First things first, the Kirby Smart Hater, isn’t writing this. It’s dude. With that out of the way, I want to talk about Kirby Smart and specifically address his haters, of which there are many—all of whom must be tired of winning [Trump voice].
Bowl season has become, at least it seems this way now, some sort of purgatory. The final destination of this Georgia team is unknown but most Bulldog fans are sitting around debating the works of this team and essentially damning the squad to hell or saying, “You know what, they did enough.” And it’s impossible to have such conversations without also making a shockingly final judgment on Kirby Smart, a 44-year old man who has not yet completed his fourth season as a head football coach.
I’ve had dozens of these conversations over the past three weeks, and here’s what I’ve noticed. Very few Georgia fans seem resolute in their conviction that Smart is the coach who can take Georgia back to the pinnacle of college football for the first time since 1980. Quite a few are willing to live in the gray area of “wait-and-see” in reserving judgment on Smart. And a slew seems to already know that he is NOT the man who can get it done at Georgia.
I want to address that last group of Bulldog fans, because, well, they’re wrong. They don’t know they’re wrong and no one knowingly believes something that is wrong, and someday they could be proven right, but right now they’re wrong. I know this because I deal with people like this every single day and in the real world I just ignore them. In the real world, it’s not worth wasting time on this type of people because I have real world stuff to do. But this is the internet, so I’m going to address the Kirby Smart Haters.
Most people don’t know this, but in the previously-referenced “real world,” I’m a money manager. I don’t push life insurance policies or sell annuities. I don’t sell mutual funds for a commission and I’m not a stock broker. I, along with a handful of much smarter analysts at our little shop, pick investments for clients. People hire my company to pick investments that will out-perform expectations. Those expectations can vary – maybe it’s beating the S&P 500, maybe it’s generating a certain amount of income, maybe it’s as simple as growing the total portfolio value – but that’s the gig. People pay us money to do it, and it’s our job to figure out what strategy most consistently gives us the opportunity to achieve these varying objectives.
This is a challenging vocation as the goalposts are not only constantly moving, but they are also starting from different places for each client and they’re abundantly transparent. You know when you miss, and you’re expected to make it. All of this is complicated by the fact that every client has a different profile—some are young, some are old; some have hundreds of millions of dollars; some have a few thousand bucks; some want to fund major purchases, some want to minimize taxes…you get it. Our job is the same for every client and yet it’s different for every client. In order for our company to succeed, we have to be keenly aware of our clients’ needs but also of who we are, what we do well and how we fit into the broader financial puzzle. This means having the utmost confidence in our processes and a healthy amount of self-doubt in our application of said processes. It means firmly believing in what we’re doing, while also second-guessing and over-analyzing everything we’ve already done.
I think being a fan is kind of the same. I’m choosing to fully believe in Kirby Smart’s ability to reach new highs while also reviewing what he’s done with a decent amount of scrutiny. Others, it seems to me, are ready to rely solely on nit-picking.
A core tenet of our investment philosophy, which bleeds through into every conversation, every statement and every communication with clients, is that we care much more about analyzing individual investment opportunities (for instance: a single publicly-traded company) than we care about making a macro call (i.e. the stock market will be up/down X% this year). We don’t ignore economic trends or broad data sets. But we know that we can’t act in the ways we want to act by making assumptions that impact the entirety of client portfolios in one fell swoop—especially if we could be wrong. To be clear: we’re wrong a lot; I’m not here to imply otherwise. But we’d rather be wrong about 2-3% of a client’s equity portfolio than 100% of whole damn thing.
But in our industry, you don’t make a name for yourself by getting a lot of little things right (which we also do). You don’t make a name for hitting singles. If you want to make a name for yourself, you “call the market.” And no one really gets famous for boldly predicting that stocks will go up, because that’s just kind of what they do (through last year, the trailing 25-year annualized rate of return for the S&P 500 was over 9%…that’s an average annual number and that is historically low…as in the lowest trailing 25-year average number in decades). Stocks go up. That’s the expectation. That’s why people invest. That’s why I have a job. Similarly, no one is going to stand out in a crowd by saying, “You know what, I really think Georgia can win 10 games a year under Kirby Smart.” That doesn’t move the needle. That’s what Georgia has historically done.
