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Hyosub Shin/AJC
Alabama's Nick Saban (left) and Georgia's Kirby Smart pose with the national championship trophy on the eve of the College Football Playoff final on Jan. 8. Saban now has the trophy in Tuscaloosa.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart a deserving coach of year, but what about Nick Saban?

Chip Towers

ATHENS — Congratulations to Georgia’s Kirby Smart, for winning coach of the year from the Maxwell Club.

Interesting that the group waits until now, three weeks after the season has been completed, to make their announcement. But that beats the alternative we saw from the many other groups that name a coach of the year. Most of them choose a coach right after the regular season and before the bowl games.

The fact is, there are a ton of national coach of the year awards that are handed out each year. I touched on that in December and went on record then that I thought Smart had done the best job of anybody in 2017. And I’ll enumerate the reasons in a minute.

In the meantime, it does give one pause to wonder, what does Nick Saban have to do to ever be named coach of the year? He’s 127-20 at Alabama (72-13 SEC) and just won his fifth national championship in nine years for the Crimson Tide. You might recall that they just beat the Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime to win the 2017 national title, without benefit of winning the SEC championship, one might add. But there have only been a few times he’s actually been designated national coach of the year.

Must be that rich-getting-richer stigma. And I’m sure Bama, which is busy building a new display in its crowded trophy case for its latest hunk of hardware, is not too worried about. Nor Saban.

But Smart is deserving, too. I’ve noted many times the tremendous job I believed he and his staff of coaches did this past season, in which the Bulldogs went 13-2 and reached the National Championship Game. There were many reasons Georgia wasn’t favored to win the SEC or reach College Football Playoffs. But Smart and his staff addressed each weakness head on and generally made it a strength.

For instance:

  • The biggest concern coming into the season was Georgia’s offensive line. Not only were they substandard in 2016, but they were losing three starters from that group and were going to have to reshuffle to the point that there would be a new starter at all five positions. In the end, Isaiah Wynn was All-SEC after moving to left tackle from guard, Lamont Gaillard played marvelously in his first season at center and Andrew Thomas became a freshman All-American while starting every game at right tackle. Georgia’s O-line, led by coach Sam Pittman, was one of the best in the country.
  • The Bulldogs’ special teams, an overall weakness in 2016, became a team strength in which they dominated in pretty much every phase every game. Kickoffs and field-goal range were considered liabilities for place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship; he set a school record for touchbacks and made a pair of field goals over 50 yards in the playoffs. Punter Cameron Nizalek parachuted in as a graduate transfer from Columbia and immediately became one of the best in the SEC. Mecole Hardman developed into one of the best kickoff and punt returners in the SEC. And Georgia blocked several kicks during the season, including a punt that should have stood up in the championship game.
  • Georgia’s secondary was a big question mark coming into the season and it certainly betrayed the Bulldogs in the championship game. But, overall, UGA ended the regular season leading the SEC in pass defense (158.3 ypg) and had 12 interceptions on the year. Georgia got unexpectedly strong play from a transfer in safety J.R. Reed and junior cornerback in Deandre Baker. Meanwhile, Dominick Sanders tied the school record for career interceptions (16).
  • Finally, quarterback play was a huge concern coming into the season. And while it ultimately took an injury to Jacob Eason to get Jake Fromm into the lineup, the freshman played with incredible efficiency and poise and ultimately gave the Bulldogs what they needed to establish consistent offensive production. Fromm’s special skills aside, don’t underestimate the coaching challenge involved in feeding a weekly game plan to a true freshman. And Smart and his staff managed impressively the potentially divisive decision to stick with Fromm after Eason returned from his knee injury.

I certainly understand the majority of the coach of the year awards going to Scott Frost, who led UCF to an undefeated season two years after it didn’t win a game. But the challenges the Knights faced aren’t same as teams from Power 5 conferences. We’ll see how he does at Nebraska.

As for Saban, he probably doesn’t get his just due when it comes to these awards. But if you’ve paid attention to college football these last 10 years, there’s nobody who has done better — probably ever. Perhaps they can come up with a coach of the decade award for him. Look for Saban to win that one after the 2020 season.

Well, unless Smart and the Bulldogs get really hot over these next three years.