Jeez, four games into the season, and I’m already typing one of those existentialist posts about Georgia football that I loathe. Not a good look, Dawgs.
I’m sure there is a temptation on the part of some who thought a coaching change was unnecessary to point to yesterday’s crushing loss as a certain form of vindication. Since I was a Richt agnostic by last season, while I can understand the sentiment, I can’t say I share it.
And I’m not gonna even touch this one:
The problem with jumping to conclusions after four games is that you’re relying on a small sample size to justify a big picture argument. Even so, I do think there are certain takes that are justified early on.
- This team has some serious structural flaws in personnel. Georgia doesn’t appear to have an offensive tackle. It certainly doesn’t have a reliable place kicker. (Auburn got a school record six field goals in its win yesterday; it’s legitimate to question whether Georgia will exceed six field goals for the entirety of the 2016 season.) It’s starting a true freshman quarterback who’s never played in a pro-style offense before this spring. The defensive line is both green and thin. Some of these issues will likely be addressed through more experience, but some don’t stand a chance of being fixed this year.
- Jacob Eason isn’t the only rookie in red and black. I don’t know if you heard what Greg McElroy said during the broadcast, but it really stuck with me. Basically, he noted that he came out of a similar high school shotgun passing attack as Eason did, but whereas he got to learn the ropes on Alabama’s scout team for a season, Eason is getting his baptism by fire in live SEC play. That’s understandably rough. The same thing, relatively speaking, can be said about his head coach. Smart may be a Saban clone — at least that’s what we’re hoping — but he doesn’t have Saban’s history. Saban was a head coach at three other college programs and on the NFL level before taking the Alabama job. By the time he got there, he’d had plenty of time to learn what did and didn’t work running a program. Georgia, on the other hand, is OJT for Smart. Once again, we’re seeing that working for a great head coach and being a great head coach aren’t the same thing.
- The team hasn’t bought into Smart’s vision for the program. Small sample size arguments can cut both ways and, like it or not, it’s noteworthy that in four games, Georgia hasn’t shown up to play in half of them. Yes, it’s true that Mark Richt had his share of humiliating losses. So that’s nothing new… except that Richt had a few years under his belt before we started seeing those. You want an even nastier comparison? Kirby Smart’s fourth game was a 31-point loss to a conference opponent that for a while was on pace to be an epic disaster for the program. Richt’s fourth game led to Munson’s Hobnail Boot call. Sure, it’s not like Georgia didn’t lose a few more games that year after the Tennessee win, but it was clear that the team had bonded with the coaching staff in a way that made them believe. The mindset of this year’s squad is nowhere in the same vicinity of the 2001 team. The question yet to be determined is when the players will buy in. (Using “if” in that last sentence is too depressing for me to consider.)
At the time of the events leading to Richt’s dismissal and Smart’s hiring, you will recall that my misgivings centered around the athletic administration’s inept track record in hiring/firing. If the stories we heard at the time were true — the fig leaf of hiring a search firm to cover a decision that McGarity had already reached and the panic that hit several big boosters from the news that Smart, one of “our guys”, was speaking with South Carolina about becoming the head coach being just a couple of those — I think my concerns were certainly valid.
I mention this not because I’m seeking my own form of vindication here, but because if Kirby Smart does have a vision in the sense of a concrete plan on how to take the Georgia program to the next level, he’d best realize he’s on his own on implementing it and bringing it to fruition. The people he answers to don’t have a clue. (I’m betting McGarity has begun honing his “remember what Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa was like” marketing pitch to the fan base and Mark Bradley next offseason. That should work like a charm.)
I assumed Smart went into this season trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by transitioning the program into his model while remaining competitive enough to be a factor in the divisional race. There’s a very good chance a week from now that approach will have been blown to shreds. Tennessee may or may not be as good a team as Ole Miss, but that won’t matter in the slightest if Georgia doesn’t show up for the game next Saturday.
If that is what happens, that’s when things really start getting interesting around Athens. Kirby may know where he wants to go with Georgia football, but that doesn’t mean he knows the best way to get there, or maybe even any way to get there. Regardless, I expect him to try and stand by his convictions in that regard. Where this all goes in 2016 if his team never buys in to it, for whatever reason, could get pretty ugly. For a lot of reasons, I hope things never reach that point. But I can’t say I’m not a little uneasy this morning in that regard. Piling up bad losses in a very short time can do that to a person.
UPDATE: I see from some of the comments in response to this post that I’ve created some confusion with regard to the terms “buy in” and “show up”.
Let me just say there’s more than one context for those terms. Sure, both can be taken in a purely psychological sense. But I was also thinking of that post of mine from several years ago about how Georgia’s biggest problem on defense in Martinez’ last year or so was the lack of trust the players had in the coaching staff’s approach to mechanics and game planning, which in turn led the staff to lack trust in the players’ ability to play.
There’s a similarity in my mind between that and Georgia’s 2016 secondary. Smart and Pruitt both come from the Saban coaching tree, but their approaches are different. Pruitt played a lot of zone and dropped the linebackers into coverage a lot to help protect a secondary that had its share of shortcomings on the talent/experience side. Smart is all in with what worked at ‘Bama: much more man coverage and pattern matching. That’s a big change and his defensive backs, based on what we saw yesterday, aren’t even close to being on the same page. Are they buying into what Smart’s preaching? I can’t read their minds. But it was obvious yesterday that they might as well have been invisible on most of Kelly’s touchdown throws, because they offered zero resistance in coverage. In my mind, that meets a definition of not showing up.
I’ll leave it for you to describe the team’s mentality for the Nicholls game.
My apologies for not being clearer with my meanings.