Kirby Smart’s first year at Georgia ends with thud against Georgia Tech

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart

First-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart came into the 2016 season with high expectations after a heralded career as an assistant under Nick Saban. But with the regular season coming to a close, his initial impression leaves plenty to be desired.

Georgia lost 28-27 at home against hated rival Georgia Tech in a matchup that never should have been that close. After taking a 27-14 lead to close the third quarter, the Bulldogs gave up two unanswered touchdowns in the fourth. GT running back Qua Searcy ran for the backbreaker, a 6-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds remaining.

Quarterback Jacob Eason threw 2 interceptions. Sony Michel rushed for 170 yards, but it was a wasted effort. The loss dropped Georgia to 7-5 on the year, tied with Kentucky for third in the SEC East. That’s down from 9-3 the year before.

After an impressive win over North Carolina to open 2016, Georgia’s season has gone downhill. Georgia struggled against Nicholls State and Missouri. Even wins over Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette were underwhelming. The only other quality win was over No. 9 Auburn — and even that was tainted, as the Tigers were missing top running back Kamryn Pettway, and quarterback Sean White was playing with a completely bum shoulder.

Unfortunately, the losses were bad, too. In addition to losing to the rival Yellow Jackets, Georgia had terrible letdowns against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Really, the tight loss against No. 11 Tennessee, which the Bulldogs lost on a Hail Mary, might have been the most impressive performance of the year for this team. That’s not a good thing.

Of course, Georgia has a bowl game to try and get to eight wins. And it probably doesn’t help that former coach Mark Richt can make it to eight wins at Miami with a win Saturday over Duke. The Hurricanes’ total includes a win over, who else, Georgia Tech. Richt averaged 9.7 wins per year during his 15 seasons at Georgia.

Smart is a young coach and has plenty of time to get better. First seasons are often rocky. However, many of the worries about hiring Smart have come to fruition. It’s hard to tell whether the Smart hire was, well, smart.

The offense has dropped from No. 98 to No. 101 in offensive S&P+ from 2015 to 2016. Blue-chip freshman QB Jacob Eason hasn’t developed much, and is still barely completing half of his passes. Despite the star-studded backfield of Michel and Nick Chubb, Georgia averages just 4.6 yards per rush.

The team’s struggles were not all the result of subpar coaching. The personnel didn’t quite match what offensive coordinator Jim Chaney wanted to run. The front seven was inexperienced. Regardless, there’s just too much talent on campus for this kind of mediocrity, especially in the awful SEC East.

Georgia is one of the great college football programs in history. Fans will forgive a tough first year, but there have to be tangible improvements to keep donors on Smart’s side. The onus is now on Smart to evaluate his game plan, make changes and recruit the right players — and fast. A bowl win will be a good start.

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