But if you want to make a name for yourself in my industry, you call when stocks are going down. If you nail that, you’re a hero. You’re also usually just as lucky as you are right. Right now, a lot of people are calling for the downfall of Kirby Smart. They want to be the hipsters—the folks who wanted him fired before anyone else. They want to be the market callers who “knew this was coming.” The problem with that is you lose a lot if you’re too early and in this case being too early is really no different than being wrong.
There are a lot of big-name investors who are currently saying that the stock market is doomed. They could be right. It is, as they consistently insist, at an all-time high. But all-time highs are not in and of themselves a case for a market crash. If the market crashed every time a new market high was hit, the markets would not trend upwards and stocks would just keep bumping their heads on the same ceiling year after year. What’s more, many of these market bears have been saying the market is going to crash for years and in doing so they have cost their clients millions and millions (and billions in some cases) of dollars in potential gains, because the market has not crashed. When the market does in fact come down, these guys are going to declare victory, but they’ve actually already lost. Their clients could lose less money during that pullback than other firms’, but the amount of money left on the table over the past five years is greater than that reduced loss.
Those guys have already lost. And the current haters of Kirby Smart are also already losing. He may not bring Georgia a national championship. He may get fired. He may leave the program in a worse position than what he inherited. But at this juncture, there’s no evidence to suggest that any of those things are true, and shockingly some people are already saying that. Even more are saying that he “can’t” win a it all at Georgia because he has not done so yet. That’s like saying, “The market is going to crash because it hasn’t done that in a while.”
Now, unlike investors following a bad lead, the Smart-Hating Georgia fans probably aren’t running the risk of losing assets by being wrong, but they could lose capital in the form of enjoyment. I’ll be the first to admit Georgia games haven’t been that fun to watch this year (see Tweet above from the SEC Championship Game), but imagine if at some point (let’s arbitrarily say, in 2022), Georgia hoists a National Championship trophy, and you aren’t even watching because you know now (in 2019) that Kirby isn’t right the guy. That would hurt. Or, let’s say that Georgia puts together another slug-fest of a season sometime soon but doesn’t slip up against a South Carolina and burps through the SEC Championship in a bruiser of a game because it finally gets to play a single quarterback that is not a generational talent. Are you going to complain about how unenjoyable 14-0 has been and thow un-deserving the Dawgs are of the #1 seed in the Playoff?
I’m not saying these things are inevitabilities, for what it’s worth. I’m not saying that Kirby Smart is the right guy. I’m just saying that we don’t know he isn’t.
One of the more positive elements of Smart’s brief (and it’s still brief) tenure at Georgia is that there is evolution and progress under his leadership. I vehemently disagree with any notion that the Bulldogs are consistently plagued by the same types of problems without solutions (or at a minimum, ongoing efforts) to fix them. AS a function of breadth, some problems (for instance, the entire offense) take longer to fix. But this is not a broken record replaying itself in my opinion. It’s hard to quantify this without looking at specific shortcomings, so let’s start with some losses.
In November of 2015 (right after Richt was fired), I noted that Georgia was going to be an 8-4 team at best in 2016 regardless of who coached the Bulldogs. The rationale for this claim was based on personnel issues (unproven QB, offensive line departures, loss of best WR, loss of six members of front-seven on defense) and a tough schedule.
Georgia finished the season 8-5. I’m not writing off any of those losses as if they didn’t happen, but I don’t think anything happened in that campaign that really negated goodwill towards Kirby. Especially not after 2017.
[Quick conclusion on life since 2015 for Georgia fans: It should be noted (or SCREAMED), that 2015 was the last time Georgia lost more than one regular-season game in a season. Know how many SEC teams have lost more than one regular season game at some point in the past three seasons? ALL OF THEM! Among all Power 5 conference, only four teams have gone each of the past three seasons without losing multiple regular-season games: Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia.]
Auburn: Georgia’s first loss of the 2017 season didn’t come until mid-November when #10 Auburn buried Georgia 40-17. Anomalous to the rest of the season, Georgia was manhandled on both sides of the ball in that contest, and the Dawgs obviously got revenge a few weeks later. Much is made of the fact that Kerryon Johnson wasn’t healthy in the SEC Championship Game and as a byproduct his production dropped from 167 yards on the ground in the first match-up to just 44 in December. The more telling number, defensively, is that Georgia reduced Auburn’s total offensive output by nearly 230 yards. Further, the adjustments Georgia made on the offensive line are underrated. A backfield of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift rushed for just 46 yards on 32 carries in the first meeting. A few weeks later, the Bulldogs ran for 238 yards. The problem in the first Auburn game were not recurring — not even against Auburn.
