(Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Mecole Hardman (4) was just one of several Georgia players who showed remarkable improvement in their second year under coach Kirby Smart.

No matter the national coaching award, Kirby Smart’s name should be on it

ATHENS – I was confused Wednesday. Those of you who know me well might think, “why should Wednesday be any different?” So maybe I should say I’m more confused than usual.

My perplexity on this particular day had to do with the college football national coach of the year award. But then that very sentence reveals some of my ignorance on this subject.

“The” is not applicable when it comes to college coaches’ awards. There are multiple college football coaching awards, just as there are multiple awards for players. As in at least a half-dozen, though I think there are more.

What first got my attention on this was earlier this week when Miami’s Mark Richt won the Walter Camp Award as national coach of the year. A press release flashed up in my inbox about this supposed landmark achievement and I immediately thought what I’d imagine a lot of UGA fans were thinking.

Didn’t Richt’s Miami team lose to Pitt and then to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game to get bumped out the College Football Playoffs?

I couldn’t figure out whether or not Georgia’s Kirby Smart was a finalist for the Walter Camp coach of the year award but I assume he was because he’s a finalist for pretty much every other coaching award I’ve run across in the last week or so. For instance, he was a finalist for Home Depot National Coach of the Year.

But Smart didn’t win that one either. That one went to Central Florida’s Scott Frost. Or I should say that it will go to Frost. It was announced Wednesday, but Frost will physically receive the award during the College Football Awards show at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta tomorrow. I assume Smart will be there.

Frost is certainly deserving of the trophy he’ll receive during that televised event. UCF went 12-0 this season, so it’s hard to do much better than that. That’s after going 0-12 two years ago and 18-7 in his two seasons with the Golden Knights. But as we all know, UCF, though also an FBS school, doesn’t compete on quite as high a level as Georgia. For their undefeated work this season, the American Athletic Conference champions will play in the Peach Bowl. Frost, by the way, is now head coach at Nebraska.

By my count there are at least six coach of the year awards for FBS coaches, and I feel certain I missed a couple. I counted The Associated Press (AP), the Bobby Dodd, the Eddie Robinson, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) and the aforementioned Walter Camp and Home Depot. Smart is or was a finalist for all of them.

I made some calls Wednesday to some of the people I know and respect in the business to try to gauge which one of these awards is actually the most highly-regarded. You know, kind of like it is with the best collegiate player awards where there are the Maxwell and Walter Camp player of year that each are designated for the best all-around football player. But we all know that it’s really only the Heisman Trophy that has real clout in that regard. Not surprisingly, the same person often wins all three awards, or two of the three at least.

By the way, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who the Bulldogs will see in the Rose Bowl in three weeks, is the favorite the win most of those.

Anyway, I was unable to come away with any real consensus. I generally got a different answer depending on with whom it was I spoke. Like, a coach I was talking with thought it was the AFCA’s award, of course, because it’s selected by peers. One sportswriter I talked to leaned toward the Eddie Robinson and the Bobby Dodd, but he admitting being a bit biased because he’s on those two boards. Another reporter liked the AP because it’s voted on by media members.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I mean, whether he ends up being designated the best of the best by one voting body or another, there’s no arguing that Smart did a fantastic job coaching the Bulldogs this season. And certainly the best job in the SEC. For that league, at least, he already has been named coach of the year.

But I have a hard time thinking of any coach in the nation who did a better job this season than Smart. Perhaps that’s because as a beat guy I follow Georgia so closely that I know all the tiny details and was in position to see all the cracks the Bulldogs had as a team coming into year.

It’s for that very reason that I didn’t pick Georgia to win the SEC East, much less to make it into the CFP semifinals. I mean, when we’re over there in Birmingham in July and everybody is picking the Bulldogs first in the East, and I’m sitting there thinking, “yeah, but they essentially will have a new starter at every position on the offensive line.” I’m thinking about quarterback play and how Jacob Eason should be better in 2017 but I still saw a lot of flaws in his game. Besides, they still need a real go-to target at receiver. And while the defense should be pretty good, there are going to be some holes in that secondary. And don’t even get me started on special teams. So desperate are the Bulldogs for kickers and punters that they’re bringing in transfers from Wofford and Columbia University.

For all those reasons outlined there, that’s why I find it hard to believe that anybody could have done a better job than Kirby Smart this year. Georgia came through in every instance.

  • Not only did Isaiah Wynn make a successful transition from guard to left tackle, the senior was named first-team All-SEC. So did the transition of guard Lamont Gaillard to center, the assertion of new starters Kendall Baker, Solomon Kindly, Ben Cleveland and true freshman Andrew Thomas.
  • Not only did Georgia find one go-to receiver, it essentially found three in Javon Wims, Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman.
  • What a stroke of fate that Eason would go down in the first game, only to be replaced by an other-worldly freshman by the name of Jake Fromm.
  • Georgia ends up starting J.R. Reed at safety and the sophomore transfer from Tulsa was named second-team All-SEC this week. And when the Bulldogs lost three-year starter Malkom Parrish to a foot injury before the season, sophomore Tyrique McGhee not only filled in, but never gave the job back.
  • And while Cameron Nizalek was a shockingly good punter coming to the SEC from Ivy League, nothing is more astounding than the progress that incumbent place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship from his freshman to sophomore years. Smart was calling in kickers from coast to coast because he didn’t like Blankenship’s touchback percentage on kickoffs. All he did was establish a school record with 60 touchbacks on 82 kickoffs.

If one or two of those things come through, you might say that’s a fluke. That Georgia was 5-for-5 answering those concerns, folks, that’s coaching.

Oh, yeah, and have you heard? The Bulldogs (12-1) are playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 75 years. If they win, they’re in the national championship game – in Atlanta, no less.

Based on my survey Wednesday, I’d say the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award or the AFCA are the ones you really want to win. The AFCA is voted on by coaches, so you figure they know what they’re doing, and they wait until Jan. 10th to present it. Same with the Robinson, which the Football Writers Association of America will give out week of the national championship game in Atlanta. If Smart is there with Georgia that week, there can’t be any denying him.

But no matter who that one or any other coaching awards, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing a better job than Smart this year.