Georgia Bulldogs: In defense of Kirby Smart’s Coaching

Sep 24, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA: Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart yells during the first quarter of the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi won 45-14. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports.
Sep 24, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA: Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart yells during the first quarter of the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi won 45-14. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports. /

After a fourth defeat in five games, there’s no doubt that a lot of Georgia fans are starting to feel a bit frustrated with their new head coach, but this season shouldn’t be surprising.

The Georgia Bulldogs are coming off a bye week and a rather upsetting loss to Vanderbilt, it’s safe to say that a lot of Georgia fans were expecting a decent showing from their Bulldog team this past Saturday. Add in the fact that the game offered an opportunity for them to play spoiler against their much loathed Florida counterparts and many fans were actually hopeful.

Such a poor performance is another disheartening moment in a season filled with many and its reasonable to see why some fans are starting to lose faith in their new head coach after only 8 games. That being said, success in a conference as tough as the SEC is often more difficult than fans would like to believe and so some perception is necessary.

2015 /2016, is there any difference?

One of the things that is being heavily overlooked by fans and media alike this year, is that with the exception of a very poor loss to Vanderbilt, Kirby Smart’s first season is almost a mirror image of Mark Richt’s 15th.

While Saturday’s defeat was very disheartening, the team actually played better than they did last year against Florida when they were blown out 27-3. Last year also featured a heartbreaking loss to Tennessee, only the Vols were not the SEC East favorites they were this year and a squeaky 9-6 victory against a very weak Missouri team in Stanford Stadium.

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Nobody is suggesting that this years Bulldog team is better than they look, but they are almost exactly the same as they were last year and it’s tough to argue that they have the same talent as they did in 2015. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, John Theus, and Malcom Mitchell were considerably better than the players that have replaced them and it’s hard to see any position where the Bulldogs have actually improved in terms of talent.

One of the main reasons that Richt was let go was that last years 9-3 record (bowl game excluded) was in many ways a mirage. Their only ‘good’ win, came against a poor 7-6 Auburn on a down year and every other victory came against a team with a losing record or an FCS opponent. Loss to Vanderbilt aside, at least Kirby Smart can look at the North Carolina win and see one valuable scalp in his first season.

Recruiting matters.

When you look at the team that faced Florida this past week, it’s striking to see only 3 senior starters on this team. The main reason for this is the fact that the 2013 Georgia recruiting class was quite simply, an unmitigated disaster.

2013’s class was ranked the 12 best in the nation but 6 of the teams ahead of Georgia were in the SEC. That is not a typo, 6 other SEC schools had better classes than UGA, including Ole Miss and Texas A&M, two schools that UGA should out recruit in its sleep. Top prospect Tray Matthews was dismissed for repeated violations and only 2 4-star prospects from that class remain on the team, one of whom is 3rd string QB and part time punter, Brice Ramsey. A class this bad, with so little high end talent and depth when it was recruited, simply could not survive this level of attrition and so it’s no surprise to see so few seniors on the field this year.

While Kirby Smart is certainly still very new at heading up a program, there is no doubt that he and his coaches seem to have taken a much more aggressive approach to recruiting than their predecessors. UGA currently has the 3rd ranked 2017 class, behind only Alabama and Ohio State and they simply refuse to back down when it comes to pursuing every potential prospect they can.

It’s going to take some time, the Bulldogs have no chance of being #1 in the recruiting rankings in 2017 but 2018 is very much up for grabs and Smart has made it very clear that he will be targeting that mark every single year going forward. Having a recruiting class like 2013 is simply not acceptable for a school with Georgia’s proximity to talent and based on results, the new coaching team seem much more likely to turn that talent into dawgs than the previous setup.

Jacob Eason isn’t the only high profile Freshman in 2016, Kirby’s one too.

It’s often forgotten than Head Coaches need to learn just like players do. This is Kirby Smarts first year as the head coach of any football program. Comparisons to Nick Saban at Alabama and Urban Meyer at Ohio State are mistaken because both those coaches had already been head coaches at multiple programs and already had national championships under their belt.

It’s a lot easier to know what play to call on a 4th and 2 at midfield and to know how to change a well prepared game plan because it isn’t working when you have been in those positions many times over and have already made decisions that have succeeded and failed. It should also be remembered that Saban started out at Toledo, Meyer at Bowling Green and they both spent significant time learning how to be a head coach before they ended up doing just that in the pressure cooker that is the SEC.

Smart was one of the best prepared coordinators available in a very long time when he took the Georgia job last year, his time with Saban has undoubtedly taught him a great deal about how to build a championship program but until 9 months ago, he had never had the final say. Coaches need to be given time to learn and grow in the same way quarterbacks and other positions do and if Georgia are ever going to see success with Kirby Smart, fans and boosters have to remember that he’s going to be learning for a while.

Building a National Champion is never easy.

Ultimately, 2016 has been a disappointing season for UGA fans and it might continue to get worse before it gets better. Auburn look a lot better than they did last year and even Kentucky could be a challenge for a UGA team that seems lost on offense.

Despite that, it’s important that fans stick with the Kirby Smart and his coaches through the tough times because these sorts of lows are necessary if the program is ever going to achieve the highs the fans want. For whatever reason, no Mark Richt led Bulldog team had won the SEC in a decade and despite the record, 2015 clearly showed continued regression since the heartbreak of 2012. Something simply was not working and Smart was brought in to win, but he was never likely to do that in his first year, especially with the team trending downwards.

Next: Braves Off-season Targets

Building a program that can deliver the success UGA fans want is hard. It takes time, relentless work, highly talented players  as well as a little bit of luck every now and again.