ATHENS – Kirby Smart’s expression was part smile, part grimace, when someone asked what he had learned after “having success” against Georgia’s offense through the years.
“I faced it and had success,” Smart said, politely accepting the premise. Then he added: “We had our complications when we were in the (2012) SEC championship game.”
And such is the paradox that is the Georgia football program that Smart inherits from Mark Richt. The immediate fix is the offense. But the defense would’ve been the fix if Smart had taken over just three years ago. Whereas a few years before that …
The question is often asked: How can Georgia, a program that annually ranks among the leaders in producing NFL players, not win more conference and division titles? The talent, it appears, hasn’t been the main problem.
It’s been having both a good offense and defense.
“I said that for years: We could never get it together at the same time,” said David Pollack, a three-time All-American defensive end for Georgia from 2001-04, and now an ESPN commentator.
“Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green and Matthew Stafford are at Georgia and they never even win the SEC East, that’s hard to do,” Pollack said. “It’s because the defense wasn’t very good after (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder left, and they didn’t have a lot of success from that point on. Before that it was great defensive teams and you didn’t have a great offense to go with it.
“Aaron Murray is no different, with (defensive coordinatr) Todd Grantham and them. Scoring a ton of points, can’t do anything with it.”
Richt did leave Georgia with the best winning percentage in program history (.737) and came achingly close to breaking through, as Pollack pointed out. The tipped pass in that 2012 SEC championship against Smart’s Alabama’s defense. And Pollack still thinks Georgia was robbed of a touchdown in the 2002 loss to Florida by the forward lateral call.
“There’ve been three stints during coach Richt’s 15-year tenure where you’re one play away from winning a title,” Pollack said.
So bad luck has been involved. But so has a simple matter of timing, which other recent programs have pulled off.
Alabama has won three national titles in the past five years on the strength of dominant defense and a powerful running game. For all the deserved hype over Deshaun Watson and Clemson’s offense, the Tigers quietly had the nation’s 10th-ranked defense.
When Ohio State won the national title last year, it ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offense and defense.
Florida State won it all in 2013 not only behind Jameis Winston and the nation’s sixth-best offense, but the nation’s third-ranked defense. (Yes, coached by Jeremy Pruitt.)
Richt thought he was solving Georgia’s defensive woes by hiring Pruitt, and this past season the Bulldogs did finish seventh nationally in total defense. But that coincided with an offense that, with a transfer quarterback and new offensive coordinator, plummeted to 83rd nationally.
“If you look at Georgia, they were really good under an experienced quarterback,” said Rusty Mansell, a recruiting analyst at Dawgs247.com.
Some programs – Florida – spend years trying to get it right on offense. Others – Auburn – struggle year after year on defense. Then there’s Georgia, bouncing around.
The closest the Bulldogs came recently to everything lining up was the latter half of the 2012 season. In the team’s final four games of the regular season the defense held every opponent to 14 or less and the offense scored 37 points or more. That led into the fateful SEC championship loss to Alabama.
The next year, a youthful defense was the undoing. Grantham left and was replaced by Pruitt, which led for one year to a great coaching collaboration: Pruitt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo worked well in the meeting room and in recruiting. Both the offense and defense finished in the top 30 nationally for only the second time during the Richt era. (The other time was 2008.)
Then Bobo was hired to be Colorado State’s head coach. And Georgia fans know the rest.
Now Smart takes over. He has a defensive background, and has brought two Alabama staffers with him to coach positions at Georgia, while retaining two from Pruitt’s staff.
The offensive staff, however, has been overhauled. So the bumpiness on that side of the ball could continue.
But Smart is taking a bigger picture approach to his new team. Georgia’s offense, even when it was putting up big numbers, struggled in spots because of a bad run of injuries to skill-position players. The defense has been plagued for years because of attrition. The team has a whole wasn’t able to overcome it.
“That goes back to having recruiting and not having the depth,” Mansell said.
Which leads to Smart’s over-arching philosophy on roster management.
“We’ve got to be able to survive a couple of injuries because they’re going to happen. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. You’ve got to be able to survive those,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of areas to improve on. We’ve got to improve on defense, too. All that can be done through recruiting and in the weight room, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”