National championship or bust for Kirby Smart’s fourth season

No reasonable Bulldogs backer can be dissatisfied with Kirby Smart’s three seasons as Georgia football coach. He’s led them to two SEC East titles and one conference championship. The Bulldogs might have won their first national championship since 1980 if not for the lousy luck of discovering that Alabama had a quarterback even better than the star who got hurt.

Thing is, it’s also reasonable for Georgia supporters to expect even more from Smart. That’s why Georgia hired him, after all. Smart is set up for success, which the Bulldogs defined as a national championship when they got rid of Mark Richt.

Smart has gotten everything he wants from Georgia. That includes a contract with a salary that ranks third-highest among coaches who have never won a national championship. Smart probably has the Bulldogs closer to doing that than Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, and he’s clearly closer than Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Now Smart must do it.

It’s national championship or bust for the Bulldogs. They were bummed about being in last season’s Sugar Bowl, and that was just their second major bowl in 11 years. It was a letdown after Smart’s fake-punt fiasco against Alabama. The 2018 Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma was thrilling, but the subsequent big-game losses to Alabama were deflating.

It will be difficult for Georgia to overtake Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s decline has been greatly exaggerated by the shock of seeing Clemson bully them in last season’s national championship game. If the Bulldogs finally get past Bama, they still would have to deal with Clemson.

And Smart can’t just look ahead at those two programs. He also must be careful not to get caught from behind. Georgia’s advantage over Bama is playing in the SEC’s lesser division, but it may not always be that way. Florida again looms as a threat in the East.

That always was a possibility. Florida is the one East program that sits on even more fertile recruiting ground than Georgia. The Gators are willing to spend even more money on football than the Bulldogs. They are a threat whenever they have a good coach.

Dan Mullen is a good coach. Last season he led the Gators to their first top-10 finish in six years. They are back in the top 10 this season. The Gators showed last weekend that their quarterback and offensive line might still be question marks, but they still beat Miami. Mullen will find answers.

Mullen is recruiting better than his predecessor, Jim McElwain, but isn't on Smart's level yet. Only Saban is there. But, unlike his old boss, Smart hasn't turned many of those star recruits to into star freshmen.

As noted by AJC beat writer Chip Towers, none of the record-seven five-star recruits from Georgia's top-ranked 2018 class are sure to start this season. Three of those players have yet to start a game. Two of them transferred.

Smart also had key, veteran assistants leave after last season. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is now head coach at Colorado and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took the same position at Tennessee. Tucker has run NFL defenses, and Chaney has been a coordinator for Power 5 teams for a long time.

All the top programs outside of Clemson regularly lose top assistants. Saban has always churned through them. That process has accelerated lately. Four Alabama offensive aides departed after last season: coordinator Mike Locksley, line coach Brent Key, co-OC Josh Gattis and QB coach Dan Enos.

But when Saban’s assistants leave, he tends to replace them with coaches boasting long resumes. New OC/QB coach Steve Sarkisian had mixed results as Falcons OC the past two seasons but before that he was a good college coach. Key’s successor, Kyle Flood, has been Rutgers head coach and Falcons assistant line coach.

By contrast Tucker’s successor at Georgia, Dan Lanning, will get his first crack at coordinator. He was a linebacker coach at Memphis two years ago. New Bulldogs co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann was an off-field assistant at Alabama when Smart brought him along to Athens.

It’s possible that Georgia’s staff changes won’t make much difference. The defensive scheming is unlikely to slip because that is Smart’s specialty. Chaney’s replacement already was on staff. James Coley ran high-scoring offenses at Florida State and Miami and was co-coordinator for Georgia’s potent unit in 2018.

Most important, the Bulldogs have lots of good players. Georgia’s major concerns begin and end with finding a big-time wide receiver. The Bulldogs will win plenty by running behind a great offensive line. Quarterback Jake Fromm is smart, tough and accurate.

Still, the Bulldogs will have some real challenges. They need some of those players from the 2018 class to emerge. Smart won’t have Tucker by his side for the first time. The Gators are on the rise, and Jimbo Fisher, another SEC coach with a national title, brings Texas A&M to Athens in November.

It’s Smart’s job to lead the Bulldogs through those trials. The expectations are that they end with Georgia raising the national championship trophy at the Superdome on Jan. 13. It’s the only thing left for Smart to do.

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