One of the things that drove me crazy about Mark Richt (does that make me a Richtophobe or a Richtophile? I forget.) is how you could count on him fixing one shortcoming from the previous season, only to see a new one crop open the next. Special teams would stink on ice one year, only to see that problem replaced by, say, a complete inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. I think at one point I analogized him to the little boy with his finger in a hole of a dike needing to plug a new one.
So you’ll have to forgive me if I approach this Seth Emerson point ($$) with a bit of trepidation.
Let’s go back to the end of the 2019 season: Georgia’s defense had a great, dominant season, with exception of one game. That one game could have set off alarms, but instead it was written off as one game, that LSU did that to everybody. Which, to be fair, it did.
And to be fair, it convinced Smart, if he wasn’t convinced already, that he had to catch up on the other side of the ball. A month later new offensive coordinator Todd Monken came aboard.
But the defense was largely status quo going into 2020, in personnel, philosophy and scheme. And while the result was again the top-ranked defense in the SEC, at least statistically, the defense was again dominated in its most important matchups, this time Alabama and Florida.
Something has to change.
Now, you can certainly tell me that’s not a fair comparison, and, well, you may be right. But there’s a part of me that worries it may actually be a little more serious.
Richt’s flaw was essentially one of routine management issues. It seemed like he never completely got the CEO part of his job down, for whatever reason. Smart’s situation, as Emerson says is more of a core philosophy and scheme problem. For better or worse, college football has changed significantly over the past decade and has become heavily weighted in favor of offense. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, it’s a lesson that’s been learned by Smart’s old boss more quickly than has been the case by his former defensive coordinator.
Ah, but something, something, Todd Monken, you say. And that’s right. Kirby deserves a ton of credit for recognizing that particular hole in the dike needed plugging. The thing is, that was the easy fix, relatively speaking. Smart’s a defensive guy who took to heart what LSU did in the 2019 SECCG. Handing off the problem to a competent offensive coordinator and stepping back to let him do the job is exactly what I would expect a good head coach whose background is on the defensive side of the ball to do. Smart didn’t disappoint in that regard and looks about to be rewarded for his vision.
But asking a guy who’s a defensive guru to recognize that what he’s doing isn’t working like it used to is a whole different challenge. Seth notes that Georgia ranks first in rushing defense and 38th in passing defense. Right now, when you look at the personnel returning for 2021, it’s not unreasonable to expect similar results in the absence of any changes in scheme. Honestly, though, how easy is it for somebody like Smart to change something he’s been completely confident about for quite a while now?
“You know, I don’t know,” Smart said, with a sigh. “I’m torn between being the aggressor and you’re going to give up the explosives, and fighting for negatives, and the whole havoc rate. The guys with havoc rate are going to give up explosives. So you’re trying to find a balance.”
Going back to Richt, the philosophical flaw that killed him was his unwillingness until very late in his career to adjust his approach to recruiting and roster management. Too late, to be honest. In Smart’s case, I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness that’s the problem. He recognizes there’s a problem, but hasn’t settled on a new approach to solving it.
He does have a lot to work with — his own intelligence, a talented group of defensive players and (maybe most importantly) the larger margin of error he’ll have to work with from an offense that should be one of the most productive in the conference. The question for now is whether that’s enough to stop the dike from leaking.