Like it or not, the spotlight is now firmly centered on Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs. The hype train is returning to Sanford Stadium, placing the Bulldogs back on the national map less than two years after long-time coach Mark Richt was fired.
Smart will be entering only his second year as head coach (at any level), but who cares? Georgia returns 10 defensive starters and a possible superstar quarterback — who is only a sophomore. Georgia is also months removed from signing the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, which featured 18 ESPN 300 members and four five-star prospects.
The Bulldogs have the luxury of playing in an SEC East division that has spent the better part of the past few years being riddled with instability. Like with Tennessee last season, this is the year we take Georgia football seriously again.
Regardless of how truly inexperienced Smart is at running an entire program, the Bulldogs have become an early media darling and will likely be pegged by most of the scribes at the conclusion of SEC media days to win the East for the first time since 2012. Fair or not, for a team that went 8-5 in Smart’s inaugural season the Bulldogs look — on paper — like a team capable of representing the East in 2017.
Former Georgia offensive tackle and current SEC Network analyst Matt Stinchcomb doesn’t mince words when it comes to high expectations leading into coach Kirby Smart’s second season at Georgia.
“Yeah, absolutely it is,” Stinchcomb said at SEC Media Days when asked if those expectations were fair so soon for Smart. “There have been coaches that have come into this conference to win national championships in year two. Just because it’s your second year at a program, that’s not in rebuilding mode. It’s a program that was notching double-digit wins every season.”
Stinchcomb said Smart is well aware of what was awaiting him in Athens, Ga., when he left Alabama.
“That’s not news to him,” Stinchcomb said. “Kirby was aware of what he was walking into and what the expectations would be. I think a division championship is not only reasonable but, what it looks like for a conference landscape and from a divisional standpoint, should be expected.”
As I posted elsewhere this morning, Smart isn’t stupid. He also, unlike others who shall remain nameless, isn’t complacent. The big task facing him in 2017 is translating attitude into results. That means better coaching and better player development than we’ve seen. Neither should be impossible tasks for someone who’s had years to observe one of the masters of both firsthand.
There’s another part to the great expectations game, one that’s not about the program, but about the coach directly. Aschoff again:
Plus, history is on Smart’s side, as Year 2 has been a banner year for recent SEC coaches. Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik won national championships in their second seasons at Florida and Auburn, respectively. Nick Saban won 10 games and the SEC in his second year at LSU, then led an undefeated Alabama team, with Smart manning his defense, to the SEC championship game in his second year in Tuscaloosa in 2008. Les Miles won 11 games in his second season at LSU (2006), as did Will Muschamp at Florida (2012). Jim McElwain won the SEC East in his first two seasons at Florida.
Richt also won the SEC in his second season way back in 2002, which means that the man Smart replaced still casts quite the shadow over Sanford Stadium.
If Kirby really is the special guy that McGarity and the boosters thought they were getting when he was brought in to run the program, based on the conference’s recent history, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the time for him to demonstrate they weren’t wrong. Certainly the resources are there, the divisional challenges aren’t too daunting and the schedule is manageable.