When an underdog tries to motivate itself, it often whips out the refrain, “Why not us?” Then there’s Georgia, where the same refrain applies, but more in this context: “Seriously, why not us, what’s the problem?”
There are five different SEC programs that have won a total of 11 national championships over the past two decades, and Georgia — home to so much talent, and with a passionate fan base — has somehow not been one of them.
There have been close years. Achingly close years, and if a four-team playoff had existed, then the Bulldogs probably would have been involved in 2002, 2007 and 2012. Mark Richt, the head coach during those years, won two SEC titles from 2002-05.
But when a decade passed without another, Richt was replaced by Kirby Smart, an alumnus who had won five national titles as a Nick Saban assistant. The message was clear: It was time to win championships.
So as Smart begins spring practice for the second time as Georgia’s head coach, where does the state of the program stand? Here’s a breakdown based on five top metrics.
SEC standing: Middle of the pack
When Greg McGarity was hired as Georgia’s athletics director in 2010, he was asked what the expectations should be for Georgia’s football program. His answer: Contending for championships.
Georgia hasn’t done that lately — even for championships of the SEC East, the far-weaker of the conference’s two divisions. It’s been four seasons since the back-to-back division titles of 2011-12, and while Smart was hired to fix that, the team took a step back last year.
While the Bulldogs pulled off the win over then-No. 9 Auburn last year, that was canceled out by losing at home to Vanderbilt. And for the third straight year, the Bulldogs were beaten soundly by Florida, their arch-rival and the standard to which Georgia should hold itself.
The same goes for the nonconference performance in Smart’s first season: Beating North Carolina in the opener and TCU in the bowl game was solid work. But losing on your home field to Georgia Tech and barely beating Nicholls State are big points of concern.
SEC standing: Top three in the conference
Smart was known as a hard and great recruiter at Alabama, and when he came to Georgia there was no lag, especially since he already knew the terrain. First, he managed to hold onto the key pieces of Mark Richt’s last recruiting class, especially Jacob Eason and Isaac Nauta, and then he really went to work.
Georgia’s 2017 signing class ranked third nationally, per the 247Sports composite, mainly because it dominated its talent-rich state in ways that Richt had struggled to many years. The Bulldogs signed 12 of the state’s top 20 players this year.
But the Bulldogs also managed to go to New York to pull in 5-star offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, and to Philadelphia to get 4-star tailback D’Andre Swift.
The recruiting for the 2018 and 2019 classes has also been good so far, by most accounts. Smart and his staff — hired in large part for recruiting reasons — has zeroed in on that from the start, and it’s paid off.
SEC standing: Middle of the pack
This area is harder to pin on coaching staffs because of the turnover the past few years. But that also may account for the team’s offensive trouble spots the past few years:
The offensive line, quarterbacks and receivers, all areas of concern, have had three position coaches the past three years. While talent itself can be pointed to, there are several 4-star recruits at receiver (Jayson Stanley) and offensive line (Dyshon Sims, Patrick Allen, etc.) who haven’t had a big impact yet.
Now that each will have some semblance of continuity, that may help those positions.
Defensively, there’s been more continuity, both with coaches and the system. When Smart took over and brought Mel Tucker with him as defensive coordinator, they brought the same schemes and basic philosophy that players had under Jeremy Pruitt. That familiarity helped the defense stay solid last year, and has aided in the development of several players. Defensive linemen such as Trent Thompson, inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick, and practically everyone in the secondary has come along well.
That said, the defense has so much talent now that not being outstanding this year would be a bad reflection on development. And on offense, where recruiting improved this past cycle, it’s going to be time soon for a non-tailback to emerge into a star.
SEC standing: Middle-to-lower tier.
Georgia finally became the last SEC school to get an indoor facility, and it’s a nice one. It also is taking a step forward with announced plans to build new locker rooms and a recruiting area at Sanford Stadium.
But all that is just allowing Georgia to catch up to its peers, and while it still has the financial resources to do more, there are no immediate plans to do so.
The team’s weight room is among the smallest in the SEC. It was built in 2011, but already has been surpassed in the arms race. There’s not much in the way of bells and whistles at the team facility, like they have at some other programs.
The one area where Georgia will remain among the top tier is its stadium itself. Located in the middle of campus, and in a small valley, Sanford Stadium is one of the nicest places to watch a game, and 93,000 fans (give or take) at every big game gives the Bulldogs a home-field advantage.
SEC standing: Middle of the pack.
The better grade would be “incomplete,” as we have only one season to grade Smart as a head coach. That season offered mixed results, to be sure.
Smart took a very hands-on approach, especially on defense and special teams, and had some offensive involvement too. He was a constant source of energy on the sideline. At times that was a positive, infusing energy into his team. At other times it may have been better for Smart to be more hands-off and observe.
Case in point: The end of the first half of the South Carolina game, when Smart didn’t realize the clock had restarted, and the half ended without the Bulldogs using a timeout to try a field goal. Georgia still ended up winning the game.
As for the rest of the staff, this will be a key year for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and special teams coordinator Shane Beamer. Their units didn’t show marked improvement — statistically the offense went backward — and Chaney’s play-calling was suspect.
It’s often a head coach’s second year when things take off, if they’re going to take off. Given everything — Georgia’s soft home schedule, the struggles of the SEC East — this should be a year we find out a lot about Smart and his staff.