It’s one thing to be a fan base that’s hurting over a close loss to a highly regarded team, as was the case with Bulldog Nation after the Tennessee Hail Mary. It’s quite another to be the object of pity, as has unfortunately been the case for UGA fans following the shocking defeat by lowly Vanderbilt.
I’ve had quite a bit of practice this past week at perfecting the rueful smile that says “Yeah, it was bad, but it’s a rebuilding year,” as I’ve been consoled by friends, fans of rival SEC schools and even a few folks I didn’t think knew what college football was.
Such “support,” however well intended, only rubs a little more salt in the wound, but it’s a feeling that comes all too frequently with being a college football fan. (Unless you’re a fan of the Crimson Tide, that is.)
As for what I have said when folks have asked what I think of Kirby Smart at this point, well, I’ll get to that below.
Of course, a lot of Blawg readers have jumped off the Smart bandwagon, or are at least thinking about it. A sampling of opinions and questions from recent Junkyard Mail …
Joe Burger writes: “I’m no Mark Richt apologist, but what is your gut feeling about this Kirby coaching regime? While I agree, unfortunately, that the Richt coaching had gotten stagnant (or maybe stubborn might be the more appropriate term), I thought Kirby was brought in simply … to get us “over the hump.” He was supposed to keep us competitive to the point of winning every game, not competitive to the last second with lowly FCS and SEC programs. Unfortunately, look at this team: Low energy, penalties, dropped balls, 2 of the best backs in the country with only a smattering of a run game, sloppy plays, poor tackling, HORRIBLE special teams — except at QB, where is his team improving? Bill, we have guys to compete with most anyone we set foot on the field with. But what is this staff doing with it? When is Pittman (supposedly the best in the business) gonna coach up the line? When is Chaney gonna get the offense to establish an identity? … UGA is a flagship program, a top 5 job in the country with a team that has a lot of talent, coming off a string of underperforming 10 win seasons. [Kirby] wasn’t brought in to “turn it around” as he likes to say. This program doesn’t need turning around. It needs a strong leader to take it to the elite level to which it belongs.”
Along the same lines, Jim Carroll writes: “Bill: When you add the Nichols game and the beat-down to Ole Miss, do we have a coaching problem at Georgia? Has [Greg] McGarity hired a Ron Zook?”
And Okefenokee Dawg writes: “We all know that Coach Smart has never been a head coach. But he needs to learn to be more of a CEO and less of a Coach Boom. It is obvious to me that [Mark Richt] was too much of a CEO and Smart is not enough. Someone who has influence with him needs to tell him to calm down on the sidelines and at practice and let the assistants coach. … A head coach can’t do it all and Smart needs to stop trying.”
Finally, George in Atlanta writes: “What are your thoughts and predictions for the Kirby era? Do you feel like he’s the right guy? Or do you think we should have perused someone like Tom Herman with head coaching experience?”
I’ve been disappointed with how Georgia’s first season under Smart has turned out, though, with my preseason prediction of 9-3, I wasn’t exactly setting the bar super high in my expectations. But seven games into a first-time head coach’s inaugural season is too soon to be giving up on him and declaring him a bad hire.
That’s not to give Smart a pass here. Yes, he inherited a team with some severe talent deficiencies, but he also inherited some top-notch players. And it’s pretty clear that Smart and his staff haven’t done a great job so far utilizing that talent. But coaching, like playing, is a learning experience and there’s still time for Smart to turn things around in this season.
No, based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t realistically expect Georgia to win out. And, if we see more playing and coaching like in the Vandy game, nothing remaining on the schedule is a gimme. Florida and its tough defense, in particular, isn’t a good match-up for this Bulldogs team, and Auburn and Tech will be tough. But if Smart can beat the teams he’s supposed to beat (Kentucky and ULL) and vanquish one of the three main rivals, a 7-5 season won’t seem quite so awful.
Looking beyond that, next year will still be a rebuilding effort, as few teams play championship-level football with a bunch of freshmen on the offensive line, but I do expect big things out of this program in 2018, when Jacob Eason will be a junior. If Georgia doesn’t at least play for the SEC championship by then, I think, yes, you’ll be able to question the wisdom of the Smart hire.
We’re not there yet, though.
Taking a large portion of the criticism from UGA fans this season has been the play calling of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Via my Facebook page, Ernie Keich writes: “All season long while watching UGA my wife keeps stating “I don’t understand why they keep running the ball where all the people are,” referring to our futile efforts to physically move a defense. Her observation is an accurate analysis of a failed offensive strategy. ”
Kathy White writes: “Chaney was supposed to be known for adjusting to the talent and situation. I’m not seeing it with consistent play calling.”
And Hugh Lee Eidson writes: “Chaney moved up to the box would it make a difference? It was easy to see from where I sat that there was no way we were going to block the edge, yet he repeatedly tried it again and again. I am NOT an armchair quarterback, but I swear either he cannot tell from the field what is happening or he is not capable of making adjustments to a game plan. I hope it is the former and not the latter!”
To answer the last question first, I don’t really think where the offensive coordinator calls the game from is that important. Yes, Mike Bobo had better luck calling the game from up above the field than when he was on the sideline, and a lot of coordinators prefer the view from up high, but there are quite a few who’ve had success calling a game from the sideline, with Lane Kiffin of Alabama just one example.
