The morning after Scott Cochran was hired by Kirby Smart, I appeared on Peter Burns and Chris Doering’s nationally syndicated radio show “SEC This Morning.” We talked about the hiring and what it meant, and if as a Georgia fan I had any concern about Kirby hiring Cochran for his first on-field position. There are plenty of people who would love to do a radio hit with Peter and Chris that do this for a living, and it was very kind of them to have me on.
Towards the end of the interview, Peter asked me a question that caught me off-guard. I don’t have the exact quote recorded, but his question was something along these lines... “Considering the fact that Kirby Smart seems to have all of the pieces in place that a college football coach needs to win, from the facilities to the star recruits and budget to hire whoever he wants for his coaching staff, are Georgia fans starting to get frustrated with the lack of a national title? Is his seat going to start warmIng if Georgia doesn’t win a national title next season?”
As someone with a Twitter account, I know that Kirby Smart faces a lot of scrutiny. Other than Jim Harbaugh, he might be the most scrutinized coach in college football. He was called “in over his head” upon his hiring, and those voices got even louder after his first season featured some bad losses. After a loss, the media at large seems to question whether Kirby is capable of winning a national title in a way that they don’t when a guy like Dan Mullen loses a game.
Don’t believe me? Athlon Sports just rated Dan Mullen as the second best coach in the SEC. First on the list is, quite obviously, Nick Saban. For some reason Mullen, who hasn’t won a division title in 11 seasons as a head coach is ranked ahead of Kirby Smart. Never mind the fact that Dan Mullen, noted offensive guru, is 0-10 against teams that Kirby Smart was on the coaching staff of since taking the head job at Mississippi St (0-8 with Smart as Alabama DC and Mullen as Mississippi State Head Coach, 0-1 with Mullen as MSU HC versus Smart as UGA HC, 0-2 with Mullen as UF HC versus Smart as UGA HC).
Additionally, Athlon had Dan Mullen ranked ahead of Ed Orgeron, who you may recall is fresh off of a 15-0 season and a national title. So, we’ve established that there’s some narratives around coaches in the SEC that aren’t necessarily grounded in fact.
When it comes to the question Peter Burns asked me on “SEC This Morning,” I blame being a bit surprised and the fact that it was around 5:00 AM my time for not giving him a better answer. I kind of hemmed and hawed. However, as I thought about it afterward, I feel like a more appropriate answer would have been “HELL NO.”
Here’s my take as a Georgia fan. Kirby Smart is a fourth year coach. He’s made some mistakes. Chief among them, end of half clock management errors, letting Justin Fields leave his roster, letting Justin Fields run a fake punt, hiring James Coley. He has been rightly criticized for them. There is also a lot of evidence to show that he has learned from those mistakes.
Smart watched the offense last year and realized that James Coley was not the right man to coach quarterbacks and call plays for Georgia. In comes Buster Faulkner and Todd Monken.
Smart saw Fromm’s performance dip when Georgia’s quarterback room didn’t include other talented players to push him. He watched Georgia struggle to run zone-read concepts when his quarterback had no viable backup and a fear of him getting injured at least partially kept him from running the ball a time or two to keep the defense honest. In comes Jamie Newman, JT Daniels, Carson Beck and 2021 commit Brock Vandagriff.
Smart sat at the podium after a blowout loss to LSU in the 2019 SEC Championship game and talked about how his team lacked receiver depth after losing Mecole Hardman, Jeremiah Holloman, Isaac Nauta, Riley Ridley and Luke Ford earlier than planned to the transfer portal, NFL and disciplinary issues. He went out and signed three of the nation’s top fifteen wide-receivers and the top tight-end in the class of 2020
Smart’s end of half and end of game clock management has gotten better with each season he has been a head coach.
Smart has also done the following:
- Managed his roster in a way that Georgia has the highest ratio of blue-chip players of any team in college football.
- Hired the most important and tenured assistant from the team that has been his biggest hindrance to winning a national title.
- Signed the nation’s #1 recruiting class in 2018 and 2020
- Signed the nation’s #2 recruiting class in 2019
- Signed the nation’s #3 recruiting class in 2017
- Created enough momentum and faith to get upgrades approved to Georgia’s facilities. UGA put in new locker rooms in Sanford Stadium as part of an overhaul of the West End Zone and a 80 million dollar revamp of the Butts-Mehre building
- Won the 2017 SEC Championship while coming within a defensive stop of a national title
- Captured three straight SEC Eastern Division Titles
- 14-2 against Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia Tech over the last three seasons
- Beat Tennessee 41-0 on their home field (look I know this doesn’t really matter to most but I was there and hearing chants of “U-G-A” echo around Neyland Stadium with over 20 minutes left in the game was one of the best things ever).
I list all of this out because it is important to remember all that Kirby has accomplished in his first four seasons. Have we won a national title? Not yet. However, the way Kirby recruits coupled with the teams h has put on the field so far make me feel confident that he will.
The fact he has achieved all that he has despite some of the aforementioned mistakes gives me all the more confidence. The ceiling hasn’t been anywhere close reached for UGA under Kirby Smart, and that is exciting.
The media members who wonder out loud if he will last at Georgia have yet to consider what the view looks like from the inside.
I love Mark Richt, and I am grateful for his efforts, but his best teams achieved great things despite not being stacked with class after class of elite recruits. For Georgia to make a run at a national title under Mark Richt, the stars had to align enough to provide a strong group of seniors, some key players who developed into talents greater than their recruiting rankings predicted and a down year for some of the other SEC powers. 2012, ten seasons into his tenure, was as close as Georgia came under Richt.
In Kirby Smart’s second year Georgia made it to the big dance. The ceiling of the program is incredibly high. Georgia is almost assured of having a top-tier defense for the next few years. The players on the roster bear that out. If Smart’s new offensive coordinator Todd Monken can get Georgia’s offense to preform at a level in the top third of the nation at some point in the near future, the Dawgs will be a monster.
Any game of any of the next few seasons could signal the moment when things really click for Georgia’s offense. Like the defense, the talent on the roster is incredible. Georgia is literally getting better every year from a talent standpoint. The floor of the Georgia football program has never been higher. The ceiling of the Georgia football program could reach Alabama dynasty levels within the next couple of seasons.
Nick Saban won his first national title after eight years as a head coach. Dabo Swinney had been on the job for nine years when he won his first, and had strung together five consecutive years of ten or more wins before getting over the hump in 2016. Urban Meyer won a national title in his sixth season as a head coach. The difference between those three and Smart is that they had less pressure and spotlight during their formative years as a head coach. Michigan State isn’t Georgia. Neither is Bowling Green. Clemson in 2008 was not what it is today.
We have watched Kirby Smart make some mistakes since becoming the head man in Athens. Those mistakes have lead to him being labeled as stubborn and unwilling to change his coaching philosophies. From the moves he has made over the last six months, it is easy to see that Smart wants to squash the weaknesses within his own philosophies and the Georgia program. Most importantly, he recognizes them when they appear.
The media might think Kirby could be in trouble if he can’t take the Georgia Football juggernaut to the pinnacle of college football. I think it is important to remember who has built this juggernaut. As the saying goes, dance with the one who brought you. I’d rather have a young coach who is still learning some things on the job while building a team with historic amounts of talent than someone more seasoned who can’t get the baseline amount of talent that is required to win a title In college football.
Every season for the foreseeable future Georgia is going field one of three or four most talented teams in the country.
To me, that’s exciting. It’s also more than enough reason to want Smart to keep his job.