Kirby Smart may finally be all-in to win with explosive offense

Credit: AJC Sports

Here's a look at Kirby Smart's five seasons as Georgia Bulldogs' head coach.

Georgia ran 59 plays against Mississippi State, excluding kneel-downs. Five of those plays went for 20 yards or more. All of them were passes by new quarterback JT Daniels, including two touchdowns of 40-yards plus.

The next week the Bulldogs mostly kept the ball on the ground to pound South Carolina. Daniels attempted only 16 passes with 10 completions, including touchdowns of 40 and 31 yards. That was not a function of Daniels picking pass on run-pass options, coach Kirby Smart said, because coordinator Todd Monken didn’t often give the QB a choice.

“You don’t have to throw the ‘RPO’ because there are bad things that can happen, balls batted and things like that, and you could have had five yards on a run,” Smart said. “You have to weigh out what your success ratio is (running) on extra (defenders) in the box versus throwing the ball. If you give JT the choice every time, he’s going to probably pull it and throw it.”

Smart was right at the micro level. The Bulldogs didn’t throw much against the Gamecocks because it wasn’t necessary. They had six plays for more than 20 yards, and four were rushes. Georgia gained 8.6 yards per snap before the game got out of hand and won 45-16.

Yet, in the big picture, it’s on-brand for Smart to fret about the perils of passing because it might mean missed opportunities for 5-yard runs against stacked defensive fronts. It fuels the perception that he’s too risk-averse to allow Georgia’s offense to open up the passing game.

Sure, the Bulldogs might create more big-play chances by passing to receivers in space on the perimeter. But why risk it when they can just run for five yards? Better to be prudent.

We’ve seen what happens when foes mightier than the Gamecocks don’t allow UGA to grind. Not even Smart’s great defense can keep it close when the other team is more apt to gain yards in big chunks. That happened last season against LSU. It happened this season against Alabama and Florida.

Smart earned his too-safe reputation with some high-profile decisions. There was his ill-fated call to play experienced and steady Jake Fromm over young and dynamic Justin Fields. Smart also left Daniels on the bench as two other QBs struggled this season. Watching Daniels sling the ball around vs. Mississippi State was like suddenly going from a rabbit-ears antenna to high-def.

But there are signs that Smart isn’t too stubborn to change his old-school mentality. His hire of Monken after last season signaled that he was ready to get Georgia’s offense with the times. Smart also came as close as he ever will to admitting that he should have played Daniels sooner.

And the day after warning against the dangers of passing too much, Smart (sort of) said he doesn’t want the Bulldogs to try and score with a few tough runs at a time.

“I do think that being explosive is much more important than being balanced, and explosive can be done in a lot of different ways,” Smart said. “I can give you an example of five different offenses in college football that do it different ways, and they do it and they score points. The be-all and end-all is, are you scoring points?”

Smart’s best Georgia team did it with an explosive running game. In 2017 tailbacks Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift frequently broke free for long runs behind a dominating offensive line. Smart got big plays without the hazards of passing, and the Bulldogs made it to that season’s College Football Playoff.

Only Oklahoma had a more explosive offense in that playoff field. (I’m defining that as percentage of plays of that gain 20 yards or more, with data from SportSource Analyitics). The Bulldogs beat the Sooners. They lost to Alabama, which unfortunately for UGA discovered its full big-play capabilities when Tua Tagovailoa came on in relief.

That heralded a change for Bama and college football. The Bulldogs fell behind. They are 42-9 over the past four seasons with three SEC East titles and one league championship. That’s very good. The record would be better if Georgia maintained an explosive offense to go with its stout defense.

The Crimson Tide returned to the CFP for the 2018 season with Tagovailoa while creating more explosive big plays (10 percent of snaps) than the year before (7.4 percent). Oklahoma’s offense was even more explosive (16.5 percent) with Kyler Murray than Baker Mayfield. Clemson dramatically increased its rate of explosive plays, from 5.7 percent in 2017 to 9.7 in 2018. Notre Dame (7.6 percent) was the CFP outlier.

Alabama and Oklahoma produced big plays by passing. The Tide ranked fourth nationally and the Sooners were sixth in Bill Connelly’s explosive passing metric. Alabama peppered Georgia with big pass plays while coming back to win the 2018 SEC Championship game. Clemson ranked 34th in explosive passing, but produced big plays through the air to beat Notre Dame in the semifinals and Alabama in the title game.

Georgia stayed stagnant in this new era of explosive plays. The Bulldogs gained 20 or more yards on 9.1 percent of their plays in 2017. They had the same explosive-play rate in 2018. Last season it slipped to 6.1 percent. This season it’s 6.2 percent.

Meanwhile, LSU set a new standard for explosiveness in 2019. The Tigers gained 20 or more yards on 18.6 percent of their plays. Neither Georgia nor any other team will reach that level anytime soon. But the Bulldogs must create more big plays to be a real CFP contender again.

There’s a good chance that will happen in 2021. Daniels will be two years removed from his knee injury. Smart threw his wide receivers under the bus to explain Georgia’s lack of big passing plays in 2019. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2021. The Bulldogs are set to have the most talent at the position since Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley left for the NFL after the 2018 season.

The final ingredient is an offensive plan that allows those playmakers to flourish.

“I want to score points,” Smart said. “Do you care how? No, I don’t care how, as long as we can run the ball, control the line of scrimmage, not turn it over (and) throw the ball downfield”

Notice what came last on his list. Smart probably would rather the Bulldogs do it like they did it in 2017. Those days are over. Winning big requires explosive offense, and the trend is to do so by passing.

Smart, like old boss Nick Saban, may not like it. Saban came to accept it a while back. It’s taking Smart a little longer, but he’s getting there.

About the Author