Kirby Smart is an excellent coach. His record tells us so. He’s not the greatest sideline tactician, and we cite three whiffs from the past 370 days — the fake field-goal attempt with Rodrigo Blankenship running the ball when Georgia trailed 3-0 at LSU last October; the fake punt on fourth-and-11 from midfield with three minutes left against Alabama in the SEC Championship game and the comprehensive bungling at the end of regulation against South Carolina on Saturday.
One other thing at which Smart isn’t the greatest — saying, “I was wrong.” After each of the above cases of coaching malpractice, the Georgia mentor insisted he’d gotten it right. We concede that a bad outcome isn’t always a function of a bad idea, but I’m not sure how anyone could argue that turning a potential game-winning 55-yard field goal into no kick at all exemplifies raging cleverness.
There’s one big thing that Smart did not — repeat, did NOT — get wrong, and that’s Justin Fields. As we speak, the team with Georgia’s former backup quarterback is ranked six spots higher in the Associated Press poll than the Bulldogs. Jake Fromm, whom Fields couldn’t dislodge, threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the stunning loss to South Carolina. With Fields having a banner season at unbeaten Ohio State, the list of those wondering if Smart picked the right guy grows with every week.
Now hear this: Smart picked the right guy. Or, put another way, he picked the only guy that, in good conscience, he could have.
Fields is the greater talent. Everybody knew that. No, he was never afforded much of a chance in actual games, but there’s no way to be fair to two gifted quarterbacks of a similar age. If you try to offer equal time, you only hurt your team. A tie will go to the incumbent simply because he’s the known commodity. If a coach hates anything more than saying he’s wrong, it’s the unknown.
Fields arrived in Athens believing he’d be given a shot to win the No. 1 job. Fromm had seized that job from Jacob Eason after the latter was injured on the third possession of the 2017 season. Maybe if Fromm had gotten dinged last year and Fields had been given an extended look, things might have been different. Instead he stayed healthy and led Georgia to a second consecutive SEC East title.
Fromm’s record as a Georgia starter is 28-6. Until South Carolina, every loss had come against an opponent ranked in the top 15. Until South Carolina, Fromm had thrown 13 interceptions over 2-1/2 seasons. He’d been both game manager and game winner. Asked what made Georgia so difficult to beat, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said: “The quarterback.”
For what Smart wants Georgia to do, Fromm is the guy. He changes plays at the line. He makes the throws he needs to make, though we stipulate that the Bulldogs run the ball so much they too often say, “It’s third-and-6; bail us out, Jake.” I don’t know that the transition from Jim Chaney to James Coley as offensive coordinator has been a ringing success. I don’t know how good Georgia’s receivers are. I do know that 125 FBS programs would kill to have No. 11 as No. 1 QB.
Ohio State is one that wouldn’t trade, and that’s fine. Fields transferred because he wanted his own team, and he didn’t want to wait another year or two. (Fromm can leave for the NFL after this season, though it’s unclear if he will.) Fields might well win a Heisman Trophy before he says, “Goodbye, Columbus.” At Georgia, though, he was the wrong guy at the wrong time.
When Eason returned to health, Smart could have reinstated him as starter. Smart stuck with Fromm because Georgia played better under him than it had under Eason, who’d been the higher-rated prospect. Fields was likewise the bigger recruit, but Fields was allowed few significant downs in significant games. When he was, they essentially amounted to read-options that led to Fromm – stop me if you’ve heard this – facing third-and-6. That did neither quarterback any favors.
Even daring coaches will err on the side of the known. Lincoln Riley had Kyler Murray, a future Heisman winner and No. 1 NFL draftee, playing behind Baker Mayfield, also a Heisman winner and a No. 1 draftee, in 2017. Know how many plays Murray worked in Oklahoma’s Rose Bowl loss to Georgia? One, on an option run in overtime. It was stopped for no gain.
Nick Saban didn’t turn to Tua Tagovailoa until Alabama trailed Georgia 13-0 at the half of the national championship game. Had the score been 13-7, would Saban have made such a move? Had Tagovailoa’s freshman season ended with him seeing limited action, would he have transferred? And isn’t Jalen Hurts, whom Tagovailoa beat out last season, proving a worthy successor to Mayfield/Murray – both transfers – at Oklahoma?
With the transfer portal and a player-friendly waiver process, the system all but demands that quarterbacks split rather than sit. Seven Top 25 teams have No. 1 quarterbacks who signed with Georgia, Alabama or Clemson. Georgia knew when it landed Fields that he’d be a flight risk if he didn’t start as a freshman. It was therefore notable that the only time Fields didn’t play – excepting the Sugar Bowl, which he chose to skip – came after Fromm threw two interceptions at LSU. Given a bye week to think, Smart doubled down on Fromm, deploying him on every snap in the crucial victory over Florida.
Smart trusts Fromm, which only makes sense. More than any other Bulldog, Fromm is the guy who has re-elevated Georgia to national prominence. Had Fields been a year younger or Fromm a year older, there might have been a place for both in Athens. As it stood, there was no way to accommodate both.
Smart had to pick one. He picked the one who’d taken Georgia to two division titles, an SEC crown and a playoff berth. No matter what Fields does for Ohio State – and he might win a national championship — Smart made the proper call.
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