Greatest coaching challenge for Georgia’s Kirby Smart awaits him in 2018
ATHENS — So Roquan Smith and Trent Thomson have packed their bags and joined Georgia’s giant pack of seniors in heading on down the road.
This is what makes college football so great. This is also what makes it so hard.
College football, by and large, is cyclical. That works to varying degrees for different programs, but because of the constant ingress and egress of players due to graduation and attrition, achieving sustained, championship-level success is next to impossible for any program not currently named Alabama. To me, that’s what makes it fun and somewhat unpredictable from year to year.
I know it’s still awfully soon in these parts to be offering the Crimson Tide any kudos but — those egregiously bad calls aside — Bama did, in fact, reach the title game for a third year in a row. The past decade under coach Nick Saban has been, in a word, astonishing. The Tide have won five national championships in that span and more games than any team in America.
Maybe the next 10 years will be similarly grand for Georgia. But that’s where coach Kirby Smart must distinguish himself from coaches who have preceded him.
As we all know, Georgia is a very proud and successful football program by its own right. It is, after all, third all-time in number of bowl appearances with 53. Only Bama (65) and Texas (54) have more. But historically speaking, the Bulldogs have been the very the definition of cyclical when it comes to high-level success.
Again, only Alabama (26) has won more SEC football championships than Georgia (13) over the years (the Bulldogs are tied with Tennessee). But as one might suspect, those have been few and far between in what we’d call the modern era, which would begin with Vince Dooley’s tenure in 1964.
Georgia won six SEC championships in 25 seasons under Dooley, or roughly one in every four seasons. Neither Ray Goff nor Jim Donnan hoisted the conference crown. Mark Richt won two in 15 seasons, while playing for it five times. Now Smart is a sporty 1-for-2.
But that’s all about conference titles. That’s no longer the ultimate measurement. Now it’s all about getting into the playoff. As Alabama can attest, you can do that without being a conference champion.
Judging Georgia’s success more from the perspective of having good years — that is, winning a lot of games and playing in a good bowl — the Bulldogs’ cycle looks more like this: Dooley 12 of 25 seasons, or about half; Goff one in seven; Donnan one in five; Richt eight in 15 (I’m not counting the 10-win seasons that resulted in TaxSlayer and Belk Bowl bids).
Taken as a whole, that’s about 42 percent of the time Georgia has been in for a really fun and exciting season. We don’t need to discuss how it often it has played for the ultimate prize (OK, four times in 37 years, but I’m not discussing it).
Back to the here and now, part of what makes it so difficult to regularly get your program “in the hunt,” as it were, is that cyclical tendency of the college game. If your team is good enough to compete for a championship, conference or national, then two factors probably apply: One, it featured a lot of extremely talented players; two, it was veteran-laden and experienced. In both cases, an exodus usually follows.
That was definitely the case for Georgia in 2017. As was well-chronicled all year, the Bulldogs featured a total of 31 seniors. Seventeen of those seniors were on scholarship. Fifteen would fall in the category of major contributors. At least four or five of them could be first or second-day NFL draftees.
Then you add in the losses of juniors Smith and Thompson to the NFL draft — a relatively light number given the level of success Georgia enjoyed — and you begin to get a sense of the talent deficit the Bulldogs have to replenish if they are to have similar success in 2018.
As for Smith, I don’t have to tell anybody who watched Georgia this season what kind of an absence he’ll leave. He was a once-a-generation player, to be sure, as some of these top-10 and 15 draft projections suggest. And Thompson, even though his junior season was less productive than the previous one, is a unique physical talent that will be difficult to replace.
All told, that’s six starters off your offense, nine off the defense and two specialists. If not for junior Jonathan Ledbetter’s decision to return, it could’ve been a 7-for-7 loss of Georgia’s front seven.
This is not to sprinkle doom-and-gloom over the prospects of next season for the Bulldogs. That’s just a little reality check on the challenge that’s in front of Smart and his staff.
But as evidenced from this past season, I definitely believe they’re up for it.
You can start with recruiting, where Smart is in the midst of building his third straight top-10 class, each one better than the last. The current group is ranked No. 1, with only a handful targets remaining on the board after that smashing experiment that was the first year of an early-signing period. Georgia already has netted 20 actual signees, with at least five more on the way.
None of which has slowed down the charge of Smart and his staff. Since the championship game ended, they hardly have even come up for air. They’re laser-focused on the remaining targets, all the elitist of the elite, while concentrating hard on prospects for 2019 and even ’20. It’s a luxury the Bulldogs can afford with the current state of affairs being what it is.
But replacing seasoned veterans with unproven talent is always a risky proposition. It helps when they have a lot of stars by their name, but that’s no guarantee. Hopefully Georgia will get a nice blend of contributions from brilliant newcomers, developing lettermen and established stars. That came to pass this last season, though finding leadership to rival the group that just left will be the ultimate challenge.
Of all this, Smart is well aware. He comes from a place that has put all that back together on the regular. And he’s bringing all that knowledge to a place that’s been doing pretty doggone good as it is.
Nobody has won more than Alabama over these last 10 years, games (125) or national championships (5). But Georgia hasn’t been all that far behind. The Bulldogs stand ninth in victories over that span with 96.
The key is keeping those lows high and the highs at the very top of the mountain. Smart has given the Bulldogs a peek of that view. Everyone seems to be in agreement that they like it.
Now, to find the next Roquan. …