Of all the Alabama imitators, Georgia is the best facsimile. (That Clemson hasn’t modeled itself quite so closely after Alabama is one reason the Tigers have toppled King Crimson, about which more in a moment.) Georgia hired Nick Saban’s best-ever lieutenant, and Kirby Smart – having done every little thing the way Saban does it – nearly trumped his mentor twice in 11 months with titles on the line. On cue, the rest of college football is doing to Smart as it did to Saban. It’s poaching from him.
Georgia has lost its offensive and defensive coordinators, neither by firing. Mel Tucker landed at Colorado last month as head coach. Late Tuesday, it was learned that Jim Chaney would become OC at Tennessee. Tucker leaving was no great shock: Every assistant wants to run his own shop. Chaney taking the same job at a program in the same division of the same conference was absolutely a surprise.
Mike Griffith of DawgNation reports that Tennessee offered Chaney a three-year contract at roughly double his Georgia salary. Georgia made a counteroffer, but declined to match the Volunteers’ money, which for a place that has lately thrown money at every problem was a bit of a departure. It also made sense.
Chaney isn’t the best OC out there. Neither is he as awful as some Georgia fans believe, but Georgia fans have hated every offense coordinator they’ve ever had. (Never was a man more unjustly pilloried than Mike Bobo.) Chaney had a difficult first season in Athens, but so – let’s be honest – did Smart. The Bulldogs’ offense helped lift them to an SEC title and the national championship game last season, and it ticked upward in the first season after Nick Chubb/Sony Michel.
Georgia’s offense in 2017 ranked 32nd nationally, averaging 6.7 yards per play and 4.4 touchdowns per game. Its offense last season ranked 19th, averaging 7.05 yards per play and 4.6 touchdowns. That said, the teams Georgia now sees as peers – Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State – had offenses ranking among the nation’s top six. Chaney was better than Brian Schottenheimer, yes, but he’s not Lincoln Riley.
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It’s possible to give Chaney his due while believing that the Volunteers have overpaid. Then again, this Do-As-Saban-Does competition has become a match race. If you’re not winning, you’re losing. Tennessee – coached by Jeremy Pruitt, who was Smart’s replacement as Alabama’s defensive coordinator after having been Georgia’s DC in the final two years of Mark Richt – just took something from a team it will have to catch. Now Smart must find somebody new.
Finding somebody new is an annual rite in Tuscaloosa. Since December 2015, Alabama has had four offensive coordinators – Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian (for one game), Brian Daboll and Mike Locksley – and is seeking its fifth. Over that span, it has had four DCs – Smart, Pruitt and now co-coordinators Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding. Last season saw only two of the Crimson Tide’s 11 coaches doing the job he’d done the year before: One was line coach Brent Key; the other was Saban.
Alabama was routed in Monday’s title tilt in part because Justyn Ross, a freshman from Phenix City, Ala., caught six passes for 153 yards. Why did he choose Clemson? Because, Ross has said, he wasn’t sure the assistant coaches who recruited him for Alabama would stick around to coach him. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that flattery – eight of Saban’s former LSU/Bama assistants are FBS head coaches, half of them in the SEC – has come at a price.
For all the upheaval, Alabama is 67-6 over the past five seasons, having made the playoff each time and played for the title four years running. But Saban, we say again, is the best there ever was. Not everybody can do as he does. (Heck, nobody can.) The higher Georgia rises, the more disruption it will face. The past five weeks have seen both coordinators depart, four key offensive players exit early for the NFL and Justin Fields, of whom much was expected, transfer to Ohio State. That’s a lot of leaving.
Is it too much? Not necessarily. Jake Fromm is, as we speak, a better quarterback than Fields. (A year from now, we might think otherwise.) A backfield of D’Andre Swift, Zamir White and James Cook would seem to meet specifications. The offensive line could be the nation’s best. Most of those way-too-early Top 25s for 2019 will have Georgia at No. 3, behind you-know-who and you-know-who-else. This program isn’t going away just because Philip Fulmer threw a bag of money at Jim Chaney.
One thing more: As much as Georgia backers might like to lay the failed Fields experiment at Chaney’s feet, the Bulldogs’ head coach isn’t a laissez-faire guy. If Smart had wanted Fields to play more, he would have. If Smart had wanted his team to throw more – Georgia ranked 72nd in passing yards per game – it would have.
Smart built his program in Saban’s image, but let’s be clear: This is Smart’s program. Almost all these Bulldogs are his recruits. All these assistant coaches and analysts are his hires. And they’re going to do it his way.