ATHENS — In Year 1 as Auburn’s head coach, Gus Malzahn came within 14 seconds of a national championship. In Year 1 as Florida’s head coach, Jim McElwain won the SEC East. In Year 1 as Georgia’s head coach, Kirby Smart lost to Vanderbilt.
Fatalists among Bulldog Nation will see this as another galling incongruity, to be placed on the same shelf as, “We beat Auburn eight of the past 10 year, and the two times we didn’t those guys played for the national title.” Utter doomsayers will nod to Vandy and say, “We hired a guy who’s in over his head.”
Can’t offer any help with the Auburn part: It is what it is, however improbably. As for the second, I can offer this:
Smart has had a difficult first season, more difficult than I’d have imagined given the slightness of the schedule. I figured Georgia would lose to Ole Miss and Tennessee. I never saw the Vandy thing coming. Smart has worked seven games and lost as many times to the Commodores as Vince Dooley did in 25 years.
Now Georgia must play Florida, which leads the East but isn’t a great team. It wasn’t last year, either, and still it thrashed the Bulldogs in the Faton Bauta game. And Auburn is looking good again and Kentucky sits second in the SEC East and Georgia Tech awaits two days after Thanksgiving, and … how bad can this get?
When you lose to Vandy, that’s what happens: Nothing looks the same, and maybe nothing should. How many times has Georgia appeared even pretty good this season? I count three – second half against North Carolina, the frantic end against Missouri, most everything until and beyond the final second against Tennessee. In sum: Not often.
Even if we stipulate that Georgia’s talent isn’t what it usually is, a team with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Jacob Eason, Lorenzo Carter and Isaiah McKenzie can’t cry hunger. Still, Smart’s Bulldogs had to scramble just to get through games against Nicholls State and Mizzou. Was that the sign of a team in transition, or was it something worse?
Georgia ran the ball to great effect against North and South Carolina but couldn’t manage a short yard against Vandy. Eason threw often and well against Missouri and Vanderbilt, less often and less well against South Carolina. The Bulldogs rank eighth among the 14 SEC teams in total offense, eighth in rushing and ninth in passing. That’s across-the-board mediocrity. (They’re fifth in total defense.)
Which tells us what we already knew: The offensive line is substandard. If you rush for a total of 176 yards against Mizzou and Vandy, you can’t block. There seems no way Smart, the demon recruiter, will allow that to happen again, but the shifting nature of the Bulldogs’ approach – one week they barely run, the next they run a lot – makes us wonder if the longtime defensive coordinator’s vision for his offense is, shall we say, unformed.
Speaking Monday, Smart said of his offense: “The word I’ve used is balanced. Balance is not ‘I’ (meaning the I-formation). Balance to me is a run-pass balance. It’s not necessarily a spread thing … When you struggle against one thing, you’ve got to do the other thing.”
That’s true, I guess. But a Georgia fan might like to think that a team with Chubb/Michel – and Eason as a complement – might be able to do both. Or to do one without fail. Hasn’t happened yet, and we’re bearing down on Halloween.
Again, it’s too soon to deem Smart a bust. (Do I need to type “Nick Saban” and “Louisiana-Monroe”?) I’d expect next season to look rather different, just as Year 2 under Mark Richt was a time of departure. But I do find it curious that the guy hired to graft the Alabama Way onto UGA has worked more than half a season without establishing much of anything. Georgia isn’t yet Bama, and I’m not sure it’s still Georgia.