‘Now or never’ for Georgia football coach Kirby Smart only half true

Georgia football-UGA-MIke Griffith
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is 52-14 through his first five seasons as head coach.

ATHENS —  The “now or never” talk surrounding Kirby Smart and his prospects of winning a national championship is only half true.

It’s always “now,” for Smart. But it’s never “never.”

Smart said before the 2018 season that “pressure is a privilege,” and he added before the 2019 season that the Bulldogs 24-5 record the previous two seasons was “not good enough” for him.

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“I don’t think you ever arrive,” Smart said. “I could be sitting here in Year 10 and there’s still got to be growth.”

So here is Smart entering Year 6 with one SEC Championship and three SEC East Division titles in his first five seasons, along with four-straight Top 10 finishes.

Oddsmaker’s best bet

It’s a resume of consistency most programs would be proud of, yet USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan suggests the Bulldogs face great urgency to win the national title in 2021.

“If Georgia doesn’t win this year, you can forget it, they’re not going to win for a long time,” Sheridan said to Paul Finebaum on the SEC Network earlier the month. “By win, I mean get to the Final Four.”

ESPN writer David Hale also said UGA has a “now or never” type of roster, no doubt referencing the likelihood that many of the key offensive and defensive players — notably JT Daniels, George Pickens and Jordan Davis — will likely be in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Bulldogs are favored to appear in the SEC Championship Game with good reason. UGA projects to be favored in all of its SEC regular-season games after opening the season against six-team defending ACC champion Clemson on Sept. 4.

Smart has, for the most part, taken care of business in the games the Bulldogs are supposed to win as taken care of business under the bright lights.

Smart is 10-6 against Top 10 competition, with three of those losses coming to Alabama in games the Bulldogs led at halftime.

Only one other team has come from behind at the half to beat a Smart-coach UGA team — Tennessee, on a Hail Mary, in 2016.

Challenging Smart

Still, there are some credentialed media who challenge Smart on his coaching acumen.

This is misguided and naive.

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The argument is that with four straight top 3 recruiting classes — including No. 1 classes in 2018 and 2020 — Georgia should be winning at a higher clip.

Of course, recruiting rankings aren’t scientific, nor do they take into account injuries, transfers or the retention of players for their fourth year of eligibility.

Would Alabama have won last season’s national title had DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Alex Leatherwood have gone pro after the 2019 season? And what of Mac Jones decision to wait three years for his turn, rather than transfer away?

Those things don’t happen everywhere, and certainly not at Georgia where the Bulldogs would have been a different team had Jake Fromm, D’Ande Swift and Isaiah Wilson stayed for another season.

Internal pressure

The privilege of pressure is upon Smart, by choice, and he brings the “Do More” slogan to his staff and players every day.

Rivals will remind (taunt) UGA fans on social media that the Bulldogs have still not arrived at the national championship that has eluded them since 1980.

In that timeframe since 1980, rivals Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Alabama have all won national titles.

All Smart can do is continue to put his team in a position to finish the drill — not to bite on the QB looking off a receiver, to set the edge and contain the scrambling quarterback or to convert the fourth-and-1 runs.

Georgia is that close, and Smart has the Bulldogs positioned to remain an annual title contender.

“I know it’s all about at-bats,” Smart said, referring to the importance of landing one of the four CFP spots. “And if you get enough at-bats, you’re eventually going to hit the home run,

Sheridan, like Finebaum and Kirk Herbstreit, was very vocal after a CFP committee that included the Oklahoma athletic director put the Sooners in the CFP Final Four over the Bulldogs in 2018.

“Keeping Georgia out last year was the biggest (college football) travesty in my life,” Sheridan said during a WNSP interview, “next to Peyton Manning not winning the Heisman Trophy after coming back for his senior season.”

Sheridan, it’s worth noting, picked the Bulldogs to win the national title in 2019 despite the complete overhaul UGA needed at the receiver position.

Quiet offseason

To date, it has been a relatively quiet offseason leading up toward the start of spring drills on March 16.

Smart has only had to replace once assistant coach, hiring former West Virginia player and assistant Jahmile Addae when Charlton Warren took the defensive coordinator position at Indiana.

Smart added former South Carolina coach Will Muschamp to the Bulldogs’ staff as an analyst, giving UGA three former FBS head coaches for Smart to consult (Todd Monken, Matt Luke).

There’s a chance the Bulldogs lose a couple of players and add a couple of players via the transfer portal following spring drills, but the offseason transition doesn’t figure to be nearly as challenging as last year when former three-year starting QB Jake Fromm made the surprising decision to turn pro early.

But the program has momentum with a new $80 million football building on the verge of opening up, and a new athletic director in Josh Brooks who is committed to getting Smart what he needs for more title runs.

RELATED: 3 things about how new building might boost UGA title hopes

Here’s a look at the heavy lifting Smart had to do last season leading into what became an even more challenging season to install a new offense on account of spring drills being canceled amid COVID-19:

Georgia football 2020 shuffle

Dec. 7 — Georgia appears in third straight SEC Championship Game

Dec. 8 — Arkansas hires former UGA OL coach Sam Pittman as head coach

Dec. 10 — Georgia hires Matt Luke to replace Pittman as OL coach

Jan. 1 — Georgia defeats Baylor 26-14 in Allstate Sugar Bowl

Jan. 4 — Arkansas hires former UGA special teams coach Scott Fountain

Jan. 7 — Georgia DB Otis Reese enters NCAA transfer portal

Jan. 8 — Georgia QB Jake Fromm announces he’s leaving Georgia

Jan. 8 — Georgia OL Cade Mays enters NCAA transfer portal

Jan. 11 — Wake Forest grad-transfer QB Jamie Newman officially pledges to UGA

Jan. 13 — Florida State grad-transfer TE Tre’ McKitty pledges to UGA

Jan. 17 — Georgia hires Todd Monken as offensive coordinator

Jan. 20 — Georgia hires Buster Faulkner as offensive analyst

Jan. 24 — Texas A&M hires James Coley, later named TE coach

Feb. 5 —  Kirby Smart signs No. 1-ranked recruiting class, per 247Sports

Feb. 24 — Georgia hires Scott Cochran as special teams coach

March 13 — Georgia announces spring football & all sports suspended

May 28 — JT Daniels announces he’s transferring to UGA

June 8 — Start of voluntary workouts

July 13 — JT Daniels cleared for 2020 eligibility

Aug. 21 — Start of padded workouts

Aug. 30 — First Scrimmage

Sept. 2 — Jamie Newman announces he’s leaving Georgia

Nov. 9 — JT Daniels cleared to work with UGA first-team offense

 

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