UGA has hired Kirby Smart for one reason: The university hopes Smart can transform a good football program into a great one. This expectation comes with plenty of pressure, but, there is reason to hope that Smart will be able to complete this lofty mission. In fact, he might be able to win at UGA pretty quickly.
Taking a look at the recent SEC coaches that have had the most success in their first seasons, three names come to mind. Florida’s Jim McElwain led the Gators to a 10-3 record so far this season including a 7-1 mark in the SEC. In 2013, Gus Malzahn won an SEC title in his first year at Auburn and played for a national championship, and the Les Miles era began at LSU back in 2005 with the Tigers posting an 11-2 record and going 7-1 in conference games.
Interestingly, these three coaches had slightly different teams in their first seasons in the league. McElwain’s Florida team along with Miles’ LSU squad were led by dominant defenses, while Malzhan’s Auburn team was paced by a dynamic rushing attack. That said, all three of these programs did have one thing in common.
McElwain, Malzahn, and Miles all inherited programs that had enjoyed a lot of recruiting wins in the years that preceded their hirings. According to 247sports Florida’s average finish in the recruiting rankings in the four years before McElwain was hired was seventh in the country. Auburn’s four-year average before Malzahn was 11th, and LSU’s average before Miles was seventh. It stands to reason that the talent these coaches inherited enabled their early success.
Compare that to what Nick Saban had to work with during his first season at Alabama in 2007. Saban, a coach that later won three national championships with the Crimson Tide and might win a fourth this season, could only manage seven wins in his first year. Why? He simply wasn’t granted the same level of talent that McElwain, Malzahn, and Miles had. The 247sports average for the recruiting classes in the four years prior to Saban’s arrival at Alabama was just 27th in the nation.
The good news for Smart is that the roster in place at UGA for his first season is a lot better than the one Saban had when he started at Alabama.
UGA’s last four recruiting classes have finished fifth, eighth, 12th, and eighth respectively, according to 247sports. That’s an average finish of eighth, which makes Smart’s situation at UGA similar to the scenario that produced success for other recent first-year conference coaches.
Obviously, it remains to be seen if Smart will be able to eclipse the achievements of his predecessor Mark Richt at UGA. After all, Richt won a lot of games and came close to a national title. But given the recruiting foundation that’s already in place in Athens, Ga., there’s no reason Smart shouldn’t get off to a fast start.