Alabama: Georgia’s final loss came at the hands of (at the time) the unlikeliest of comebacks in the National Championship Game as Tua Tagovailoa put a dagger into the hearts of the Bulldogs national title dreams. Say what you want about Tua Magic, but Georgia didn’t lose to him again.
LSU: Much like the Auburn loss in 2017, the loss to LSU in 2018 was not a byproduct of recurring problems for Georgia. The Bulldog offense was quite potent in 2018 (doesn’t that feel like a million years ago?) and at that point in the season was averaging nearly 43 points per contest. The Dawgs came out completely flat offensively—not scoring until 36 minutes into the contest. Georgia scored within the first eight minutes of every other regular season game and would not have gone 11-1 in the regular season with first half drive sequences like this: Punt, Fumble, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt.
Alabama: Take what I said about Tua Magic and reverse it. Tua did not beat Georgia again. With that narrative off the table, it’s easy to say that offensively, Georgia let off the gas too much again (if that was in fact the problem in the National Championship bout), but think a little bit about it:
- Georgia led 21-14 at the half. Georgia’s first touchdown of the second-half was a 23 yard pass to Riley Ridley after the Dawgs racked up 28 yards on two carries. Was Georgia letting off the gas then? I think not.
- Leading 28-14, Georgia’s very next drive featured 62 yards worth of passes and an incomplete pass attempt on 3rd & 3 that set up what would ultimately be a missed field goal. Foot was still on the gas.
- Georgia’s next drive was a boring 3-and out (three runs in which Georgia racked up just nine yards), but the following drive saw Fromm scramble twice (not designed runs), complete a downfield pass for a first down and another attempt was broken up. The Dawgs punted. Maybe the foot was off the gas, or maybe Georgia just changed the pace in an inopportune way.
- Georgia’s next drive also resulted in a punt. But this drive opened with a 7-yard completion followed by a 12-yard run by wide receiver Jayson Stanley. On first down, a Fromm pass was broken up. On second down, Georgia threw for a gain of six. On third down a pass fell incomplete. It’s easy to say Georgia was letting off the gas, but I don’t usually equate that verbiage with a five-play drive featuring four passes and an end-around.
- The Bulldogs’ penultimate drive saw a first down gained on a 26-yard completion followed by a short run and two incompletions before the infamous Justin Fields fake punt. The drive stalled out, but Georgia wasn’t in cruise control
- Georgia only threw the ball on its final drive, save for a two-yard sack.
The reality is Georgia was beaten by an incomparable one-two punch of quarterbacks but in reverse order. As I said last December:
If Alabama only has Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia is either 1-1 against the Tide or (more likely) 2-0 over the past 12 months. I truly believe that. The Bulldogs beat Hurts in January when they prepared for him but couldn’t fend off Tua in the second half. Tua was obliterated by Georgia on Saturday (when Mel Tucker and his staff brilliantly prepared), but Hurts found ways to beat Georgia. Never before has college football had a team as generally talented as Alabama and that almost didn’t matter against the Bulldogs. Unfortunately, never before has a college football team boasted two such supremely talented quarterbacks with such differentiated skills. The uniqueness of this situation can’t be overstated.
Texas: Georgia was un-focused, un-disciplined, under-coached, under-staffed and generally unready. There is no excuse tied hereto, but Georgia lacked the motivation it needed to win without key defensive players out. That was not a recurring problem for the 2018 Georgia Bulldogs.
South Carolina: If you think this game is typical of the Bulldogs under Kirby Smart, you’re insane. But if you want one stat that drives that home, consider this: Georgia is tied for 63rd nationally in turnover margin at 0. Meaning, Georgia has lost 13 turnovers and forced 13 turnovers. If you remove this game, Georgia moves to 38th. So one out of Georgia’s 13 games played could move the Dawgs 25 places in the national rankings on a statistic that measures two different stats (turnovers lost and turnovers gained). That’s an outlier. It’s atypical.
LSU: LSU was the better team. I’m not sure how one could make a different case before, during or after the contest. But Georgia tried to open up the game more offensively than it had in prior contests and the defense actually acquitted itself better than it gets credit for. As great as Joe Burrow was (he is the best college quarterback I’ve seen play in-person), this was his 10th best performance of the season as measured by passer rating. Georgia was one of only three teams to hold Burrow to under 10 yards per pass attempt and only three teams forced a lower completion percentage. The point is this: The Georgia offense tried some things that it hadn’t tried before and the defense didn’t roll over. Georgia wasn’t better than LSU. Sometimes that happens.
