It’s something I mentioned to my friends last night, but as the 2017 season approaches, I find myself in an unprecedented place: for the first time since I started this blog, my head is more optimistic about Georgia’s chances than is my heart.
It’s not hard to make a logical case for a great season. The schedule is favorable. The talent base is noticeably deeper than it was two seasons ago, particularly in comparison to every other team in the division. There is more experience at almost every position group, especially on defense. The quarterback has a year of the SEC wars under his belt.
Perhaps most significantly, Kirby Smart is no longer a virginal head coach. It’s reasonable to expect a year’s experience to make someone with Smart’s intelligence and work ethic better at his job.
My head looks at all that and sees ten wins, a division title and the trip to the conference championship game as an almost inevitable conclusion. So why isn’t my heart gushing with even bigger results?
For that, I take you to something Pete Fiutak wrote in his national preseason rankings post the other day. He’s quite bullish about Georgia, which he ranks ninth.
Everything is in place to win the SEC East and have a puncher’s chance at the title if the offensive line can rock right away. Everything was there last year, too, but now there’s really no excuse to not take down the division. [Emphasis added.]
Ah, and therein, as we say, lies the rub. Some of you are likely to disagree, but I saw a group returning with which Mark Richt and his staff managed to grind out ten wins, facing a weak division and a soft schedule, having sufficient talent to compete and believed that nine or ten wins and a trip to Atlanta were more than reasonable expectations. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way.
As to that, we all have our reasons. Mine go back to something I fretted about when Smart was hired, namely, inexperience. No matter how much he may have learned at the feet of Nick Saban, the 2016 season was going to be on the job training for Kirby Smart, who had never been a head coach before. That showed from the beginning, as Smart allowed himself to get sidetracked with matters totally unrelated to his new gig, like staying on in Tuscaloosa through the national title game (understandable from an honor standpoint) and allowing himself to become enmeshed in Greg McGarity’s play to have the state legislature enact a law to keep athletic department information from the public (totally not understandable).
There was also a touch of arrogance on his part, carried over from all those years at Alabama and enabled by an administration and big boosters, that wasn’t justified for a rookie head coach, even if the enabling was not unexpected from a group that was both excited at the prospect of hiring a Georgia man and a little awed by Saban’s aura while not really knowing any better. However, Athens ain’t Tuscaloosa, a lesson that was taught and re-taught throughout the season.
That’s what bugs my heart. What if Kirby, out of a misguided sense of pride, isn’t willing to learn that lesson and adapt? I don’t know him well enough — hell, I don’t know him at all — to answer a question like that, but I do know that I can’t dismiss it. Nor do I consider it likely that the folks Smart answers to have any more of a clue than they did a year ago.
We can all play the “what if” game about the 2016 season. My example of that is wondering if Smart would have done better with an experienced former college head coach working as an assistant on his staff, someone he could have turned to on the sidelines and in his office with the kinds of questions he didn’t have to face working as an assistant for Saban. (No, I don’t count
Foley’s Coley’s brief stint in Miami as qualifying.)
That’s water under the bridge now, except for one thing: he still doesn’t have that guy on his staff. So it’s up to Smart to grow on his own, which means for now, my heart will just have to wait.