Things were a little fuzzy for me on New Year’s Eve, and it had nothing to do with the beer, wine or champagne consumption. (OK, that’s not entirely true.)
Rather, my haziest moments stemmed from the 38-0 shellacking that Michigan State (my school) endured against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl (national semifinals).
The defeat was so bitter, so thorough, so one-sided … I had initially sworn off any promises to watch Monday’s national championship game — pitting Alabama against top-ranked Clemson.
But that pledge had no chance of sticking, for various reasons:
1) From my perspective, college/pro football has no peer in the sporting world.
2) Alabama (a prohibitive favorite against Clemson) remains a fascinating juggernaut.
3) Alabama head coach Nick Saban is chasing his fifth national championship in 12 years (fourth with the Tide).
4) Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson (a Heisman Trophy finalist) could give the vaunted Alabama defense fits, as a dual-threat dynamo.
5) It’ll be fun to chronicle the final hours of Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart … before he makes the full-time leap to his other job with UGA.
With No. 5 in mind, SEC Country explores the positives and negatives of Smart staying with the Crimson Tide throughout their championship voyage — one month after his introduction as UGA’s head coach.
THE LONG CON
In a perfect world, Smart would have committed to UGA, full time, just seconds after accepting the head-coaching position last month.
But then again, if Smart wasn’t already occupying such a lofty position with Alabama — an annual national-title contender — he wouldn’t have been deified as a “hot” candidate with numerous big-time openings.
Plus, UGA athletic director Greg McGarity would not have placed all of his proverbial eggs in Smart’s basket, when searching for a successor to Mark Richt (now with the University of Miami — his alma mater).
Thankfully for McGarity, everything worked according to plan.
In essence, once the smoke clears on Monday’s title game, Smart’s high-profile hiring should represent a win-win-win-win for all interested parties — Smart (and his agent), the Bulldog players, the red-and-black faithful and the SEC fans indifferent to UGA … but passionately rooting against Alabama.
KEEP THE TRAIN MOVING
According to 24/7 Sports, UGA has the 15th-ranked recruiting class for 2016 — a gifted group which currently boasts 14 blue-chippers of three-, four- or five-star caliber.
And of the programs listed in the top 15, only Southern California (No. 14) and UGA (No. 15) will break in new head coaches this fall. (In fairness to Smart, Clay Helton had a head start with the Trojans, serving as their interim head coach for October and November.)
All told, the Dawgs coaches, administrators and fans should be immensely proud of the above achievement. It’s not every year that a first-time head coach (Smart) can stabilize a program’s recruiting efforts right off the bat. It’s even more difficult when that same coach moonlights as the defensive coordinator at another school.
And keep in mind … Smart still has 22 days to close the deal with UGA recruits come Tuesday — regardless of Monday’s championship result. That leaves him plenty of time to vault the Dawgs into a top-10 slot.
PLAYING CATCH-UP TO LSU AND ALABAMA
Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Alabama football offices, when the Saban-led conversations with his coaching staff shifts from “Clemson” to “recruiting.”
It’s only natural that things might initially get quiet, then a little awkward … before the non-UGA-bound assistants venture to a different conference room with Saban.
This is probably by design.
Yes, Saban is obviously happy for Smart and his new crew of loyal UGA assistants/staffers; but it also benefits Saban to occasionally make things uncomfortable for Smart and Co. — as a not-so-subtle reminder of their impending rivalry (games, recruiting, overall conference supremacy), come Tuesday morning.
Bottom line: UGA might have a solid foundation of assets on campus (freshmen, sophomores, juniors), along with another strong recruiting class for 2016 (highlighted by wunderkind quarterback Jacob Eason), but the Bulldogs are still lagging behind LSU and Alabama — superpower programs that have combined for four national championships, six SEC titles and 194 victories since 2007.
Consequently, Smart needs to hit the ground running with UGA in Year 1 — just to stay competitive (the nice term for “relevant”) in the nation’s toughest conference.
Which brings us to the next item …
EVERY SECOND COUNTS
For every minute Smart spends on Alabama’s game plan against Clemson, that’s one less minute devoted to UGA recruiting, player development, team-building exercises with coaches and staffers, glad-handing high school coaches, spring practice scheduling, university relations, program fundraising, etc.
There’s also the little matter of UGA opening up the 2016 campaign with a formidable foe — North Carolina on Sept. 3 (Georgia Dome); and don’t forget about the daunting back-to-back involving Ole Miss (Sept. 24) and Tennessee (Oct. 1).
