ATHENS — As much as Mark Richt’s dismissal was about what went wrong with him at Georgia, it was also about who might be available to replace him. And by all accounts, the primary target is Kirby Smart.

Word in the coaching ranks is this is the year that Smart, Alabama’s longtime defensive coordinator, is finally ready to leave the shelter and comfort of Nick Saban’s coaching staff for a head coaching job of his own. He had been approached by Virginia Tech about its vacancy — recently filled by Justin Fuente of Memphis — and, in the last couple of weeks, has become a primary target of South Carolina.

In all, there are more than a dozen head coaching vacancies in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks. It was not until late Saturday night that it was determined that Les Miles would be back at LSU. But significant movement is expected in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Smart is a UGA alumnus and football letterman. He played defensive back for the Bulldogs from 1995-98, serving as team captain his senior season. He was running backs coach at Georgia for one season for Richt (2005) but has been at Alabama with Saban since 2007, the last eight seasons as defensive coordinator. The Crimson Tide has won three national championships during that time.

A native of Bainbridge, Smart has long recruited the state of Georgia with great success and is familiar with the SEC. At 39, he is at the optimum age to make the transition to being a head coach. Persons close to the Georgia football program who are acquaintances with Smart said the Bulldogs could not afford to sit by idly as “one of their own” took another head coaching job, possibly with a rival program.

Said one source with knowledge of the situation, “this was all about Kirby.”

Should Smart choose to come, it’s thought he might bring some other UGA lettermen with him. Travis Jones is assistant head coach and defensive line coach with the Seattle Seahawks. Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp reportedly could be approached about returning to Athens.

But there’s no guarantee the Bulldogs would get Smart. Some at Georgia are concerned that he could decide to remain at Alabama with the hopes of succeeding the 64-year old Saban.

If Smart was unavailable, Dan Mullen is considered by several other knowledgeable insiders as a viable option. Mullen and Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity remain close friends after spending a great deal of time together at Florida. McGarity was associate AD for 18 years and was there while Mullen was working as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator.

Unlike Smart, Mullen is proven as a head coach — he’s 54-35 in seven seasons at Mississippi State. He’s considered easy to work with and would bring a spread-option offensive attack to Athens.

Other possible candidates include:

  • Mike Bobo, the Bulldogs’ longtime offensive coordinator, who just completed his first regular season as head coach at Colorado State (7-5);
  • Charlie Strong, the Texas head coach, who has struggled some with the Longhorns but who also has a relationship with McGarity from Florida;
  • Tom Herman, the first-year Houston head coach out of Ohio State.

But all indications are Kirby Smart is who the Bulldogs want and who they will go after first.

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