JT Daniels is as clear as mud.

If there isn’t a quarterback that can produce at at higher level, then Georgia has one choice left. It might be time to get back to its roots and Run The Damn Ball. Is that enough to beat the high-flying offenses that the Dawgs will have to see if they want to win a conference and national title? Barring a stretch of generational play from the Georgia defense, it’s probably not.

And so Kirby Smart faces a conundrum in his program that will determine the outlook of not just this year but the one’s that come after it.

Must Georgia be a top-flight passing team to win big games? Or do the dawgs have the personnel on defense to man up on one of those passing attacks and get enough stops to keep a game in striking distance? If they do, is an offense that runs clock and shortens games more of an asset than one that has a higher chance of being explosive but also of producing quick three-and-outs?

How he answers those questions and then implements his chosen strategy will determine if Kirby Smart finally gets Georgia past the Crimson Tide and to the pinnacle of the sport.