Why Smart’s Year 1 has breakthrough potential

When you fire a coach, your next season is invariably seen as a rebuilding one. Georgia has a new coach. Ergo, this is a rebuilding year. Ergo, we shouldn’t expect too much.

But here’s where I say: Check the schedule.

Of Georgia’s 12 games, it could be favored in 11. It’s favored in the Sept. 3 opener against North Carolina, and that stands to be the Bulldogs’ fourth-toughest game — a neutral-field date in Georgia against an opponent last seen yielding 645 yards rushing to a Baylor team working without its top two quarterbacks. That’s not a bad way to start.

By Oct. 2, the Bulldogs already will have played their toughest SEC games — at Ole Miss, then Tennessee in Athens. The Bulldogs can lose in Oxford and still win the SEC East. They can beat Ole Miss and lose to Tennessee and retain a shot at the division title. (The Volunteers would still have to play Texas A&M and Alabama.) Going 0-2 in that eight-day span probably would bar Georgia from anything of importance, but it could finish 10-2, which would mark the best record for a first-year coach in school annals by some distance.

The point being: This is essentially a honeymoon season for Kirby Smart, but I can’t imagine he’s treating it as such. Because I’m sure he sees what I see: a soft schedule; an imbalanced SEC East; a defending division champ (Florida) that’s being picked third behind rebuilding Georgia and a division favorite (Tennessee) that hasn’t proved it can beat anybody who’s any good on the road.

In a Top 25 that will be unveiled at week’s end, I don’t have Georgia among my first dozen. I do, however, have the Bulldogs considerably higher than 18th, which is where they’re slotted in the Associated Press preseason poll. There might be 17 better teams in these United States; I doubt there are 17 kinder schedules. I’m on record as picking Georgia to go 10-2; I’d be stunned if it loses more than three regular-season games.

Honesty compels me to report that Georgia has surprised me before, and usually not in a good way. The Bulldogs always look great until they lose. But what happened — or didn’t happen — under Mark Richt isn’t necessarily what will transpire under his successor. Richt’s teams developed the habit of losing a game (or two) they shouldn’t, which is why Richt is working in Coral Gables. We can’t know if Smart’s teams will experience such wobbles.

This isn’t to proclaim that Smart will be better than Richt. He might well be worse. For all his years as Nick Saban’s aide-de-camp, we don’t yet know if the new guy can call timeout. (Phil Bengston wasn’t quite Vince Lombardi, was he?) Smart was a sound choice — a decorated assistant at the nation’s best program who’s also a Georgia alum — but right now that’s all he is. We’ll know a bit more by 9 p.m. Sept. 3. We’ll know a lot more by Oct. 2.

That said, Smart might work in Athens for 20 years and never see a schedule more inviting. It’s surely wrong to expect too much of a rookie coach; it’s not wrong to note that this rookie coach won’t have to face Alabama or LSU or even Tennessee in Knoxville. There’s real opportunity here, providing Georgia is good enough. It might not be. It also might.

About here, you’re surely asking: Given this schedule and the advent of the Richt-recruited Jacob Eason, wouldn’t Greg McGarity have been wise to bank on continuity? The answer is no. We’d all seen what Richt could do, and it was never quite enough. It wouldn’t have been enough this time. His Bulldogs would have stumbled, same as ever.

Over time, Georgia fans have been mocked for overrating their team’s chances. This year I sense enthusiasm but nothing approaching hysteria. If anything, Georgia fans may be guilty of underrating this season’s potential. Wonders never cease.

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