Don’t listen to the excuses. Don’t buy the spin. Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens has been a major disappointment.
The first year of a head coach’s tenure is kind of like the first 100 days of a new presidency, a chance for the coach to lay out his vision for the future of his program. Well, if this is Kirby’s vision, the Bulldogs have a problem.
Smart was not brought to Georgia to rebuild. He came to Athens to build Alabama out East.
Georgia’s loss to Florida on Saturday, on the back on an embarrassing defeat to Vanderbilt, showed just how far away the program is from the top of the conference. The loss dropped the Bulldogs to 4–4 on the season (including a 2-point win over Nicholls State), with just two SEC wins. And it’s fair to assume that they will only be favored in one game down the stretch: Louisiana Lafayette.
The excuses will come: He didn’t inherit a great team. He needs time to get his own players. It’s too early to judge.
The last two are true. All coaches need at least four years in which to recruit and develop their own talent before they can be properly judged. But the first excuse, not inheriting a ton, is nonsense.
Coming into the year Georgia was one of only 13 teams in the nation that had recruited at a championship level (a list that does not include Florida), per Bud Elliott’s “Blue-Chip” metric. That means that Georgia has signed more 4- and 5-star recruits in the past four years than they have 2- and 3-star recruits.
It’s undeniable that some of those top-level recruits have not blossomed into stars. Indeed, some have left the program. But it’s also an indictment on development and schemes.
On offense, they have looked stagnant and stale.
Gaining just 21 total rushing yards against Florida was an utter embarrassment. That came after a stuck-in-the-mud performance against Vanderbilt and a painful-to-watch one vs. South Carolina.
But the problems run deeper than back-to-back-to-back days of ineffective play. There seems to be little cohesion between the team’s talent and its scheme. They started the season attempting to play bully ball, lining up man to man and trying to run over people. When the offensive line proved to be a mess, unable to generate any kind of consistent push playing straight up, they shifted.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney incorporated more of what he’s familiar with (something used consistently in the North Carolina victory) perimeter runs. They’ve been effective for Chaney before (and at times this year), but they don’t work on a consistent basis with a small wide receivers who are unable or unwilling to consistently block the perimeter. And whenever they’ve attempted to build in any kind of gap elements or line movement, they have been beaten by teams who have better athletes in their front-seven. Only Isaiah Wynn has shown the ability to consistently pull and move with the requisite technique or athletic ability (and that’s about all he’s shown).
The passing attack has been equally puzzling. Sure, the staff can do nothing about the silly number of drops from receivers. Nor can they stop a dominant Florida front from getting into the backfield in an instant. But once again there’s a disconnect between the talent and the scheme.
With the players currently on the roster, the Bulldogs should be running a form of pace-and-space offense that consistently splits the field in half and gets the ball out of Jacob Eason’s hand quickly by design. The offense should be as diverse as they come, running a mixture of: under-center snaps, 3, 5, and 7-step drops, bootleg actions, naked bootlegs, rollouts, pocket movement, sell-out shot plays with max-protection and RPOs that give a single defined read. Essentially, this a pro-style dropback system that uses spread concepts to get the ball to guys in space.
Involving the tight ends and running backs as receivers has always been a core component of Chaney’s offense. That’s ramped up this year, with a lack of trust in his receiving options. Yet, there’s a lack of creativity there, too. Incorporating more motions and shifts is a must, starting with some condensed formations pre-snap that shift to spread sets, forcing the defense to put inferior defenders in coverage.
There just seems like a predictability to everything the Bulldogs are doing. That’s probably why they rank 94th in the nation in S&P+ and 101st in points per game. At times during the Florida game, cornerbacks were jumping concepts, sitting on plays they knew were coming.
And the defense hasn’t fared much better.
Although that’s Smart’s side of the ball, it was always going to take some time to develop.
Smart utilizes a complex coverage system (though runs few coverages) that relies as much on a player’s intellect — reading a receivers release and corresponding route concept — as much as his athletic ability. Finding cornerbacks that can execute that at a high level will take time. As will finding the correct type of safeties. Smart needs a hybrid safety-linebacker who can rotate late, play in zone coverage, match up against tight ends in man coverage and play in the box. Finding those guys is extremely rare; that’s why the ones Smart used to coach at Alabama such as Landon Collins, Mark Barron, and Haha Clinton-Dix are all starting in the NFL.
Up front is greater concern. Smart’s pattern-match system was always going to need time, but creating pressure on the quarterback is all about flat-out talent and being creative with blitz designs. So far, they’ve shown very little of either. Georgia’s defensive line is currently 130th in the nation in havoc rate, with the team as a whole lumbering at 53rd. And don’t let the past three defensive performances fool you. Yes, the front has been more active, but it was essentially stat-padding. The Bulldogs played a Florida offense that ranks 71st in S&P+, a South Carolina one that is currently 118th, and a Vanderbilt attack that is somehow worse, sitting at 121st in the country.
A bad offense and average defense has resulted in a bad football team. That’s not what Georgia signed up for when it axed Mark Richt and went to Smart. Now, that’s not to suggest that Richt should have stayed. It was absolutely time for him to leave. But you can both agree with moving on from Richt — while acknowledging what he left — and say what a poor job the new staff has done in its first year. Those things are mutually exclusive.
The man paid $3.75 million per year to assemble a staff, team and scheme to beat Florida was embarrassed by the Gators on Saturday.
Right now, it’s looking more like Muschamp at Florida than Saban at Alabama. That’s about as disappointing as it gets.