On the Direction of the Program
I think it’s important to remember, what I mentioned earlier: Georgia is in elite company in terms of single-loss regular seasons over the past three years. Uncoincidentally, Georgia is in the same company among teams who have played in three-consecutive Power 5 Conference Championship Games. That list is Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia. That’s not all that bad seeing as Georgia plays in the strongest conference in football (as measured by everything) and the third-best division per Bill Connelly, the brightest college football mind around (present company excluded).
Georgia finished third in the final College Football Playoff ranking in 2017 before advancing to the final. Georgia was ranked fourth in the next-to-last ranking a year later before falling to fifth on the heels of a one-score loss to Alabama. From a ranking perspective, the exact same thing happened to the Bulldogs in 2019. For further context, Georgia is one of just eight teams to be ranked in the final College Football Playoff Poll in each of the past three seasons. Under previous coaching regimes, that may have been touted as a victory, and it probably shouldn’t have been. After all, Georgia should be a Top 8 program based on funding, in-state talent and reputation. But note where Georgia has been situated within such polls over the past three seasons relative to those elite peers:
If you believe the College Football Playoff Poll to a be a proxy for “contending” for a National Championship (and you really, really should seeing as the National Championship is the result of a four-team playoff consisting of the top four seeds from this very poll), then only two teams have more consistently been in the hunt for a national championship than Georgia over the past three years: Clemson and Oklahoma. Further, if you know what we know about the Playoff it shouldn’t be appalling that Georgia has been this close to winning it all but has not actually won it all. After all, we are now entering the sixth year of the playoff, and only 11 different programs (Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Washington, Georgia, Notre Dame and now LSU) have been represented by the 24 total Playoff slots. Further, only five teams have ever won a College Football Playoff game. Oh, and Georgia is one of them – along with Oregon, Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama.
I guess I’m just confused as to what part of this implies that Georgia is trending in the wrong direction. To be sure, 2019 was not a repeat of 2017. But there’s not evidence that 2017 was a flash in a pan, either. Talk to Wisconsin, which fell from 6th in the final poll in 2017 to unranked in 2018, about how Georgia’s inconsistent product sucks. Talk to Southern Cal, which was ranked 8th in 2017 before going unranked last year and settling at 22nd this year, about how your coach can’t right the ship. Talk to Notre Dame, who snuck into the playoff as a 3-seed in 2018 but is 0-2 against the Bulldogs over this time period, about how Georgia can’t get out of its own way.
Who knows what’s going to happen in the Sugar Bowl next week, but the one thing that’s likely is an overreaction from fans. A convincing beat-down of Baylor shows that last year’s problems in the bowl game (remember: un-focused, un-disciplined, under-coached, under-staffed and generally unready) may be fixed from a cultural standpoint, but that doesn’t mean this team is better than we thought. Another loss in the Sugar Bowl probably means “more of the same” in defeat for arguably the first time in Smart’s career…but it would be coming in one of the least meaningful games of his career.
I’m not going to hypothesize on personnel in terms of early NFL departures, because I don’t know anything that you don’t. Hell, I might know less. But I do think people want to talk about the offense and changes that could be coming, so we should do that.
The most disturbing trend on the offense has certainly been the passing game, but I’m not sure who should get the lion’s share of the blame: The coaches (Smart and James Coley), the receivers (or lack thereof) or Jake Fromm.
Fromm is downright puzzling and without giving him a free pass, it’s shocking (and almost inexplicable) to see someone with his skill-set and experience regress so much not only in completion percentage (down more than 7% from a year ago and a career-low as a third-year starter) but also in yards per completion (down nearly 1.7 yards per completion versus the total for his prior two seasons). In other words, he’s completing fewer passes than before and when they are complete they’re not going for much. It’s hard to believe, at least at surface level, that he’s just taken that much of a step back. It’s even harder to reconcile that slide in production being a byproduct of his own shortcomings with the fact that very recent NFL Draft reports have Fromm as a very hot prospect. Scouts Inc. has Fromm rated as a the #4 QB in the Draft (assuming he comes out this year) and the #27 overall prospect. ESPN’s Todd McShay has Fromm as the #4 QB in the Draft and Mel Kiper has him #5…this is in an article that was published LAST WEEK. If Fromm is to shoulder the blame, NFL experts haven’t picked up on it.