However, overall, yes, I’ve been puzzled by Chaney’s stubborn insistence on trying to run up the middle when it’s quite obvious the Dawgs don’t have the sort of offensive line to make that work consistently. Georgia’s offense has been more effective when he has spread things out and had Eason in the shotgun (the Tennessee game being the prime example). My main disappointment in Chaney has been his apparent inability or refusal to adapt mid-game to what the other team is doing defensively. If that remains the case in the remainder of the season, I am not sure we can expect better results.
Georgia Native Out in Lake Stevens writes: “Is this coaching staff overwhelmed by the moment? There are too many times when there seems to be confusion as to what they want to do offensively and/or defensively. At some point, rather than trying to substitute for every situation, you just have to put your best players out there and take away the other team’s heart. Speaking of heart, does this team have any? It seems like the offensive line is passive and never really looks to attack, especially in the run game. This lack of heart also seems to show up as most of the receivers do not seem to have any interest whatsoever in blocking. … Also, does this team practice tackling? All the defenders seem to try to tackle high or “sling” guys down instead of wrapping up around the waist/legs as I was taught. … I still have faith in Coach Smart but they really need to re-evaluate their game management approach.”
I’d say you are on the mark with your analysis. Georgia plainly got outcoached in the Vandy game, especially in the instances where the Commodores called timeouts and Smart and his staff didn’t take advantage of the extra time. While the coaching mistakes are not that surprising for a first-year staff, it’s a bit disheartening to see things not improving midway through the season.
Drew Cheshire writes: “I still can’t wrap my mind around how we have great success with tight ends and the fullback in one game or on one drive, then completely ignore them after that. We’re using them more than last year, thank God, but it’s like Chaney thinks it’s a one-time thing. And, as far as multiple running backs, call me overthinking this, but I feel like having [Sony] Michel split out with [Nick] Chubb in the backfield, or [Brian] Herrien and Chubb both back there would at the very least tamper with a D coordinator’s game plan. The best part is, we could actually use them all on the field. It’s not like they’d just be a distraction. Eason has exceeded expectations for a freshman in my opinion. I still remember [Matthew] Stafford throwing 3-interception games, and failing to find the end zone. I think Eason is about where [Stafford] was in those last 3 games in 2006. He misses some open guys, puts too much pepper on some passes, and not enough on others, but, overall, I think he’s solid, and has improved. I definitely like his moxie under pressure, and his aggressiveness to go after some tough downfield throws.”
I agree with you completely about the backs, Drew. Chaney has had Eason use the dump-off pass to fullback Christian Payne effectively at times, but I can’t understand why Georgia hasn’t thrown more to the tailbacks out in the open, especially considering the way opposing defenses are all loading the box against the inside run. As for Eason, yes, he’s about where I expected him to be at this point.
Chaio Winn writes: “UGA has great freshman talent sitting on the sidelines wasting a year of eligibility when they should be playing. I mean, what’s to lose the way the season is going? It’s no doubt that players such as Mecole Hardman, Ben Cleveland and Elijah Holyfield should at least see a few plays per game instead of just derailing those guys, because they could turn out to be factors if used. They weren’t highly recruited for no reason.”
And Randall Pettit writes: “Why hasn’t Hardman played this year?”
Hardman has played, on special teams. According to the participation reports, he didn’t play in the first two games of the season, but has played in every game since then, and had an assist in the Ole Miss game and an assist in the Vandy game. Smart said earlier this season that Hardman has been learning a new position (cornerback), since he primarily played on offense in high school, and that takes time. Holyfield, meanwhile, got off to a slow start this season with an ankle injury, and while he’s fine now, he hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time mainly because he’s got quite a bit of talent ahead of him on the depth chart. As for Cleveland, it’s rare for a true freshman to play on the offensive line, which is why he’s considered a likely candidate for a redshirt season.
Jason Rhodes writes: “Hi Bill, I’ve got a question about the offensive line. While Kirby Smart’s take on the situation seems to be something along the lines of “it is what it is,” in terms of a lack of talent, I remember Coach Richt saying that he could run an effective offense without a dominant offensive line. I was intrigued a few weeks ago when I read that while Smart runs a man to man scheme on the offensive line, Richt’s approach was more of a zone (this was the first time I’d ever heard of/thought about this with respect to the offensive line). … I wonder if the running backs, who must be frustrated, long for the system they ran behind last year. Is it possible that Smart’s approach works great so long as your guys are bigger, faster, and tougher than the guys they’re lining up against, but Richt’s scheme was custom-designed for guys, like ours, who apparently need all the help they can get?”
You make a good point. Smart and his staff appear to have decided to stick with their preferred approach even though they don’t have the type of linemen to make it work. As Smart put it: “I think it’s hard to scheme around fundamentals of football. I think blocking and tackling are the No. 1 things that you have to be able to do in football. … We’ve got to be able to block really well. That’s important. That’s a key cog in order to be able to run the ball.”
Finally, Chris in Tallahassee writes: “Did Kirby deep-six the bones on the back of the players’ helmets?”
I put that question to Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton, who responded: “Correct. At this time, no bones on the back of helmets.”
(If there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, connect with me on Facebook or via Twitter. And don’t forget to check out past entries of the Junkyard Blawg)