ATHENS — Maybe we had it wrong. Maybe Mark Richt’s problem wasn’t his failure to coach up the great talent he’d assembled. Maybe the talent wasn’t so great.
Let’s assume that, over two games, Kirby Smart hasn’t coached anybody down. (If he has, Georgia is in trouble.) Let’s also assume that an SEC team with league-average personnel shouldn’t need a third-down conversion with a minute remaining to avoid being unplugged by Nicholls State. And if we go by recruiting rankings, Georgia’s personnel should be way better than average.
A man who knows an awful lot about Georgia football – you’d recognize his name – has been telling me since January that the Bulldogs’ talent level has reached a generational low. What Smart inherited from Richt doesn’t match what Richt took from Jim Donnan or what Donnan, way back in 1996, took from Ray Goff.
About those rankings: We think of Georgia under Richt as having always had a Top 10 class. Well, his first seven full classes were – ranking third, sixth, ninth, 10th, fourth, ninth, seventh and six, according to Rivals – but his final six weren’t quite so strong. Only three of those cracked the Top 10, with only the ballyhooed Dream Team of 2011 above sixth.
Don’t misunderstand. In its worst year, Georgia still out-recruits most programs at their zenith. But is it possible that the recruiting slippage over those six years – coupled with the banishment of such famous recruits as Isaiah Crowell, Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons – had something to do with Richt being fired last November? (The 12th-ranked 2013 class has proved especially dire.) Was he one of those coaches who couldn’t subsist on less than top-shelf talent?
But enough about Richt. At issue is Georgia in the wake of its chastening Nicholls escape. At his media briefing Monday, Smart was asked – as someone who’s been around the SEC for much of his life, as someone who arrived here with fresh eyes – to assess his team’s talent. League-average? Better? Worse?
“I don’t get into comparisons,” he said, and about here we added this to the list of things Smart doesn’t get into. “I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t assess talent levels. At some positions it’s better; at some positions it’s worse.”
It’s safe to say that Georgia is better than average – better than any other team in the land, really – at tailback. But Nick Chubb, who rushed for 222 yards against a Power Five opponent in Week 1, managed only 80 against FCS member Nicholls. Fears that Georgia had signed too few offensive linemen the past few Februarys are being borne out, as underscored by this: The Rhode Island transfer Tyler Catalina, who made second-team all-conference in the Colonial Athletic Association last year, is the Bulldogs’ starting left tackle.
Greyson Lambert might never start another game, but he opened both 2015 and 2016 as Georgia’s No. 1 quarterback – after losing his starting position at Virginia, the worst program in the ACC Coastal Division. Even the hyped-to-the-heavens Jacob Eason, who was the top-rated pocket passer of his class, wouldn’t appear a talent quite on the order of Matthew Stafford.
Georgia is young along the defensive front. Its receivers are struggling to get open and, per Smart, to block anybody. Its kicker is a walk-on. This might well be the most gifted roster in the SEC East – Tennessee fans will argue the point—but it pales alongside the personnel at Alabama and LSU. This is a talented team, but not so talented it could shove aside Nicholls, which last season went 3-6 in the Southland Conference.
This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse. Georgia has enough good players to negotiate this soft schedule without many missteps. But Smart’s graft of Alabama onto Georgia won’t fully take unless/until he has more Bama-type players.