Kirby Smart is two months shy of leading his alma mater, the University of Georgia, onto the field for the first game of his head coaching career. This marks the unofficial end of a near-decade long courtship in some form or fashion.
Smart, the longtime defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, is in perhaps the most unique situation of any new head coach throughout college football. He inherits a talented roster from a team coming off of a 10-win season.
Usually a new coach comes in due to a train wreck at the hands of his predecessor. That’s not the case in Athens. No other newly-hired coach has such a blessing — or curse.
It’s a curse because fan expectations for this year’s Georgia team are intense, more so than for every other new coach save for possibly Clay Helton at USC. The problem with those expectations, however, is how far apart they are from the SEC media’s expectations.
Georgia was picked to finish third in the SEC East, a near-dumpster fire of a division. This marked the first time in almost a decade (2007) the Bulldogs were picked outside of the top two (Tennessee is the clear favorite in 2016).
Yet fans — and some media members — think UGA is primed for a big year. Wide variance in opinion can be attributed to the abundance of questions surrounding Georgia.
A brief overview of what’s uncertain for Georgia:
- New, first-year head coach
- Either a true freshman QB or one who struggled mightily last year
- Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the top two running backs, will both be coming off of injuries and it remains unclear when they’ll be healthy enough to impact a game
- A very thin—on experience—DL
- A thin—on experience—WR corps
- An entirely new unit of kicking specialists
Show me an SEC team thin up front on defense, potentially relying on a true freshman QB all while being led by a first-year head coach and more often than not I’ll show you a 6-6 team.
Luckily for Smart he has more talent than most teams in that hypothetical. While Jacob Eason is a true freshman, he’s hardly a normal one.
The above questions surrounding Georgia have plenty of merit. That’s not to say Eason won’t play more like a seasoned sophomore. Nor does it say Chubb won’t come back from his devastating knee injury to be the force he once was. That’s certainly possible.
But to expect those things to break Georgia’s way all while keeping a thin DL healthy and getting competent play out a new punter and kicker is a bridge too far for the unbiased. Hence the predicted third place finish.
At the top I described the fan expectations as intense. It’s true, but not in the we-should-win-10-because-we’re-Georgia way that Athens heat usually provides. There’s an added layer for Smart and it has to do with Mark Richt, the man he replaced as head coach.
Undoubtedly, a majority of fans are Smart supporters. That’s the way it goes for most fans of schools. The man coaching them is temporary while their fandom is a continuum.
However, there is still a faction of the fan base that feels Richt was fired prematurely. It’s these fans who are putting the most heat on Smart, no so much as they want to demand excellence in general—they wanted to keep Richt, after all—but they want to demand it from Smart and AD Greg McGarity.
That sentiment has merit, too. When you fire a coach who wins 75 percent of his games, you essentially set the bar for success at better than that.
In some ways 2016 is a year in which Smart is set up to fail.
Yet another question for those trying to predict how Georgia finishes will be how does Smart and his staff handle that dynamic? Generally a new head coach has a free year to do pretty much anything from a wins and losses perspective.
While Smart will have a honeymoon year from the majority of the fan base, there will be a sizable group that ready to pounce on any perceived miscue. And with Smart being a first-time head coach, miscues are coming.
How he, his staff, and his players respond to the criticism will go a long way in determining how well Georgia fares in 2016.
Should Smart tap into the talent on campus and begin maximizing it, Georgia could be the surprise team of 2016. However, winning the East would in fact be a surprise, whether the lunatic fringe of the fanbase wants to accept that or not.
There are numerous legitimate questions surrounding Georgia in 2016. If they’re answered positively, Smart and Georgia could be the breakout team in the league this season.
The problem is the volume of questions is such that predicting anything with any level of certainty is a fool’s errand.