JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain had a warm embrace after Saturday’s game. It was their last as opposing head coaches when Georgia plays Florida.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Jim and his family. Very close to him and his family. Think a lot of him,” Smart said. “I think he’s a really good football coach. As far as anything else, I’m not concerned with that.”
When he referred to “anything else,” Smart may or may not have been obliquely referring to the fact that McElwain’s days as Florida’s head coach were numbered. Such also appears the case with Butch Jones at Tennessee.
It has been said of Nick Saban that the more he won at Alabama, the more he got other coaches fired — the result of Saban’s teams waxing those head coaches, but also those schools being desperate to compete with the Alabama process.
Now Smart may already be having that effect on the SEC East.
After a rough first season at his alma mater, Smart and Georgia are running roughshod over the SEC East, on and off the field. And while there are plenty of other factors at Florida and Tennessee, perhaps part of the thinking at those schools involves what’s going on at UGA.
Look at what Kirby Smart is doing at Georgia, you can see power brokers say. Look at the blowout wins. Look at recruiting. Hurry up and get a coach who will compete with that. Don’t fall behind.
McElwain is out and Jones seems a fait accompli. And while it’s unlikely right now, don’t rule out the same effect at Auburn if, in two weeks, Georgia marches into The Plains and has a resounding win, followed by Auburn also losing to Alabama. Gus Malzahn seemed to take the heat off earlier this season, but it could always come back.
What’s amazing about the Tennessee and Florida situations is how little push-back there seems to be to the idea of firing coaches who have been pretty successful. Jones stabilized the program, but he’s hit the wall, and his corny public utterances have turned off many in Tennessee.
McElwain was only in his third season and won the division in each of his first two. But the “death threats” debacle and the Gators’ ineptitude on offense this year – the defense isn’t too great, either – has the administration mulling a change, ESPN reported as Saturday’s game was still going on.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t all because of Smart and Georgia. It just doesn’t help Jones, McElwain and other competitors to have one school running away with a division while it’s also pulling in five-star recruits like … well, Alabama.
This also isn’t to turn Smart into the next version of Saban quite yet. Will Muschamp, another Saban protégé, went 11-1 and made the Sugar Bowl in his second year at Florida. But Muschamp didn’t win the East that year.
Smart is going to, barring an unforeseen collapse, along the way embarrassing the division’s two other most high-profile programs. It will be fascinating to see how, and with who, those programs try to fight back.