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David Weikel/UGA
Georgia coach Kirby Smart celebrates a play in the Notre Dame game, a 20-19 win on Sept. 9, that keeps looking better with every passing week.

Kirby Smart’s masterful strokes have No. 1 Georgia way ahead of schedule

ATHENS ― There was no timetable. That’s what Kirby Smart says. He said his master plan of success for Georgia football didn’t include a calendar or a flow chart or projected milestones. The idea, he said, simply was to work hard, convince his team it needed to work harder, go find some players, try to get a few to stick around and see what happens.

Well, here we are two-thirds of the way through his second season, and a group of 13 men met in Grapevine, Texas, on Tuesday and concluded that Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the land.

For now, mind you.

These were the first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season that ESPN blasted out Tuesday night. They generally change weekly from now until the four-team playoff is set in December. But according to that august group of football experts, there is not a team better than Georgia right now. Alabama even.

By any measure, this is quick.

I think we all believed Smart eventually would get the Bulldogs rolling again. He had been with Nick Saban and on the inside at Alabama. He knew the formula ― “the process,” if you will ― backward and forward. He had the template. That’s why UGA went to such an extent to get Smart here in the first place, including moving out his predecessor so they could snag him before South Carolina did.

But even Smart acknowledged the tremendous amount of work that needed to be done when he arrived at Georgia. Compared to what he’d been dealing with at Bama, the depth on both sides of the ball had to be improved, as did the size of the linemen, the speed at the skill positions. Smart bemoaned the very infrastructure of the football program, from support staff to facilities to the vehicles hauling recruits around campus during visits.

All that got addressed in a hurry, to UGA’s credit as well as Smart’s. But progressing in strides and jet-propelling to the summit of college football are two different things. Obviously, a lot has to go right and work right to go from 4-4 and unranked a year ago to 8-0 and No. 1 today.

Realizing that Georgia has neither won nor achieved anything of substance just yet, let’s nevertheless examine and acknowledge some things that Smart has done to put the Bulldogs in this position.

Kirby the motivator

To hear Smart talk about it, he’s no Knute Rockne when it comes to pregame, halftime and postgame speeches. His players beg to differ.

“I say what I feel,” Smart said Tuesday. “I mean, I don’t go into a 600-word passage, but I think it’s important that they know what you think this game’s gonna be about. I think every game’s a little different. They’re all physical, they’re all tough, and they’re all intense. So I’m gonna be intense with the message.”

His players concur on the intensity part.

“Yeah, we’re pretty fired up when we come out of there,” sophomore defensive end David Marshall said. “He gives motivational speeches and gets us pumped up and ready to go. They get you hyped.”

Said defensive back Tyrique McGhee, “He’s a players’ coach. He has all the right things to say before the game. So does [defensive coordinator Mel] Tucker. I don’t know where they get it from, but every game day they’ve got another line. Before the game he gets us all riled up as a team, but also focused and not letting the energy overwhelm us.”

Smart also has a knack for using competition to motivate his charges. He brought in a kicker specifically to compete with Rodrigo Blankenship after a freshman All-America season because he wasn’t happy with Blankenship’s kickoffs. Blankenship is now on pace to break Kevin Butler’s school record for touchbacks; he earned a scholarship in the second week of the season.

Kirby the emulator

We’re all slowly learning what makes Smart unique as a head coach and man, but the foundation of his football program is built unapologetically from the blueprint he made while working with Saban. Smart spent 11 seasons with Saban at LSU, with the Miami Dolphins and at Alabama, and they won five national championships together, so that’s understandable.

That has manifested itself in several different ways, not the least of which are the offensive and defensive systems the Bulldogs employ, as well as the practice regimen and the strength and conditioning methods. But it actually goes deeper than that.

“The process,” as Saban likes to call it, is fully activated at Georgia now. Smart is controlling the message as Saban did at Bama. Freshmen can’t be interviewed, nor can most sophomores. Neither can assistant coaches and generally nobody who isn’t a member of or been vetted by the “leadership committee.”

There are no longer bones on the back of the Bulldogs’ helmets. Smart doesn’t like to single out players for individual awards. The Bulldogs can no longer wear warmups or their uniforms when they bus to the stadiums for games. Now they must wear suits. Smart wants them to feel like they’re on a business trip or playing in the NFL.

Players and fans groused about these changes initially. Now everybody seems to have embraced it.

“With the suits, you walk in, and you’re all business,” junior receiver Terry Godwin said. “You’re coming there to take care of business. Whenever you come in there all swagged up and looking clean, that’s what’s on your mind, ‘We’re here for a business trip.’ That’s how you’ve got to get [the] mind prepared that way.”

Kirby the tactician

There were some missteps in that first year, but Smart has navigated his second season perfectly, as the Bulldogs’ 8-0 record suggests. Smart has been scoring touchdowns in virtually every aspect of being a coach.

His recruiting has been spot on. Georgia didn’t need a lot of freshmen to contribute this season, but Andrew Thomas’ development at right tackle has been crucial to the success of the Bulldogs running game this season. And starting quarterback Jake Fromm wouldn’t be at UGA if Smart weren’t.

Not only are the Bulldogs recruiting large classes of elite talent, such as this year’s No. 3-ranked class, Smart has shown a flair for roster management. Last year, he fought Alabama and the SEC tooth-and-nail to release Maurice “Mo” Smith so he could transfer in. It was clear from Smith’s play what he meant to that defense last season. This year, despite being tight on scholarships, Smart is getting starting contributions from two other transfers in starting safety J.R. Reed (Tulsa) and punter Cameron Nizialek (Columbia).

In the end, Smart’s greatest recruiting accomplishment was probably getting Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter to pass on NFL money and return for their senior seasons. As a result, Georgia not only has great depth on the roster but also great leadership in the locker room as they continue “The Revenge Tour” that has been the 2017 season.

Meanwhile, Smart appears to have assembled a great coaching staff around him. Georgia’s score by quarters validates that much. The Bulldogs have outscored opponents 90-17 in the first quarter and 106-3 in the third. That’s generally an indication of coming in with a good game plan and of making effective adjustments at halftime.

Smart also has proved to be a bit of traditionalist, which tends to bode well with fans. He likes to run the ball and stop the run and play for field position; he prefers red uniforms at home, white on the road and nothing funky in between.

Those are just a few of the things Smart has done to help put the Bulldogs in this position. There are other things, such as luck, timing, scheduling, etc. Whatever it is, it all seems to be working, and the rest of the nation is taking notice.

I thought a season like this might be coming, but not so soon.

“There’s no schedule,” Smart said. “They don’t have a book on it that says, ‘By this time you have to be here and by this time you have to be here.’ It’s not really done that way. It’s done each year, independent of the previous. This year is independent of last year, just like next year will be independent of this year.

“You try to reshape your team based on the personality it takes on. We are worried about this year and we’re worried about South Carolina right now. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

Smart’s players don’t seem surprised or overwhelmed with the new view.

“We kind of expected this,” Godwin said. “Coach Smart has the mentality that if you put in the work you’re going to get the outcome that you want. It’s nobody’s fault but yours if you don’t get the outcome that you want. I think he’s done a great job of giving this program the culture of having a strong mentality and players focusing on doing the things we need to be a great team. No surprises; it’s what we expected.”