Picking the best (and worst) of Kirby Smart’s first 5 years leading the Dawgs
Five years into the Kirby Smart era of UGA football, Dawgs fans can look back on one of the best half-decades the program has known.
Highlights abound, from a pair of wins over legendary Notre Dame to coming within one overtime play of the Bulldogs’ first national championship since 1980. And, under Smart, Georgia has become a recruiting juggernaut, routinely signing some of the nation’s top prospects.
Of course, despite all the 5-star talent Smart has drawn to Athens, not everything has gone according to plan. Due in part to Nick Saban’s continued dominance over the Dawgs (known in Bulldog Nation as “the Bama curse”), as well as Smart’s problems managing that wealth of talent, and the evolution of the college offensive game challenging the defensive-minded coach, the national title that he was hired to obtain has remained just out of reach.
Many, if not most, fans remain convinced it will come, and probably under Smart. He seems ambitious and focused and, yes, smart enough to adapt to the changing game, just as his mentor has done in Tuscaloosa.
In the meantime, Bulldog Nation has seen some golden moments — and some not so golden ones — in Smart’s first five years at UGA. Here are one fan’s choices as the best and worst games the Bulldogs have played during that time, going chronologically.
Best games under Smart
The 2016 Auburn game. This 13-7 Georgia win in Athens saw the unranked home team that was a double-digit underdog upset its heralded visitor, giving its first-year coach his first win over a Top 10 team and his first victory over a big rival. Plus, Smart’s Dawgs held one of the nation’s best offenses to zero first downs in the second half! The Tigers had been averaging 43 points per game over their previous five coming into the game Between the Hedges. There wasn’t a lot for Georgia fans to savor in Smart’s first season as head coach, but this was a Dawgs defensive performance for the ages.
The two Notre Dame games (a tie). Georgia’s squeaker win over the Fighting Irish in 2017 was a great win, though it wasn’t a great game of football, as the two teams combined to punt the ball 17 times, eight by Georgia, in a largely defensive struggle. After the game, Smart said he was thrilled with the result, but he wasn’t thrilled with how his team played, especially being flagged 12 times for 127 yards. That chiefly was due to a tenacious performance by the Georgia defense, which allowed the Irish only 55 yards on the ground and just 265 yards of total offense. Notre Dame managed to convert just 3 of its 17 third downs, and defensive highlights for the Dawgs included 7 tackles and a sack for Roquan Smith, and Lorenzo Carter forcing 2 fumbles, and recovering another fumble forced by Davin Bellamy on a sack, to secure the victory for Georgia.
The Dawgs’ offense was spotty in the game, but quarterback Jake Fromm (a freshman making his first-ever start on the road) did have a couple of big passes — including one that resulted in a spectacular, one-handed, falling-backwards touchdown catch by Terry Godwin. Georgia came back from trailing 3-0, 10-3, 16-10 and 19-17. The Bulldogs didn’t take their first lead of the game, 17-16, until the 4:34 mark in the third quarter, and finally went ahead for good with 3:34 remaining, when kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (who learned after the game he finally had been placed on scholarship) made it 20-19. Making it an even greater win was the way Bulldog Nation took over Notre Dame’s stadium, with an estimated 40,000 Georgia fans on hand!
While that game was part of a special season, I’m kind of partial to the return game in 2019, when the Irish visited Athens, because I was there, and also because it was one of the most memorable games ever in Sanford Stadium. Although an early-season clash, it had the feeling of a playoff game. After a week of incredible build-up, game day was electric with anticipation, with tens of thousands of Georgia fans without tickets making their way to Athens just to soak up the atmosphere. This game also was the first time Sanford Stadium’s new LED lighting system did its thing, dimming at the end of the third quarter to make the fans’ Light Up Sanford even more impressive, and then turning everything red. And, the atmosphere even figured into the game’s final result, with the record crowd of more than 93K serving as the Dawgs’ 12th man.
As for the game itself, in a matchup of Top 10 teams, No. 3 Georgia trailed 7th-ranked Notre Dame 10-7 at intermission, but the Irish allowed 16 straight Georgia points in the second half before a late touchdown made it a one-possession game. Georgia got the ball back with a little over 3 minutes left, but couldn’t kill the clock. A poor punt set up the Irish at their own 48. However, the Georgia defense again rose to the occasion on Notre Dame’s final drive, which ended with a fourth-down end zone pass batted down to the turf.
The 2017 SEC Championship game against Auburn. The Tigers had given the Dawgs a beatdown three weeks earlier, which made this one even sweeter. In perhaps the best coaching job he’s done in his time in Athens, Smart took that earlier loss and studied it, finding a way to scheme around Auburn’s strengths. Rather than keep trying futile runs up the middle, the Dawgs came in with a game plan that called for gaining ground on the perimeter by going outside with toss sweeps and end-arounds. Nick Chubb was at his vintage best, breaking tackles with incredibly tough running. And, while Sony Michel missed much of the game with a knee injury, the talented freshman Philly Flash, D’Andre Swift, stepped up big-time, electrifying the UGA-leaning crowd with a 64-yard TD run. Also, holding the Tigers to just one score in the 28-7 win was one of the finest ever Georgia defensive efforts. Most impressive was the play late in the first half where Georgia didn’t even disguise the fact that it was coming with a linebacker blitz and Auburn still couldn’t stop Smith from sacking Jarrett Stidham. Smith, who rightfully was named SEC Championship MVP, had 13 tackles, 10 of them solo and two of them for losses, plus two fumble recoveries and a sack. A great win by one of Georgia’s greatest teams.
The Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma. My son, who was among the Bulldogs faithful in attendance in Pasadena, described Georgia’s overtime College Football Playoff win over the Sooners as the best athletic event he’s ever attended. And a friend in Pennsylvania, who’s not even a Dawgs fan, pronounced it “one of the best football games, pro or college or high school, I’ve ever watched.” It was the sort of back-and-forth game television loves, with both teams racking up over 500 yards of offense in a battle that went into overtime, where Georgia finally won it on a terrific touchdown run by Michel, aided by a key block thrown by QB Fromm, sending the Dawgs to the national championship game. Certainly, one of Georgia’s greatest wins, ever.
The 2017 Florida game in Jacksonville. Initially, I was undecided which of Smart’s victories over the Gators I wanted to include in my five best, but then my buddy Scott pointed out that the 2017 game was the one where Georgia led 42-0 before the scrubs gave up a meaningless late touchdown. As Scott put it: “What a great moment after being dominated all those years.” And, as my son, who grew up in the Spurrier years, put it: “It was the dream beatdown we’ve never seen in my time as a fan. … This was sweet.”
Worst games under Smart
The 2016 Vanderbilt game. This 17-16 loss came on a day when the Georgia offensive line gave up a sickening 9 tackles for loss. The Dawgs had no rushing attack and suffered repeated special teams meltdowns, undisciplined play resulting in penalties that derailed drives (with Georgia twice being called for lining up with too many men in the backfield), and questionable-to-poor coaching decisions. And then there was the play that the game came down to for the Dawgs, who were trailing by a point and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Commodores’ 41-yard line with 1:01 left on the clock. Instead of going with what was working and throwing it, or even giving the ball to Chubb or Michel, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney instead went for a toss sweep to one of the smallest players, Isaiah McKenzie, going to the short side of the field. With the Dawgs whiffing on at least a couple of blocks, Vandy linebacker (and SEC tackles leader) Zach Cunningham wasn’t fooled for a second and shut down the play for no gain. The nadir of Smart’s first season as head coach.
The 2018 LSU game. The first half of the game, in which the Dawgs were shut out, was brutal; the second half was only marginally better. Georgia had four turnovers (which LSU turned into 13 points), gave up three quarterback sacks, had a subpar day throwing the ball, and didn’t really stick with the running game, rushing for 113 yards total on the day. And then there was Smart’s fake field goal call, where he unrealistically expected Blankenship to gain about 17 yards for a first down. Plus, with Fromm having one of his worst games ever, you’d have thought the Georgia coaches might give their 5-star backup, Justin Fields, and his rifle arm a shot. But, instead, Georgia insisted on using Fields just occasionally, in a “wildcat” capacity. Many observers point to that game as the point where Fields probably decided he needed to transfer elsewhere.
The 2018 SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. I know, the national championship loss the previous season was more of a heartbreaker, but I think this loss to Bama is more deserving of a place on this list, since Georgia allowed the Tide to overcome the largest point deficit in SEC Championship history to win the game. And this game has Smart’s other most infamous call, a fake punt that Bama sniffed out, giving them a short field for a go-ahead touchdown. This was a game the Dawgs should have won. As Saban said after the game, Georgia “certainly had us on the ropes today.” Instead, the Dawgs once again choked down the stretch against the Crimson Tide.
The 2019 South Carolina game. On a day that saw the Dawgs turn the ball over four times to a vastly inferior opponent, just about nothing went right for Georgia. Fromm and Blankenship both played the worst games of their UGA careers. Fromm finished the day with three interceptions, a fumbled snap and also was sacked three times. Blankenship finally proved to be human, having one kick blocked and missing the key field goal attempt in the second overtime, after previously being perfect on the season. And, the offense was positively execrable in the two overtimes, with Georgia’s first drive quickly ending with an interception, and the second one gaining not a yard before the missed kick. One of the worst losses in Georgia football history.
The 2020 Florida game. Tasked with keeping up with the Gators’ high-powered offense, the Dawgs were doomed by the fact that the quarterback they should have started, JT Daniels, was on the bench and wouldn’t get his first shot at leading the team until the next week — one week late. Florida’s passing game shredded a short-handed Georgia defense, while Georgia’s offense was having trouble staying on the field, forcing Jake Camarda to have to punt seven times. Quarterbacks Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis combined to complete just 9 of 29 passes, for 112 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Worst of all, Dawgs receivers were getting open, but neither QB appeared capable of getting the ball to them, frequently underthrowing wide-open targets. We’ll never know whether Daniels might have made the difference, but it’s on Smart and Co. that he didn’t get the chance.
Those are my five best and five worst games of the Smart era. Feel free to offer your own choices.