UGA is close. Can Kirby Smart take it over the line?

It’s Year 4. Kirby Smart is on the clock.

If that sounds unusually dire, it shouldn’t. Once past Year 2, every big-time college football coach is on some sort of clock. If you haven’t started to win, you’d better. If you’ve won big, you’re striving to win bigger. If you’ve won it all, you’re hell-bent to do it again. This is the business they’ve chosen.

But it’s the middle ground – having approached ultimate success without achieving it – that’s the slipperiest. That’s the ground Smart occupies. His second Georgia team led Alabama 13-0 at halftime of the national title game and 23-20 with the Crimson Tide facing second-and-26 in overtime. In the SEC Championship game 11 months later, Smart’s third team led Alabama 28-14 with 17:03 remaining.

Say what you will about the Falcons, but they blew a 25-point lead only once. Alabama spotted Georgia 27 points over two games and, with championships of some sort on the line, went 2-0. (Bama did this without, over 120 minutes plus an overtime, taking a snap while holding the lead.) When you contrive to lose the same game twice in a calendar year, with different Bama backup quarterbacks making the difference each time, it makes you hungry, yes. It also makes you wonder.

Smart has built a monster of a program. He has recruited at a higher level than Georgia has ever known, which is saying something, and he has molded those talents in a functioning whole. His Year 1 was shambolic, featuring come-from-ahead losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. It was also Year 1. In Year 2, the Bulldogs were reborn. They were a gifted and well-coached team. They began to win with such dispatch that only when someone kept it close did matters get interesting.

Thing was, Georgia has had few close games. Of its 24 victories the past two seasons, only two – at Notre Dame in 2017 and against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl – were decided by fewer by 14 points. The Bulldogs led at the half in all of their 14 SEC regular-season victories; only twice was their halftime lead less than double figures. Their regular-season losses – at Auburn in 2017, at LSU last year – were thumpings.

Full credit to the 20-19 win in South Bend and the rally from 17 points down in Pasadena, where Smart outcoached Lincoln Riley. Smart and staff, however, were helpless at Auburn in November 2017 – the Bulldogs lost 40-17 after trailing by 30 – and again in Baton Rouge last October, where LSU led by 16 at halftime and won 36-20. Yes, those were big-time teams playing at home. Georgia is supposed to be big-time, too.

This is what happens when you when you’ve won big without winning the biggest prize: We start counting losses more than wins. We notice that Georgia didn’t manage to score a fourth-quarter point in either loss to Alabama. We notice it was played off the field in the Sugar Bowl by four-loss Texas, though we stipulate that the Bulldogs’ minds were elsewhere that night. We file away the fake kicks – the let-Rodrigo-Blankenship-run ploy against LSU and the let-Justin-Fields-pass snafu against Alabama – that twice undid the Bulldogs last season.

In the history of the sport, not many coaches have had a worse tactical moment than Smart against Bama. In typical fashion, he defended the fake punt by saying: “It was a great call because it was there.” Until, er, it wasn’t.

Said Smart at SEC Media Days: “Although 24-5 the last two seasons is good, it's not good enough. It's not where we expect to be at Georgia. Our mission is to bridge that gap by the actions we take, hence the (2019 slogan) ‘do more.’”

Then: “We're not complacent in what we've done, and we know we need to take that next step.”

Not that everything revolves around Smart vis-à-vis his predecessor, but it’s worth noting that Mark Richt was 24-4 over his Years 2 and 3. At that moment, a national championship seemed Georgia’s manifest destiny. It never quite happened. (Remember, there was no playoff then.)

The temptation is great to suggest that Smart is a better coach than Richt, and there’s no doubt that this Smart is superior to the Richt of those final Georgia days. Still, Richt’s teams of 2002 and 2003 weren’t blown out at Auburn and LSU. The 2002 Bulldogs clinched the SEC East at Auburn on 70-X-Takeoff; in 2003 they were tied at Baton Rouge inside the final 90 seconds against the team that delivered Nick Saban’s first national championship.

Richt came so close we all expected him to negotiate the final step. He was fired because he’d stopped coming close. As we speak, Smart is a national championship away from coach-for-life status in Athens, but national championships carry no guarantee. (Unless you’re Saban, who has six, and even he didn’t win his first until he was 53 and in his 10th season as a head coach.)

It would be no shock if Georgia’s post-Herschel breakthrough arrives in New Orleans on Jan. 13. But they have, it must be said, been here before. We’ll see if Kirby Smart is the man to finish the drill.

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