ATHENS — Georgia should’ve won 10 games this season, nine at worst. Instead, the Bulldogs finished 7-5, and that’s on Kirby Smart.
That shouldn’t be taken as a condemnation of the Smart Regime at UGA. It’d be unfair to make conclusions about the direction of the program under Georgia’s first-year, rookie head coach on the sample-size of one, 12-game regular season. He needs more time to recruit his players and put his stamp on the program.
But there were quite a few missteps in Year 1, and Georgia let a couple of wins get away as a result. Go ahead and include this past Saturday’s loss to Georgia Tech among them.
First, we need some historical perspective. Smart winning seven games in his first season is about par for the course. It trends along the same lines as most first-year head coaches at the school in the “modern era.” Georgia’s last four coaches — dating back to the early 1960s — averaged six wins in their first seasons. Mark Richt, who went 8-4 in 2001, was the best among them. Jim Donnan went 5-6, Ray Goff 6-6 and Vince Dooley 7-3-1.
Extended over the entirety of the previous century, that number falls to an average of 5.5 wins for first-year coaches. But schedules and circumstances were radically different then, so it’s not worth including in the discussion.
What can we draw from that? Generally, there’s a reason you’re making a coaching change in the first place. It’s because the administration has determined they’re not happy with the direction of the program or the level of talent therein and feel a need for change.
And with change comes a cost. It certainly cost Georgia this season.
In my opinion, the Bulldogs lost three games they should have won this season: Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Tech. Obviously all three were tightly-contested games that could have gone either way. They were also played at home between the hedges, where Georgia historically does not lose very often, and shouldn’t.
At the end of it, I think it’s clear that Tennessee wasn’t as good as its lofty preseason-billing said it was, injuries not withstanding. But the odds of losing a three-point lead with 10 seconds to play are astronomical — 1.7 percent in fact — yet Georgia lost on a Hail Mary as time expired. A fluke? Yes. But to some extent so was the Bulldogs’ drive and score to take the lead. Those things happen sometimes.
What happened against Vanderbilt should not happen — ever. All due respect to the Commodores, who were extremely competitive this season under coach Derek Mason, they should never beat Georgia in Athens. Yes, it happens from time to time, but very, very seldom. They’re simply disparate programs. But you absolutely should not lose to a team you out-gain 421 to 171. And that outcome was ultimately determined by a terrible play call: Isaiah McKenzie on a jet sweep on fourth-and-one with Nick Chubb as the lead blocker.
The Georgia Tech game was another one that the Bulldogs had a 98 percent chance of winning. That’s according to ESPN’s probability graphic, which gave the Yellow Jackets only a 2 percent chance of winning as they faced second-and-12 at their 4 down two scores with 9 minutes to play. But Tech would cover 96 yards in three minutes and then get the turnover it had to have to pull off the upset on Georgia’s ensuing possession.
And that’s another one I put on the coaching staff. The Bulldogs called timeout with 3:44 to play facing second-and-eight at their own 40. They decided to go with a quick-out pass to Terry Godwin. Jacob Eason’s pass was too hard, too high and behind Godwin, and the deflection off Godwin’s hand resulted in an interception. That was the one thing that could not happen in that situation.
Yes, it was a relatively low-risk pass play. However, you’re attempting it with a freshman quarterback that has had accuracy issues all season, as his .538 completion percentage will attest. Football 101 says to continue to run the football, preferably with featured tailback Sony Michel, who had 170 yards on the day. Even if you don’t get the first down, you’ve run off more clock, and the subsequent punt should leave the opponent with at least 80 yards to negotiate in the final minutes. Conceivably, of course.
Alas, it was Georgia’s offense that would be its undoing this season. The Bulldogs scored just 288 points all season, an average of 24 per game. That’s the worst in school history in the 12-game era.
Granted, Georgia had offensive line issues from the get-go, and Smart alluded to them early on. But I also thought the Bulldogs were slow in scheming around that. For the first half of the season, UGA strategically seemed to be trying to maul opponents up front and between the tackles, which it simply was incapable of doing. The Dogs spent too long trying to force a square peg in a round hole.
As for game management, Smart needs to show improvement on that front. He probably needs to be a little more CEO and a lot less coordinator during the course of games. That should help him with clock management and time and situation determinations.
It’s also the responsibility of the head coach to instill confidence in his players. I think Smart can get better in this area as well. I think some comments he made before the season about Georgia’s kickers and offensive linemen and secondary play were overly critical and counterproductive.
But there’s also much about which to be optimistic. I thought the Bulldogs did a fantastic job with a very young defense, which will be returning mostly intact next season. Smart remains a dynamic recruiter, and he has a lot to sell for next year. His ability to locate top-shelf talent to fill in the cracks will be paramount to Georgia’s success going forward.
But if the Bulldogs are to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016, they’ll need to be coached better. And I suspect they will be.
Georgia’s average wins in Year 2 under its last two head coaches — 11.5.