Georgia hoisted the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy late in the evening on Jan. 10 after topping Alabama 33-18 to celebrate its first national title since 1980. Coach Kirby Smart celebrated, players danced, fans cried and the biggest party Athens has ever seen kicked off in earnest.
In reality, however, that night marked the beginning of Smart’s toughest challenge ahead as leader of the Bulldogs football program.
There have been some remarkably average to slightly above-average coaches who have won national championships. LSU’s Ed Orgeron (2019), Auburn’s Gene Chizik (2010) and Larry Coker (2001) are just a few that come to mind. Others, like Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer sustain success at an elite level.
So now the question is: In which category will Smart land?
The assumption by most observers based on Georgia’s recruiting prowess, booster support and momentum is that it will be the latter. The Bulldogs have finished in the top four in the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings every year since 2017, and Smart has done a great job filling vacancies with players who are ready to compete at an elite level. Will that assumption become reality?
Orgeron and Chizik were fired just two years after winning titles despite loaded rosters and comparable support. Coker had a couple more great seasons with the Hurricanes when the program competed in the Big East but went 25-12 during first three seasons in the ACC before being canned after a 7-6 record in 2006.
First thing’s first, though — Georgia has to fill plenty of holes off of its title-winning team. Its top two running backs, top wide receiver and top four tacklers are gone. Plus, for whatever reason, there’s still some doubt out there surrounding quarterback Stetson Bennett IV. Smart gave some insight into where Bennett needs to grow earlier this spring.
“I think he can grow,” he said. “He took a lot of the one reps from one point last year moving forward. In terms of leadership, we are still working on that. We are not where we need to be in terms of leadership and guys challenging guys.”
Sustaining success in this day and age, especially in the SEC, also means unseating Saban from his perch atop the coaching pedestal. Smart appears to be up for the challenge. Consider this: two of the four meetings between the two coaches prior to Georgia’s win in the national title game came down to the final play. He wasn’t intimidated by Saban’s shadow before, even though the national narrative might have suggested otherwise. Even if he was, that intimidation was erased on Jan. 10 as Kelee Ringo scampered 79 yards down the Georgia sideline for a pick six with 54 seconds to play to ice the win over the mighty Crimson Tide.
Smart said the day after the title game that he no longer views this rivalry as the “teacher vs. the student,” but a battle between equals.
“It’s like when Michael Jordan is going against the best there is, when LeBron is going against Kobe, I enjoy that moment and I respect teams and coaches that do it the right way,” he said. “And those two teams last night were titans clashing, going at it. The physical nature of that game in the fourth quarter … so proud of our team because there were people that doubted our conditioning level. They doubted that we could finish in the fourth quarter.”
Smart has put himself in position to not only elevate Georgia into the fraternity of college football elite, but has laid the groundwork for creating a new dynasty. The goal now is following through, which nobody has been able to do in the Saban era.
Saban’s contract runs through 2028, so Smart has plenty of time to unseat the king. That quest started this spring, and we’ll get a chance to see his progress during Saturday’s spring game.