The Georgia Bulldogs losing to Tech hurts and so does every one of the Georgia’s 5 losses this season, but does a few bad results really mean that UGA is doomed?
There is no doubt that the first year of the Kirby Smart era has been disappointing for many UGA fans. After Mark Richt was let go after a 9-3 record, many were expecting that Smart would bring instant success to a program that has failed to win a weak SEC East conference since 2012.
Some were expecting 10 wins this year and there are already a small number of fans thinking that Smart should be shown the door already after posting a 7-5 record in his first season as a head coach. But while passions are undoubtedly raw after the difficult loss, its important for fans to see 2016 for what it really was and while losing to Tech is never acceptable, these sorts of games are part of the rebuilding process UGA signed up for when they hired Smart.
The 2015 Mirage:
Although Georgia finished 2015 with a 9-3 record, they were in many ways, a much weaker team than that record suggested. While they were able to overcome Auburn and Georgia Tech late in the season, both were very close games against programs who were experiencing serious down years. It’s worth remembering that Auburn went 7-6 and Tech only 3-9 in what was by far Paul Johnson’s worst year as a head coach.
Blowout wins against a 3-9 South Carolina and 2-11 Louisiana-Monroe can’t hide the fact that the last years roster was deeply flawed. They greatly benefited from one of the easiest schedules the SEC has seen in several years but they still looked pedestrian in most games. Fans thinking that Smart was going to come in an take them to double digit wins seemed to have not noticed just how poorly the program played in Mark Richt’s final year.
Record aside, the 2015 Bulldogs were one of the weakest teams Richt ever fielded and that was the reason the school decided to move on from it’s long term head coach. Good fans always believe their team can beat anyone, but this years team was actually much more behind the eight ball than a lot of people realized back in August.
How bad were the Dawgs in 2016?
So how much different was the team this year? Well for a start, they played 5 opponents that were ranked compared to the 2 that the 2015 team played which indicates a more challenging schedule. Victories over two of them, North Carolina and Auburn, in many ways show some improvement even if any enthusiasm for these wins was later soured by bad losses.
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Losing to Vanderbilt and Tech are the other big difference between the past two years, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they are both very different programs in 2016. The Yellow Jackets were back to winning ways this year, finishing 8-4 compared to their terrible 2015 and this year’s Vanderbilt team beat both Ole’ Miss and Tennessee, two programs that were certainly in a better position in terms of upperclassmen talent that UGA was.
It should also be remembered that Georgia was breaking in freshmen at the two most important positions on any college football team, quarterback and head coach. Jacob Eason showed real flashes of brilliance during this past year, but he was at times inaccurate and inconsistent. Despite a poor game last week, he showed real promise this season and the Dawgs look to have found a building block for the next few years which cannot be overlooked.
Kirby Smart might have 4 national championships from his time at Alabama, but being the head coach is a very different animal and its unfair to again expect him to be perfect. Despite what fans might want, it’s not easy for first time head coaches to ‘just win’, especially in a tough conference like the SEC. Urban Meyer inherited a loaded team but lost 3 conference games in his first season at Florida and Nick Saban went 7-6 in his first year at ‘Bama. Both of them had been successful head coaches before at multiple schools so it’s no surprise a first timer might end up making mistakes during their rookie season.
Upgrading the talent:
One of the main reasons the 2016 season was always likely going to be a challenge for Georgia was the lack of success from their 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. We’ve touched on this in a previous article, but in short, the lack of starting level players that came from these two years was always going to lead to an eventual downturn. When you see so many freshmen having to step and play long minutes, it more shows of a real lack of older talent that permeates throughout the team rather than how special those freshmen are.
Jacob Eason, Issac Nauta, Julian Rochester, Riley Ridley etc will all be better because of the experience they have gained this year, but was it really the best thing for the program to have them playing so early? The future will likely be brighter because of their experience, but I’m sure that in the future, Kirby Smart and his coaches will be hoping that they will be able to give prized recruits more time to grow on the practice field before relying on them in big games.
Despite several mistakes in play calling and game management in his first season, recruiting is one area that Kirby Smart continues to aggressively outperform expectations. His ability to bring in a class that finished #8 overall last year while preparing Alabama’s defense for the playoffs show just how hard he recruits and 2017 will likely be even better. Sitting at the #3 ranked class in the country, there’s no doubt that the Dawgs can expect a big influx in talent coming to Athens next year and fans can expect some of them to have an instant impact.
Long term, UGA will hope that consistent highly ranked classes will lead to more depth within the program and that in turn will lead to better upper-classmen who have spent more time learning within the program. Schools like Alabama consistently have tremendous depth and many of their top prospects redshirt before being given the opportunity to win a job because of the amount of talent they have. Kirby Smarts long term goal is to build UGA into a program with similar depth, something he simply lacked in 2016.
Brighter days ahead:
2016 was not a great year to be a Bulldog fan, of that there can be little doubt. Inconsistent offensive performances throughout the season and a defensive collapse in the final game will still be in the back of fans minds when we get to 2017 but there are many reasons to be positive.
There is a lot more young talent on this roster than there are upperclassmen and with so many exciting recruits coming in, there’s hope for the future that the depth needed to win big in the SEC is starting to build up. Play calling and on the field performance will need to improve in the new year alongside this and both the coaches and the players need to improve in their second year, but that’s pretty par for the course for a team that just moved on from a coach of 15 years.
It might not have been the season that many fans hoped for, but 2016 was certainly not as bad as some seem to think it was. If Smart and his coaches are able to close out a strong recruitment class and learn from the mistakes they made in their debut season, then hopefully it will likely be the last time Bulldogs fans have to watch 5 losses again for quite some time.