Kirby Smart took a risk with the world watching. The world saw why the risk was so steep. A fake punt got snuffed with three minutes left in the tied SEC Championship game that was a de facto playoff play-in for Georgia, and now the Bulldogs are headed to New Orleans for a Sugar Bowl that, in the grand scheme, matters not one whit.
That spectacular failure led some to rename Georgia’s coach Kirby Dumb. He’ll spend the rest of his career with the memory of Justin Fields being inundated by a host of tacklers hanging over him. But before this becomes a total Hit Piece, we should mention that Kirby Dumb’s days at Georgia will yield a national title soon. Maybe next season. Maybe in several seasons.
The fake punt aside, nearly everything Smart has done since arriving in Athens has fused sound logic with cold-eyed execution. He has been exactly what Greg McGarity hoped when the athletic director chose to fire Mark Richt. Over the final 10 years under Richt, Georgia played for the SEC championship twice, losing both times, and the national title not at all. Over the first three seasons under his successor, Georgia has played for the conference title twice, winning last year, and the national championship once.
That tells us much about the Bulldogs’ sudden upgrade, but it quite doesn’t tell us everything. For that, we need to survey the landscape. Georgia’s four biggest rivals are Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Here’s what has happened with those over the past 14 months:
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Tennessee fired its head coach.
Florida fired its head coach.
Auburn re-upped its head coach, but if rumors are to believed, feels such buyer’s remorse that it’s ready to dump Gus Malzahn even if it costs a fortune.
Tech saw its head coach, whose reputation was in large part tied to three victories over Georgia, resign.
We note that Tennessee, Florida and Tech beat Georgia in Smart’s pockmarked first season. We also note that the next season saw the three lose to the Bulldogs by an aggregate 107 points. That’s how quickly it turned. We note that Auburn beat Georgia 40-17 on Nov. 11, 2017. We also note that the Tigers have since lost to Smart’s team by 21 and 17 points.
If you’re a coach/AD that must play the Bulldogs every season, you look on Smart’s works and despair. Georgia has thrown all its resources – and Georgia has manifold resources – behind him. He can hire whomever he wants in whatever number he chooses. (The Bulldogs have so many “analysts” that team flights to road games no longer have space for publicists and broadcasters.)
Georgia has recruited well forever, but Smart has taken “well” and raised it to Alabama’s exalted level. His first full signing class was ranked No. 3 nationally in 247 Sports’ composite index. Last year’s was No. 1. Ahead of Wednesday’s early signing date, the Bulldogs are No. 2 to Alabama’s No. 1, but whispers hold that those stations could flip.
If not for Alabama, Georgia would have the best quarterback pairing in the land. Including Alabama, Georgia has the nation’s top tailback tandem. (And remember, freshman Zamir White – the No. 1 running back in his class – was lost in August to a torn ACL.) Four of the five starting offensive linemen are sophomores or younger. Of the Bulldogs’ starting 22, five are seniors. The Georgia that finished No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings will be the worst Georgia we see in a while.
For Tennessee and Florida, the rise of Smart was a call to action. Those SEC East residents were about to be lapped. Butch Jones hadn’t cut it. Jim McElwain wasn’t up to Gators standards. To have remained status quo would have left those proud programs in the Bulldogs’ dust. Auburn now finds itself between two giants, and the careening nature of Malzahn’s stewardship looks all the more chaotic when viewed alongside the relentless nature of Nick Saban’s Bama and now Smart’s Georgia.
As for Tech: Paul Johnson is a smart man, and he had to know that the 2016 victory in Athens was apt to be his last against Georgia. Over Richt’s final decade, opponents always held out hope that his gifted teams would throw a wobble. Smart has rendered the Bulldogs fluke-proof. They’ve lost four games the past two seasons. Nobody has beaten them in Sanford Stadium. Only teams cut from top 10 cloth have beaten them anywhere, and twice imperial Alabama had to override double-digit deficits.
That remains Smart’s last challenge – getting past Bama. As deflating as it was for Georgia to lose the same game in the same building twice in 11 months, the takeaway is that there’s not much separating Georgia and Alabama. One of these days the former will build a lead the latter can’t surmount. Saban’s team does lose on occasion, and this might be his best team. This will not be Smart’s best team.
The fake punt was a mistake. Bama might well have won anyway, but going 80 yards with Jalen Hurts at quarterback and time flying would have been difficult. As clever as Smart is, he got that one wrong. He has, however, gotten almost everything else right. His Bulldogs aren’t quite there yet, but they will be.