ATHENS, Ga.—Kirby Smart learned a great many things during his 11 years as an assistant to Nick Saban.
He learned how to put together a football organization. He learned that the focus of that organization should be on “the process” and not the results. Smart became one of college football’s very best recruiters during his decade-plus with Saban. That is not a coincidence.
He also learned that he had to put his own stamp on a program.
But as Smart prepares for his third season as the head coach at Georgia, he will need to implement perhaps the most important lesson he learned during his time in Tuscaloosa.
Simply put, Kirby Smart has to learn, and then teach his team, how to handle success.
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By any objective measure, the 2017 college football season was an incredible success at Georgia. Here’s the short version:
**--The Bulldogs, and at least 40,000 of their fans, went to Notre Dame for the first time in history and won 20-19.
**--Georgia was undefeated and ranked No. 1 when the Bulldogs went to Auburn and lost 40-17. But they avenged that loss in the SEC championship game (28-7), capturing their first conference title since 2005.
**--In one of the greatest days ever in Georgia football, the Bulldogs rallied from a 14-point deficit at halftime and beat Oklahoma 54-48 in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
**--Georgia was denied the perfect ending to its dream season when Alabama beat the Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime with a touchdown pass on the last play of the game.
When I visited Smart this spring, he admitted he still had mixed emotions about the 2017 season.
“If you take out (the finish) and just look at the totality of the season, I’m very proud of the seniors and the way they competed,” said Smart. “There were a lot of firsts for Georgia in a long, long time—the SEC championship, the Rose Bowl, the trip to Notre Dame, playing in the national championship game."
Then he paused.
Then he paused again.
“As a competitor you always wish you could have done more,” Smart said. “When you look back on it you’re proud of it. But to come that close and not win it all ……. Rarely do you see someone jump up 13-0 on Alabama like we did. But we didn’t finish it. That’s the frustrating part.”
But it is worth noting that after many painful minutes of watching Alabama celebrate another national championship on the floor of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Smart turned the page. His message to his team and the media after the game was, in essence, “Get used to this, folks. We’re not going anywhere.”
“I wanted to make sure that was stated up front because that is the goal,” said Smart. “I wanted everyone to understand that the (trajectory) of this organization is upward. I want to make sure that with all of the defeat and disappointment of that game, that the good news is that this is going to become the expectation. This is what we want the expectation to be. We expect to play in these big games and go out and perform.”
So when spring practice rolled around in March, Smart immediately knew the message that he wanted to deliver. He had heard it from Nick Saban after each of four national championships they won together.
“It’s complacency,” said Smart. “When you have success you create a monster of entitlement. Suddenly your returning players become rock stars and think they are better than they are. You have to remind everybody that that you’re really a couple of tight games from having an average season.”
Smart’s first team at Georgia in 2016 was 8-5. The 2017 team, which was basically the same group of players, finished 13-2 and came within one play of winning the national championship.
“So what was the difference?” Smart asked his players.
“To a man they said it was the commitment, the leadership and the practice habits,” Smart said. “So our driving message is: ‘What habits are going to allow you to be just as special?’ We have to copy those habits.”
In many ways the 2017 Georgia football team was created by a perfect storm of events. First, senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned and became the No. 2 and No. 3 rushers in the history of the school behind Herschel Walker.
The defense had two senior outside linebackers—Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy—who came back because they thought the 2017 team could be something special. Roquan Smith was a generational player at inside linebacker—one of the best that Georgia has ever had.
But the wild card to the entire season was freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who was suddenly thrust into the job when Jacob Eason tweaked his knee in the opener with Appalachian State. Playing well beyond his years, Fromm put a hammerlock on the job and Eason couldn’t get it back.
“Jake got better faster because he was playing all the time,” said Smart. “And he made us a better team, especially in the second game with Auburn.”
With all of the talent and experience that walked out the door, it’s hard to see Georgia being as good this season. But the Bulldogs are still going to be the best team in the SEC East, in my opinion.
The dominant story line as we head towards August is what Georgia will do with true freshman Justin Fields, rated as the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. Fields is immensely talented and enrolled early to get a start on the competition. But the fact remains that Jake Fromm has started 14 college football games.
So what to do?
Smart shot down a popular theory that Georgia would put together a limited package of plays to take advantage Fields’s running and throwing skill set. It is what Florida did very effectively with freshman Tim Tebow in 2006.
Too risky, said Smart.
“If he was your third (team quarterback) then I could argue that you could do that,” said Smart. “But if he’s your backup how can you justify putting him out there? He gets hurt and you’re down to one quarterback. I’m not willing to put him at risk running the ball when I’ve got 220-pound backs who can do that.
“I’ve been very pleased with him (Fields). He’s in a similar place to where Jake (Fromm) was last year. Right now he’s on a very good path.
“But so is the other guy (Fromm).”
After Georgia signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last December and February, the word around the SEC is that you are better off playing the Bulldogs early this season because they are only going to get better. South Carolina, picked by some to finish second in the SEC East, does exactly that on Sept. 8 in Columbia.
The rest of the schedule looks manageable but an Oct. 13 trip to LSU could be an interesting test.
Georgia fans, who have been waiting for a national championship since 1980, hope that the 2017 season represents the new normal. This is where we find out of Georgia can immediately restock its talent and keep on going, yet another lesson Smart learned at Alabama.