That aside, UGA’s full docket seems less imposing than years past.
Perhaps it has something to do with Alabama’s absence from the schedule, Florida’s foibles at quarterback, Auburn’s diminished power in the passing game, the general malaise of the SEC East and the major changes going on at Ole Miss — now that junior superstars Laquon Treadwell (likely the No. 1 receiver off the board), Laremy Tunsil (a future All-Pro at left tackle) and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche have departed for the NFL draft.
THE SPOILS OF SUCCESS
Ole Miss debuted a new basketball arena on Thursday night and invited a number of sports and pop-culture dignitaries to the event — including Rebels football coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze’s mere presence at The Pavilion At Ole Miss (no corporate-themed arena name?) sparked a minor uproar on Twitter (and presumably SEC message boards), with Rebels fans momentarily questioning the coach’s commitment to National Signing Day (Feb. 3).
That’s the wrong tack to take with Freeze, who has a sterling recruiting record at Ole Miss and has knocked off Alabama in successive seasons (2014/2015).
Yes, Freeze had a great seat for all the hoops pomp and circumstance, but that’s part of the deal when you’re the face of a big-money, high-pressure enterprise in the SEC. At a basketball venue, it’s still his obligation to make an appearance, shake some hands, kiss a few babies and sell the all-encompassing virtues of college life at Ole Miss.
Besides, Freeze has access to a cell phone with texting; and his staffers, working crazy hours during this period, are likely keeping the coach in the loop when he’s away from the office.
Speaking of getaways … Freeze will be the guest analyst for ESPN’s coverage of the national title game. It’s yet another opportunity for Freeze to promote the Rebels program, while getting maximum exposure from the Clemson-Alabama showdown.
Fast forward to January 2017: If Kirby Smart should show up on ESPN’s pre-game coverage for the Playoff championship, similar to Freeze’s upcoming cameo, it probably means UGA exceeded all expectations in Year 1.
By extension, Smart and the UGA coaches would likely be in line for another bump in the national recruiting rankings — relative to the present day (January/February 2016).
THE ‘BIG FISH’ VICTORY DANCE
It’s easy to be cavalier about the long-term significance of Smart putting UGA on the 10-day back burner.
Smart’s greatest recruiting coup for 2016 — convincing Eason to reaffirm his original commitment to UGA (before Richt’s “mutual parting”) — has been in the books for weeks. In essence, he’s earned the right to chase one more championship with Alabama.
How big is the Eason windfall? The UGA coaches can now prioritize the stealth recruiting art of building around their linchpin quarterback … instead of desperately seeking out his closest doppelganger from the Class of 2016.
SMART COULD BE THE NEXT TOM HERMAN
Just moments after Ohio State had upended Oregon in last year’s Playoff championship, the ESPN cameras fixated on the image of coach Tom Herman — then Ohio State’s offensive coordinator — donning a University of Houston hat near the trophy celebration, in anticipation of Herman presiding over the Cougars the following day.
That five seconds of isolated camera time, from a recruiting standpoint, likely had 10 times the value of any Herman office day with Houston — had the coach opted to bolt the Buckeyes before the Playoff semifinals (upset victory over No. 1 Alabama).
Herman had to know that sticking with Ohio State would pay off in the long run — for Houston — if the Buckeyes reached the title game (ample TV exposure on the sidelines or coaches’ press box) and subsequently captured coach Urban Meyer’s third national championship (two with Florida).
And that’s exactly how it played out. Jackpot!
As a postscript to Herman’s impetuousness (staying with Ohio State through the Playoff), the Cougars shook off the initial downer of a so-so recruiting class in 2015 (91st nationally) to claim the American Athletic Conference title in the fall.
Oh, and for good measure, Houston fleeced Florida State in the Peach Bowl — perhaps the biggest upset of the bowl season.
In other words, who cares that Herman netted a subjective recruiting ranking in the 90s in Year 1 as Houston’s coach? The Cougars’ 13-1 campaign — including the Peach Bowl shakedown — might stand as the greatest in program history. (UH won four Southwest Conference titles between 1976 and 1995.)
Fast forward to the present: 24/7 Sports currently has Houston pegged as the No. 26 recruiting class for 2016. It’s the proud culmination of Herman’s coaching acumen, last year’s national championship (with Ohio State), this season’s Peach Bowl victory … and the Houston regents’ aggressiveness in keeping Herman in red UH hats for the foreseeable future.
Who knows? Maybe Smart will wear a red UGA hat during Monday’s victory celebration with Alabama.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.