UGA is again No. 5, but its season marked a retreat

Here's a look at the scores and schedule for the 2019 Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia wound up No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, same as last year. Difference was, the 2019 Bulldogs were a close No. 5. They weren’t close this time. Rob Mullens said Sunday that his committee “did spend some time talking about Oklahoma and Georgia.” What he didn’t say: That time might have amounted to five seconds.

This might have been the nation’s fifth-best team, but it was the third-best Georgia team of the past three years. So now we ask: Does that constitute slippage? Does a third consecutive 11-1 regular season and a second consecutive loss in the SEC title game suggest that Kirby Smart’s program, which rocketed to eminence in 2017, is on the descent?

How many FBS coaches would trade their seasons for Georgia’s? One-hundred twenty-five, to be exact. That said, does Smart have reason to feel disappointed? Yes. His offense ranks 60th in total yardage, down from the 32nd of 2017 and way down from 18th of last season. This with an offensive line being billed in preseason (though not so much lately) as “The Great Wall of Georgia.” This with D’Andre Swift, one of the better backs in the land. This with a quarterback in his third year as a starter.

After the 37-10 loss to LSU, Smart said: “You have an offense that's built around the players you have. So you take the players you have, and you use your strengths. We usually have good pass protection. We have a good offensive line. We've got good backs.”

Left unmentioned: Jake Fromm, seated four feet to Smart’s right.

I’ve never seen a good college quarterback fall from favor the way Fromm did this year, and I’d suggest that at least some of it had to do with Justin Fields. Remember when Smart said after Fromm’s strong performance against Florida that the quarterback took criticism to heart? (Smart also said of his team’s fans: “They don’t think Jake can throw.”) With Fields excelling at Ohio State, every Saturday became another verse of that new tune, “Georgia Kept The Wrong Guy.” Might such slights have led Fromm, who previously had shown little self-doubt, to question himself?

Were Fromm’s receivers first-rate? No. That said, shouldn’t a good O-line and the threat of play-action have led Fromm, who’d started every game since relieving the injured Jacob Eason in the 2017 opener, to do as he’d done as a freshman and sophomore, if not better? And yet: As a freshman, Fromm ranked ninth nationally in passing efficiency; as a sophomore, he ranked fifth; as a junior, he ranked 55th. How do we explain that?

There were whispers he had a dead arm. Fromm and Smart denied it. (Smart also said Swift was “fine,” health-wise, against LSU. This after he was given two carries.) There was thought that James Coley, who replaced Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator, wasn’t up to snuff. There was speculation that Smart erred by not hiring a new quarterbacks coach when Coley, who’d filled that role last season, was bumped up to O.C. There was consternation that Georgia’s offense isn’t as sleek as, say, Oklahoma’s or LSU’s.

Here, though, we ask: Does Fromm’s skill set mirror Baker Mayfield’s or Kyler Murray’s or Joe Burrow’s? If Georgia wanted to run that sort of offense, shouldn’t Smart have picked Fields over Fromm? But how many coaches would have told an incumbent, “You’ve taken us to a national championship game, but I’ve decided to go with the other guy?” (Other than Nick Saban, who said as much to Jalen Hurts, who’d taken Alabama to TWO national championship games.)

Smart on Saturday: “People can say, well, ‘Coach Smart wants to play man-ball.’ Coach Smart wants to win. We threw the ball 42 times. You can say it was because we were behind, but we threw the ball early in the game, and we had some drops, we had some misses. It's not a matter of, “What is your offensive philosophy?’ It’s, ‘What is the best way to win the game?’”

Any discussion of Georgia must state the obvious: The Bulldogs under Smart have ascended to a plane they never quite reached under Mark Richt. Even when Richt’s 2002 and 2005 teams won the SEC, they didn’t play for a BCS title. Smart’s recruiting seems to have teed up the Bulldogs for what should be sustained success, but Richt recruited well, too, and his first four seasons mirrored Smart’s first four. Year 1: eight losses. Year 2: SEC champs. Year 3: won the East, routed by LSU for the SEC title. Year 4: two losses.

This isn’t to suggest that Smart is no better than Richt, or that Richt wasn’t good. This is to say that maintaining excellence is harder than achieving it. Saban did it. Steve Spurrier did it. Not many do. Richt won the SEC East three times in his first five years; he won it twice over the next 10.

The LSU loss might have been nothing more than a great team taking advantage of a slightly lesser team beset by injuries. Then again, it might have been a warning flare: The stuff that worked for two years didn’t work so well this time. Does that mean it won’t work again? Does Smart needs to change his ways?

Georgia is 11-2, which usually would constitute success. By winning so big so fast, Smart raised expectations to where anything short of a national championship doesn’t slake Bulldog Nation’s thirst. This season marked a slight retreat. The offense got worse. Fromm got worse. Georgia lost the SEC championship by 27 points, as opposed to last year’s seven. It’s headed back to the Sugar Bowl to play another Big 12 runner-up. That isn’t a terrible thing. It’s just not the thing Georgia wants most.

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