So maybe the problem is schematic and starts with Coley and the coaching staff? Kirby Smart made it very clear that the offense would be evaluated after the bowl game. I don’t know why we wouldn’t believe that. Assuredly, part of that evaluation will focus on player-level personnel, the potential departure Fromm and Swift in particular. But I don’t think a change in play-calling is out of the question—even though it hasn’t happened yet. With the regular season (including the SEC Championship Game) winding down so close to the Early Signing Period, an immediate overhaul at the top of the offensive staff (starting with James Coley) never seemed likely for a team in the position Georgia was in on the field (one game away and one spot away from the Playoff) and on the recruiting trail (another Top 5 class…more on that in a moment). It seems more plausible that a change would come 1. After the bulk of a recruiting class is “in” (Georgia has received signed letters of intent from 17 of its 19 current pledges) and 2. When there is more time to re-recruit existing commits (Georgia will have 35 days between the Sugar Bowl and National Signing Day, as opposed to 11 days between the SEC Championship Game and the Early Signing Period).
Point being: If Coley is to blame for the offensive shortcomings, I still think he could be replaced, reduced or otherwise mitigated. I think Smart is committed to making hard choices and forcing change. If such change is necessary, I think he’ll make those changes and if there’s a “right” time to do it after the 2019 season, I think it will be in early January (as opposed to a few weeks ago).
Some of my confidence in that stems from Smart’s ability to recognize issues and address them. Whether it’s re-emphasizing physicality in the second match-up with Auburn in 2017, adjusting to Baker Mayfield mid-game in the Rose Bowl, scheming to beat Tua in 2018 (remember: he was the Heisman front-runner until he went 10 of 25 for 164 yards, 1 TD and 2 picks while getting sacked three times in the SEC Championship Game) or finding a way to rebuild the defensive coaching staff and actually improve without a star in 2019…Smart has found ways to fix things. I don’t think he gets enough credit for winning 35 (possibly 36) games in a three year period in which the following occurred:
- His defensive line coach and a top recruiter (Tracy Rocker) left after the 2016 season.
- His returning starting QB went down with an injury in Week 1 in 2017.
- The Butkus Award winner (Roquan Smith) went pro early after 2017.
- He had to replace the second- and third-leading rushers in program history after 2017.
- The Thorpe Award winner (Deandre Baker) went pro early after 2018.
- Both the Coordinators (Mel Tucker and Jim Chaney) left after 2018.
- Pretty much all the receivers and tight ends left after 2018.
Oh, and all of this happened really quickly after a total overhaul of the coaching staff that included:
He’s worked through more than he probably gets credit for, but some would still say that his biggest failure thus far as a head coach was his inability to “fix” Georgia’s offense in 2019. I’d argue that a fix may be coming. I’d also remind you that Georgia went 11-1 in the regular season and out-scored opponents by 270 combined points in those 12 contests. If you believe there are three phases to the game, it’s hard to hate out-scoring opponents by an average of 22.5 points. Toss the LSU loss in, and Georgia’s still out-scoring opponents by over 20 points per game. It’s hard to say a great Georgia defense was “wasted” on a bad Georgia offense when the Dawgs gave up more points to South Carolina than renowned defenses from Missouri, Texas A&M and App State. And Georgia’s largest defeat came in a contest in which 37 points were allowed.
As a broader trend, Georgia is 17-1 against the SEC East over the past three seasons and has out-scored its divisional foes by 408 points. That doesn’t happen with a recurringly non-existent offense.
And yet the offense struggled in ways that were new to Georgia in 2019 but not terribly new nationally. The Athletic’s Seth Emerson wrote an interesting piece about wide receiver attrition referencing research by the aforementioned Bill Connelly. The theme: if you lose a lot of production in the form of receiving yards, your offense is going to struggle.
