We’ve now seen the initial press conference, the stressful 2 months of double-duty between UGA recruiting and the Bama Championship run, the 15 practices of spring and the much-publicized 93KDay. I figure that’s well enough evidence to grade Kirby Smart in his first 5 months on the job as the new head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. My criteria will be simple on every front: is the new “lead Dawg” taking every aspect of the program to a championship level? Are the changes we are seeing bringing UGA closer to National Championship? Will this hire be the “Tipping Point” Georgia needs to finally break through? So far, the answer is a resounding YES.
Let’s take a closer look at four criteria I believe are the keys to winning a college football national championship: recruiting, strength and conditioning, culture of excellence among the entire program, and recruiting! Yes, I know I mentioned recruiting twice – it’s just that important. Maybe these four don’t match up with yours, but they are the ones Alabama has used as the blueprint to win four titles in the last seven years. That’s pretty good success, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s start with recruiting. Nick Saban’s worst recruiting class at Alabama was his first. If what the Dawgs hauled in with the class of 2016 is Kirby’s worst, then good things lie ahead “Tween the Hedges.” Smart and the Dawgs signed three 5-star players (the most of any class in UGA history) and still have a great chance to land another 5-star recruit in Savannah, GA Wide Receiver Demetris Robertson. Now I know Mark Richt and his staff did a lot of the heavy lifting on this class, but Smart was able to withstand the inevitable exodus that usually comes with a coaching change and bring an overall Top 10 class to Athens.
Bulldog fans got a real taste of what this class can do at 93KDay (UGA’s Spring Scrimmage, usually called GDay) when prized QB recruit Jacob Eason hooked up with fellow incoming freshmen Isaac Nauta and Riley Ridley for explosive plays that brought the crowd to its feet. Smart knows you can’t win without players. Everyone in Athens two Saturday’s ago knows that the Dawgs have some really, really good players coming in next year.
Next, let’s look at strength and conditioning. While we really won’t see the true results until the fourth quarter against North Carolina this coming September, here’s what I know so far. Kirby and his staff have mentioned the words “stronger,” “more physical” and “tougher” at least 100 times since they took over in January. Smart has specifically mentioned the need for this along the offensive and defensive lines. The previous regime constantly came under fire from UGA fans for not having enough size and depth in these areas. It always seemed the Bulldogs had plenty of receivers and QB’s, but not enough OL’s and DL’s (see the 2nd-half of the 2012 SEC Championship game between UGA and Alabama for proof).
Georgia fans are already giddy at the sight of new offensive line coach Sam Pittman offering numerous 325+-pound offensive tackles and guards in the upcoming recruiting classes. The Dawgs have also received by transfer and offered preferred walk-on status to 3 more OL’s set to arrive in Athens this summer. Again, the proof will be in the pudding coming September, but so far, the message is clear. Georgia needs to be bigger, stronger and more physical, starting on the lines of scrimmage. Take a look at the recent NFL draft picks from Alabama and you’ll see that recipe seems to be working for them.
Personally, I believe the culture in an athletic program is about as important as anything else on the list. As a former coach, I have been a part of winning cultures and mediocre cultures. It is usually pretty obvious to those on the inside and outside of the program which culture you have. While the past 15 years of UGA football were by no means mediocre – 2 SEC Championships, numerous 10-win seasons and plenty of top NFL draft picks is nothing to scoff at – there was always that stumble at the wrong time. There always seemed to be an untimely injury or a loss to an inferior opponent that took the Bulldogs out of the running for a National Championship. Even that 2012 season had UGA on the doorstep, just 5 yards away from a trip to the title game, when a crazy play ended the game with the Dawgs yet again falling short. Something had to change and UGA is now looking to Kirby Smart to be that change.
Look no further than the fact that over 95,000 fans showed up for the annual GDay game after Coach Smart asked and planned for a sell-out crowd to fill Sanford Stadium on April 16th. The previous attendance record was right at 43,000, set just last year. The athletic department brought Ludacris in to perform a 15-minute concert immediately before kick-off. Can’t say I could see that happening in the Richt era. I was there in Athens to see it all and, after the initial Blackout Game against Auburn in 2007 and the rushing of the field after beating Tennessee in 2000, it was my favorite experience as a Bulldog fan. When Eason threw that frozen rope to Ridley from the far hash, I thought the stadium was going to come apart. All of this for a spring scrimmage. That’s what culture change will do for a program.
Even the administration has jumped on board – something long-time UGA fans thought would never happen. The purse strings seemed to have been loosened and it seems Kirby is getting what he know he needs to win a title in Athens. I’m sure Richt would’ve loved to see the department spend $65,000 (what UGA paid Ludacris) just for entertainment for the spring game, but I don’t think he would’ve thought to ask for it. AD Greg McGarrity has allowed Smart to double the size of the football support staff and recruiting budget. Again, did Richt ask for this and just not get it or was he content with where UGA was? All I know is, Kirby asked and received. The culture is changing.
We finally circle back to recruiting, where 2017 is shaping up to an even better class than 2016. Currently, the Dawgs rank #6 on the Rivals.com team rankings – one spot ahead of Smart’s former employer, Alabama. The class is already deep in huge offensive lineman, strong linebackers that can run and athletic defensive backs – three areas of strength of past Crimson Tide championship teams. It appears Kirby paid attention to what the mighty Nick Saban has been doing the past 10 years.
To me, the best example of how much emphasis Smart has put on recruiting is who he hired for his first staff. We all know coaching the kids up once they get there is critical. There have been plenty of 5-star recruits wash out at the next level. But we also know you can’t win championships with 2 and 3-star players. Kirby Smart hired a collection of “good” coaches who just happen to be “great” recruiters. Assistants like James Coley (formerly of Miami), Shane Beamer (yes, son of VT’s Frank), Georgia high school coaching great, Dell McGee and former Crimson Tide secret weapon, Glenn Schumann were tabbed primarily for their ability to win in the living room. Alabama has won 4 national titles since 2009 on the strength of 6 Rivals.com recruiting titles in that same time period. It ain’t no secret, folks!
Overall, Smart has done just about everything right since he took over. He’s made some changes that have ruffled some feathers, but you can see his game plan in action. He’s seen the blueprint for success up close and he is changing everything at UGA that doesn’t fit that blueprint. Will it lead to a College Football Playoff appearance and an eventual National Championship? Mark my words, it will happen at UGA before this incoming 2016 draft class leaves town. Jacob Eason’s junior year, 2018 to be exact, will be the year the Dawgs win it all. Not bad for a first-year head coach in year three competing in the toughest conference in all of football. Greg McGarrity will have chosen wisely.