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Kirby Smart is entering this fifth season at Georgia.

Kirby Smart shares thoughts on Gus Malzahn, coaching changes in the SEC

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How the Auburn opening impacts Georgia football

In a year where many thought we wouldn’t see much coaching turnover due to the economic difficulties presented by the pandemic, three of Georgia’s annual opponents went ahead and made coaching changes.

South Carolina went first, firing Will Muschamp and replacing him with Shane Beamer. Vanderbilt went next, as it parted ways with Derek Mason. On Monday, the Commodores hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea to become the next coach.

Lea is a Vanderbilt alum, while Beamer spent time on the South Carolina coaching staff while working under Steve Spurrier. Both of those hirings had a home-type feel to them.

Then there is the Auburn job, which came open on Sunday when the school announced it was parting ways with Gus Malzahn. In his eight years at the school, Malzahn went 68-35, winning an SEC championship and making an appearance in a national championship game.

Malzahn though struggled against Auburn’s biggest foes, as he was 0-12 on the road against Georgia, Alabama and LSU. Against the Bulldogs he was just 2-7, and 1-5 since Kirby Smart became the head coach for the Bulldogs.

“I have a lot of respect for Gus. He’s been a very good friend of mine for quite a while,” Smart said. “I know that he and Kristi will land on their feet, and he’s going to be successful in whatever he does.”

Malzahn is getting well-compensated to go away, as the Tigers will pay him his full buyout that is north of $21 million. And half of that must be paid in the next 30 days.

To date, the Auburn job is the biggest to come open. Malzahn showed Auburn is a place you can win and recruit at, with the Tigers signing multiple top-10 classes over Malzahn’s tenure.

A handful of names have emerged as viable candidates, with Lousiana-Lafeytte’s Billy Napier, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and Hugh Freeze being the external candidates that have garnered the most attention.

The leading internal name, and one that gained a lot of traction on Monday, is defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. He was named the interim coach following Malzahn’s firing and has spent the last five years at Auburn. And in that time, the defense has been much better than the offense

Whoever Auburn ends up hiring, he’ll walk into quite the pressure cooker as Malzahn won 66 percent of his game and was told that was no longer good enough. The firing of Malzahn leaves Smart as the third-longest tenured coach in the conference, behind only Nick Saban and Mark Stoops.

“I think our profession, especially in the SEC and now the coaching profession as a whole, has gotten tougher and tougher and more competitive as the sweepstakes have gone up to win and generate revenue through television contracts and things,” Smart said. “It’s put a higher expectation.”

An example of the expanding revenue is the SEC’s latest TV deal with Disney/ESPN. The deal, which will begin in the 2024 season, is expected to have an annual payout to the conference of $300 million. The conference currently gets about $55 million from its current deal with CBS and ESPN.

Auburn and South Carolina were also willing to pony up to move on from Malzahn and Muschamp respectively. Malzahn will get $21 million to not coach at Auburn while Muschamp is getting $15 million.

“Across the board, when you look at the SEC, it’s a conference that everyone wants to be in until they’re in it,” Smart said. “They realize the toughness it creates not only on the field, but in the recruiting world going out, trying to win on the recruiting field, trying to win on the grass.”

Auburn will want to move quickly in finding its next coach, as Vanderbilt and South Carolina did. The early signing period is this week and prospects will want to know who the coach is and what the vision for the program is. Georgia already beat out Auburn for prospects like 5-star linebacker Smael Mondon, 4-star cornerbacks Kamari Lassiter and Nyland Green and 4-star offensive lineman Dylan Fairchild.

The Tigers currently have the No. 43 recruiting class and just 12 commitments at the moment. The uncertainty might mean even further attrition for Auburn’s 2021 signing class.

We’ve already seen some dominoes because of the decision, as 5-star linebacker Terrence Lewis released his list of finalists on Monday. Auburn was widely expected to be on the list, but Lewis named just Maryland and Tennessee following Malzahn’s coaching change.

Add in that players haven’t been able to take visits to see these schools and it makes things even more difficult for a new coaching staff, as Auburn will have.

“It’s very hard for a recruit,” Georgia safety Lewis Cine said. “Taking trips, traveling being around coaches and players was something that made a big impact on me at the end of what school I wanted to go to.”

Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland does have some knowledge of what an impact a coaching change has on a recruit, given Georgia swapped Mark Richt for Smart while the now senior offensive lineman was going through the recruiting process in the fall of 2015.

He stressed the importance of finding the right school and not so much the right coach.

“I didn’t come here for one specific person, rhyme or reason. I came here because I fell in love with this place,” Cleveland said. “Just putting your faith in this school and knowing that they were going to hire the right people and I truly believe they did.”

The success Auburn’s next coach has against both Georgia and Alabama will likely go a long way in determining whether the firing of Malzahn was the right decision. If it’s the right man for the job, Auburn will be able to win recruiting battles against Georgia, as Malzahn did from time to time whether it be Derrick Brown or Owen Pappoe.

And if they’re able to win those recruiting battles, that will make beating Georgia on the field somewhat of a more manageable task.

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