Georgia lost a ton of receiving yardage production from a year ago – 76% to be exact. I didn’t know this trend, even as an avid reader of Connelly’s work (formerly with SBNation and now with ESPN). Maybe someone else did. And maybe Georgia should do something about the receiver position. But maybe someone already was/is doing something about it and there’s just not a “Wide Receivers On” switch at the Indoor Practice Facility. After all:
- Lawrence Cager was unarguably the most important cog in Georgia’s passing game in 2019. When he was lost to injury, the offense stalled. He was snagged from the Transfer Portal last spring. At the same time, Georgia signed two of the nation’s Top 5 receivers (George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock). Pickens hit his stride late-season as told by his maddening statline over the past two games—two games (Georgia Tech and LSU) for which he was suspended for the first two quarters: 5 catches, 95 yards, 2 touchdowns. He leads all Georgia players in receptions, yards and TDs. Blaylock ranks fifth, fourth and third in those categories respectively.
- Georgia has received three signed Letters of Intent from Top 15 Wide Receivers for the class of 2020: Marcus Rosemy (#7 WR in the class), Jermaine Burton (#8) and Arian Smith (#14). Further, the Dawgs are very much in the mix and the favorite according to most pundits to land Darnell Washington, a massive tight end and #10 overall player in the country.
Obviously, none of these guys fix the issues of 2019. But if you believe in the attrition theory as posited by Bill Connelly, re-told by Emerson and recapped by me, then you have to at least recognize that Georgia is aggressively turning the page via recruiting.
Given that, Georgia could have arguably its most talented core of receivers ever (as measured by recruiting class rankings) in 2020 (all the guys mentioned above plus Demetris Robertson, the #1 WR in the class of 2016). And the Bulldogs should return 55% of its receiving yardage production and 63% of its touchdowns (and that’s assuming Swift goes pro, which I would bet he does). And if you don’t think maturity and tweaks in the coaching staff can lead to more production from young receivers, then explain to me why Ja’Marr Chase (the no. 15 WR in the class of 2018) went from 313 yards receiving as a freshman to 1,498 this year.
My assertion is that Smart is working on personnel shortcomings on the field and still has an out to make adjustments on the sideline.
Philosophically, there’s a widespread theory out there that Smart’s commitment to “Man Ball” and a run-heavy offense has ruined the team. If true, it doesn’t matter who’s calling plays as the buck will stop with Smart. Again, it’s hard to call this team “ruined,” but I will yield to the presiding complaint nonetheless. I don’t know where that logic comes from. Georgia might not be throwing the kind of passes people want to see, but in the three “good” years under Smart, Georgia has increased its pass attempts annually by nearly five attempts per game:
- 2017: 20.3 attempts per game
- 2017: 25.5 attempts per game
- 2018: 29.6 attempts per game
And none of that is a reflection of variation in play count. Over this three-year period Georgia averaged a low of 65.2 offensive plays per game and a high of 66.5. What does this mean? Well, in simple terms Georgia threw the ball on 31.1% of its plays in 2017 (a year in which the offense was celebrated and beloved by all) and threw the ball 44.5% of the time in 2019 (and everyone hated it). Again, the efficacy of the passing game can be debated, but the notion that Georgia is not throwing the ball enough to win is a bit odd to me and the notion that this is a recreation of 2008 Alabama (a team that literally ran the ball 63% of the time) is silly. Georgia isn’t running 2019 LSU’s offense. But Georgia isn’t running 2008 Alabama’s offense either.
For context, if Fromm stays for his senior year and matches the production he’s had over the past three years, he’d likely rank:
- Ninth in SEC History in Pass Attempts
- Ninth in SEC History in Pass Completions
- Seventh in SEC History in Passing Yards
- Third in SEC History in Passing Touchdowns
He’d be surrounded by a bunch of Man-Ball quarterbacks like Danny Wuerffel, Eli Manning, David Greene, Aaron Murray and Peyton Manning.
Kirby Smart: Buy, Sell, Hold
Look, you can sell all the Kirby Smart stock you want. I don’t care. Georgia is at an all-time high based on the trailing three-year win totals as shown above. I choose not to sell, because I think fandom, much like investing, is about wanting and expecting more. Of course we want more, but we also expect more now as Georgia fans. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re dissatisfied with the 2019 season and think Georgia football has plateaued and are therefore butt-hurt and ready to complain about losing Justin Fields for the next decade and you’re one year away from wanting to start a coaching search…please sit back and remember that you’re bitching about a team that has finished in the Top 5 in the only poll that matters each of the past three seasons. You’re whining about playing in a second-straight Sugar Bowl because your team had to play in an extra game (the SEC Championship) against a good team and for the second-year in a row and it lost to a better team and therefore missed the playoff…oh and the reason they had to play that extra game was because your team dominated its division. You are upset about a team that is continuing to recruit at an unparalleled level (at least at this institution) and you may be saying that the talent isn’t translating into on-field success but that’s patently false as evidenced by the win chart above.
