Curtis Compton/AJC
Kirby Smart's first two years at Georgia look similar to those of the man he replaced, with a couple of exceptions.

How similar were first 2 years for Kirby Smart and Mark Richt at UGA?

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Do you see the multiple resemblances to that start of Kirby’s first 2 years to the same 2 for Richt? Mediocre first year, explosion year 2 and monster expectations, record setting recruiting, and … no national title?
― John Vaughn, Newnan

It will be hard to answer this without incurring the wrath of a significant portion of people, and I should push back a bit by pointing out that Kirby Smart came really, really close to winning that national title.

But … yeah, they are similar. With some differences.

Georgia at this point of the Kirby Smart era: 21-7 (and 12-5 in the SEC), one SEC championship, one Rose Bowl victory, one appearance in the national championship.

Georgia at the same point of the Mark Richt era: 21-5 (and 13-4 in the SEC), one SEC championship, one Sugar Bowl victory.

The two coaches were even the same age. Both were 42 years old at the end of their second seasons.

Mark Richt hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy to finish his second year at Georgia. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

The obvious difference, and it’s in Smart’s favor, is that he took his team to the National Championship Game, which Richt never did in his 15 seasons at Georgia. Then again, if the playoff system had been in effect in 2002, Georgia would have been the No. 3 seed and would have had a chance to beat Ohio State (or Miami) for the right to make the championship. Without a playoff system in 2017, Georgia also would have been the No. 3 seed – but that’s only using the selection committee’s current criteria. It would have been an extremely close call between UGA, Oklahoma and Clemson to determine which two would meet for the national title. Much controversy would have ensued. There wasn’t a question in 2002, when Georgia clearly was the No. 3 team.

The other difference, which also is in Smart’s favor, is recruiting.

It’s not that Richt and his staff didn’t recruit well at the start. They had the nation’s No. 9 class in both 2002 and 2003, per the revised 247Sports composite rankings. In 2003, Georgia signed two of the nation’s top 20 players (cornerback Paul Oliver and tailback Kregg Lumpkin), as well as receiver Sean Bailey, who was ranked no. 43.

But Smart and his staff are clearly recruiting on a much different level. The Bulldogs brought in the top-ranked class after the staff’s second year, the No. 3 class after their first.

None of this is to resurrect the old debate about Richt. It’s inarguable right now that it has worked out for all parties involved, whether it’s Smart and Georgia or Richt and Miami. But as someone who was in the state of Georgia both then and now, it’s safe to say there was a lot of optimism about the future at both points. There’s just even more optimism this time around.

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