Last week, Georgia hauled in the nation’s top-rated college football recruiting class, just a month after the SEC champion Dawgs came within one overtime play of winning a national championship.
Naturally, you’re starting to hear the word “elite” applied to Kirby Smart’s program more and more.
Except down in Florida, where new Gators coach Dan Mullen pooh-poohed Smart’s success. Asked how he’ll keep pace with Georgia in the SEC East, Mullen said, “Listen, making it to one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying? I mean, two out of the last three years we’ve still been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
Aside from the fact that Mullen looks a bit presumptuous saying “we” about a pair of SEC East titles that were won by his predecessor at Florida, his “blind squirrel” analogy also seems overly snarky for a coach who managed one 10-win season in nine years at Mississippi State.
Still, the question he raises about Georgia is a fair one. We won’t know until a few years down the road whether the Dawgs really are a new rising power in college football, or if Smart just got lucky in his second season in Athens.
But, if you look beyond the big media splash made by Georgia’s No. 1 signing class this year, there are definite indications that the pieces needed to make Georgia a regular College Football Playoff selection are coming together.
Will Georgia be rebuilding in 2018, or, as frequently is said of Nick Saban at Alabama, has Smart reached the stage where he’s simply reloading?
Actually, rather than the overused comparisons with Alabama — sparked by Smart’s years of work there as an assistant to Saban — I think the more applicable model for UGA is the rise of close-by neighbor Clemson in recent years.
Until the end of the Mark Richt era, Clemson and Georgia had been comparable programs, typified by them splitting their two most recent clashes. Before Dabo Swinney was hired, Clemson even had lagged a bit behind UGA.
Like Georgia, the Tigers were considered a good, but not great, program still living off memories of their glory days in the early 1980s — talented teams that could beat anybody on a given day, but not really consistently on the same level with Bama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and other elites.
In 2011-2014, Swinney seemed stuck at a Richtian level of underachieving success, with 10 or 11 wins a year. Then, having lured top QB recruit Deshaun Watson from the state of Georgia, Swinney’s Tigers broke through to elite status.
Clemson has played in the College Football Playoff three consecutive seasons, winning the national title in 2016.
How did Swinney do it? Recruiting. Since 2013, the Tigers have had classes ranked 16th or better nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. And, they look likely to figure in the national title conversation again in 2018, having signed the No. 6 class in the country, led by the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, Trevor Lawrence, and five 5-star recruits overall.
Sure, Georgia landed standout recruits in the past under Richt. But not all of those classes panned out (with 2013’s class being pretty much a disaster). And, Richt tended to focus on skill positions, settling for less stellar players up front. So, the talent level wasn’t as deep at Georgia as at, say, Alabama. That was readily apparent as the Tide got stronger and Georgia looked worn out in the fourth quarter of the 2012 SEC Championship Game.
Smart, on the other hand, seems to be recruiting more top talent across the roster. In the 2018 class, the Dawgs signed a 5-star quarterback in Justin Fields, the top-ranked running back in Zamir White, a top-3 tight end, three of the best eight offensive linemen in the country, and 11 4- or 5-star players on defense. The Bulldogs signed 16 players ranked in the top 5 nationally at their position.
As CBS Sports noted, the Bulldogs signed seven five-stars and 15 four-stars, “with an astounding blue-chip ratio of 84 percent.”
And, 247Sports was impressed that “Georgia also managed a remarkable amount of top-to-bottom quality in its class. The Bulldogs’ average signee ranking of 94.23 is the third-highest in 247Sports history behind Ohio State’s 2017 and 2018 classes.”
In terms of recruiting, Smart already has proved he’s not a one-trick pony, pulling in three consecutive highly ranked classes. Georgia had the No. 6 recruiting class in 2016, right after he had just been hired, and improved to the No. 3 class last year, before topping everyone this year with a class that has been ranked as the second-best of all time since such rankings have been kept.
The Dawgs signed more than twice as many 5-star recruits as the rest of the SEC combined! Those seven 5-stars are a modern record.
DawgNation’s Chip Towers made the point nicely about what sort of Signing Day it was for the Dawgs: “Georgia also flipped Otis Reese of Leesburg on Wednesday. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound 4-star safety went from being the highest-ranking member of Michigan’s 2018 class to maybe the 11th or 12th for the Bulldogs.”
Said SBNation of UGA’s 2018 signees: “This class is basically a Death Star,” with the site adding that “only three programs are really Georgia’s peers right now” — Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson.
Of course, a highly ranked recruiting class is no guarantee of success. Sometimes, those 4- and 5-star players don’t pan out. Other times, you have trouble keeping them on your team (just ask Richt).
However, if we’ve learned anything in recent years from the recruiting wars, it’s that continued and regular success there usually does translate into championships. At least, that has been the case at Alabama, and Clemson seems to be reaching that status, too. Will Smart and Georgia make it a Southern triumvirate atop college football in coming seasons?
Financial support for the program also is considered key to winning championships. At Alabama, Saban famously has so many off-field support staffers that he probably needs a bus to transport them all. For most of the Richt years, unfortunately, Georgia’s athletic administration was rather tightfisted (and shortsighted) on both staffers and facilities, but that, too, has changed.
Georgia has the inside practice facility now. It’s redoing the west end of Sanford Stadium to upgrade player facilities. By last summer, The Advocate in Baton Rouge was reporting Georgia easily led the SEC in support staff pay, about $1.5 million more than the second-highest program: Alabama.
And, with the recent football ticket price hike and continued push on donations from the UGA Athletic Association, Smart seems to have all the resources he needs to keep Georgia on par with Bama and Clemson.
The past two seasons, the College Football Playoff National Championship Game has been won by the team that lost it the year before. Can Smart and the Dawgs make that happen three seasons in a row?
We’ll see. Mullen could be right, and Georgia might not be able to sustain its domination of the SEC East.
But, considering how far behind other programs in the division are at this point, Georgia’s continued recruiting success, the financial support, and the single-minded approach to his job that Smart seems to have brought with him from Tuscaloosa, a fall-off in the program seems unlikely.
Looking ahead, I see a top dog rather than a blind squirrel.