Today’s AJC includes a little something from yours truly, the headline of which serves as a spoiler: “Hired to win big, UGA’s Kirby Smart has produced very little.” Perhaps some among will be asking: “Weren’t you the guy who wrote that Mark Richt needed to go? Are you flip-flopping already?”
Answers to those questions: Yes, I was; no, I’m not.
It’s entirely possible that, were Georgia still being coached by Richt, it would be better than 4-4. But the belief here is that it wouldn’t be a lot better than 4-4, and the same argument we made then would apply now. Namely, that Richt had taken the Bulldogs as far as he could, that there were no championships to be won, maybe no more division titles.
That was the reason Georgia needed to move on. I believed that then. I believe that still.
Whenever a program changes coaches, there’s a chance the next guy might be no better, or even worse. Over the course of eight games, Smart has made a hash of things, as opposed to making hay. He conceded Monday that nobody was being maximized on offense, and I’d suggest that could extend to the entire roster. At the moment, Georgia looks as bad as Georgia ever looks.
But moments yield to moments, and there will be other seasons for Smart and Georgia. Rivals rates the Bulldogs No. 5 nationally in its rankings of 2017 recruiting commitments; ESPN has them No. 3. As mentioned earlier, Georgia’s talent level has reached a generational low. The only cure for that is a string of big recruiting hauls.
Those who harrumphed that a program of such eminence shouldn’t hire someone who’d never been a head coach might well be proved correct. Smart hasn’t exactly looked like the next Urban Meyer, or even the next Tom Herman. (Then again, Herman’s once-ascendant Cougars have lost two of their past four games.) I say again what I said last fall: Smart in 2014 was what Richt was in 2000 — the long-serving No. 1 assistant at the nation’s best program. Any risk was a well-considered one.
We can’t yet know how Smart will be as head coach, though we note that, in his Year 1, Richt was 5-3 after eight games with three SEC losses. (There’s a tiny asterisk to that: Georgia was due to play Houston on Sept. 15, but that game was postponed until Dec. 1 in the wake of 9/11.) As for the peaches-to-oranges comparison of how Smart has done against how Richt is doing … let’s not waste many bytes on that.
For the record, Miami is likewise 4-4 after losing four in a row, which doesn’t mean much if anything. The Bulldogs and Hurricanes are different teams in different leagues. Should Miami beat Pittsburgh on Saturday while Georgia is losing to Kentucky, it won’t mean that Greg McGarity chose poorly. (Nor would a reversal of those results prove that the Georgia AD was utterly justified.) Those are parallel universes.
I can’t defend Smart’s performance in his first eight games as Georgia’s coach. I concede that I expected more. (I picked the Bulldogs to go 10-2 and, even as late as last week, wasn’t sure they’d lose another game.) But Smart’s first Georgia team is 4-4 against an underwhelming schedule, and that last part is what’s most troubling.
Florida is again positioned to win the SEC East — though it would be no shock if the Gators lost at Arkansas and LSU — and even the rowdiest of Reptiles wouldn’t suggest that Jim McElwain has yet returned that proud program to greatness. Tennessee just lost to South Carolina and is dealing with the stunning departure of Jalen Hurd. The division was again wide open.
Even if Georgia doesn’t possess talent of Alabama’s stripe, that’s no excuse for 4-4. In no year should Georgia lose to Vanderbilt. Most of these players weren’t recruited by Smart, but they’re his now. To invoke that word again, he hasn’t exactly maximized resources. If Georgia under Smart never gets better than it is now, he’ll be gone soon. But if this is the worst it gets for this program and this coach, we can write this off to transition and try to forget it happened.
Long story made not exactly short: Year 1 under Smart has been a dud, but there will be other years. To criticize his performance isn’t the same as saying Georgia was wrong to hire him, or wrong to have fired Richt. There’s time for Smart to grow into the job. But the clock is ticking, as clocks invariably do.