Kirby Smart’s declaration seemed part mission statement, part anxiety reducer.
“We’re not going anywhere,” the Georgia football coach said not long after the Bulldogs lost the national championship game to Alabama on the last play.
The Bulldogs were that close to capturing the prize that has eluded them for nearly 40 years. In the moment, it was natural for even the most faithful Bulldogs backers to wonder if their team would get another shot.
Many of them remember Mark Richt following that 2005 SEC title went 9-4. They saw the diminishing returns after the Bulldogs were No. 2 in the final 2007 AP rankings.
To those people, Smart seemed to be saying: Not going to happen this time. Seven months later, does Smart think his players believe it?
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“I don’t know if they look at it as what I said, or that message from that game,” Smart said Tuesday. “I think they’ve bought into the fact if they do things the right way, they will have success.”
Outsiders think the Bulldogs will make another run. Georgia is No. 4 in the preseason coaches’ poll. It’s hard to find an expert who doesn’t put the Bulldogs in at least the top five.
It’s telling that Georgia’s stock is so high after a major talent drain. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are gone. Great tailbacks are a given at Georgia, but the Bulldogs also lost seven defensive starters. Among them: Roquan Smith, the 2017 SEC defensive player of the year.
Yet Smart’s fellow coaches and college football experts are echoing him: The Bulldogs aren’t going anywhere. They can prove it with another big season.
A good sign for UGA’s long-term stability: Smart’s incoming recruiting class, ranked No. 1 by the 247Sports Composite. The same goes for the record $80.4 million raised by the UGA Athletic Association, with a big chunk of that going toward upgrades to Sanford Stadium.
But it takes more than big money and good recruits to be a consistent contender. Coaching, both quality and continuity, are key. Luck plays a role, too. It’s hard to stay near the top (even with the College Football Playoff providing a slightly wider path).
“The biggest thing is everyone understands it is not going to come because of what you did in the past,” Smart said. “This year is independent of the past. We’ve got to go out there and practice the right way. We’ve got to develop talent. We’ve got to be able to avoid injuries and if we have injuries, do we have backups prepared to come in and fight and compete.”
Only Alabama has been able to contend for titles year after year. Players and coaches come and go, but Nick Saban’s machine hasn’t really stopped since it got started in 2008. The Crimson Tide have set an impossible standard but that’s how it goes in these parts.
Florida got one last national title before Saban took over the league. Since then, three fellow SEC programs have taken cracks at the crown.
Auburn won a national title under Gene Chizik, who got lucky to land Cam Newton. Gus Malzahn came out of nowhere to make it to the 2013 BCS but won 8, 7, and 8 games over the next three seasons. We wait and see if Malzahn really has Auburn, No. 10 in the preseason, back on track.
Les Miles won a national title at LSU, stumbled for two seasons, then reeled off 44 wins over the next four. LSU lost the 2011 championship game to Alabama (it happens) and then didn’t finish in the top 10 over Miles’ final four full seasons.
Outside the SEC, Clemson looks built for long-term success. The Tigers don’t always get the best recruiting classes, but they’ve become a factory for defensive linemen. Crucially, they’ve thrown big money at defensive coordinator Brent Venables to keep him around.
Ohio State won a national championship under Urban Meyer and hasn’t lost more than two games in any of his six seasons. His run might end in scandal. Add off-field turbulence to the list of things that can derail enduring success.
Georgia’s supporters believe Smart, like Saban, can field a consistent contender. That’s significant because it wasn’t long ago they were grumbling about Smart’s first UGA team blowing leads at home to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. They wondered why it took an injury for Jake Fromm to get his shot.
Everyone will forget those hiccups if the Bulldogs back up their breakout season with another run to the college football playoff. If they take a step back, everyone will remind Smart what he said following that gut-punch loss to Alabama.
It’s hard to be a championship contender over the long run, but the Bulldogs are in position to do it.