Think about it: A win over Baylor will make this year’s senior class the winningest group of seniors in Georgia football history. That is absolutely staggering considering they began their careers with a first-year head coach who was replacing the most-tenured coach in the SEC.
You can sell the stock because the stock is trading at a higher price than it used to. Go ahead. Or, you can look at the underlying fundamentals, the value being created within the organization, the ability to still adapt the management structure, the desire to raise expectations not lower them, the ability to deliver consistent success without solely relying on a single product (player); and you can say, “You know what, this thing could go higher.”
That’s what I’m doing.
You could sell Kirby’s stock and eventually if he’s fired I’m sure you’ll e-mail me (if e-mail is still a thing) and tell me you were right. But you might miss out on some new highs over the next few years. And we all know what one of those highs could be.
That’s all I got/
In the wake of Georgia’s 23-17 victory over Notre Dame, two narratives emerged.
The first gets us essentially nowhere. That trope is that this was, in fact, a heavyweight title fight. Two big, bad teams fought each other; there could be only one winner. Yahoo (Pat Forde), CBS (Barrett Sallee) and ESPN (Kirk Herbstreit) all referenced the heavyweightedness of the game as something of a qualifier or even definer of the matchup.
With all due respect to Narrative One: Duh.
Notre Dame and Georgia represent the only two programs not named Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma to make a Playoff appearance over the past two seasons. Both Notre Dame and Georgia entered the game ranked in the Top 7. It was a big game. Got it. HEAVYWEIGHTS!
The second narrative to emerge has been a bit more surprising: Georgia is not quite ready for primetime, but Notre Dame proved its place as a national power. Somehow, Notre Dame has managed to gain more in defeat than Georgia gained in victory. Somehow, Georgia was disappointing in victory but not so disappointing so as to invalidate the mounds of praise being heaped on Notre Dame. Georgia was just bad enough to be exposed by a Notre Dame team that was just good enough to merit playoff consideration without beating a Georgia team that was exposed. Makes sense, right?
Herbstreit finds himself in both narrative pools, but really shines in his duplicitously stupid defense of Narrative Two.
Herbstreit, does not have Georgia in his Top Four after the win over Notre Dame. That is truly baffling—especially in light of the broader consensus for the media. For context, 61 of 62 AP Poll voters have the Dawgs in the Top Four; the 62nd voter has the Dawgs fifth. And yet, Herbstreit had these things to say about then-No. 7 Notre Dame’s loss to allegedly not-top-four Georgia:
- SO IMPRESSED by Notre Dame football tonight!!
- Did NOTHING to hurt their case-only strengthened their position.
- Irish on the road gained some national respect!
For what it’s worth, Herbstreit isn’t the only one pushing this theory or some watered-down version of it. The Athletic’s coverage (admittedly from a Notre Dame beat writer), as another example, lauded the “worthy reward” the Irish found in the fight, noting, “Notre Dame was good enough to scare a Georgia team that doesn’t scare easily.” Was that really the takeaway? As I’ll point out later, I think it may have actually been a lack of fear that actually played a hand in the final score.
Reading game recaps on Sunday morning actually made me question my own sanity. Had Georgia not won? I know it wasn’t as pretty as some wanted. But didn’t the Bulldogs pull it out? Hell, didn’t the Bulldogs lead for a longer period than Notre Dame?
So while we’re over-reacting with things that may not quite make sense, I’d like to join the cause with this third narrative: Georgia is the best football team in the country.
Let’s start with a simple defense of this claim.
Ultimately, the College Football Playoff Committee cares about resumes. Voters (be it coaches or the media) may have differing motivations in their polls (Who would win a hypothetical match-up? Who has the highest ceiling? Who’s playing best right now?) and formulas are often used for projections. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the Committee doesn’t care, first and foremost, about who has won the biggest games while displaying the fewest blemishes.
No one in the country has a single better win than Georgia’s win over Notre Dame. Contrary to popular belief, Georgia —not Notre Dame—was the big winner on Saturday night. I know, because I saw it with my own two eyes. Georgia scored more points than Notre Dame.
Given that radical revelation, let’s dig deeper. No one in the country has defeated a team that was ranked higher than Notre Dame (then ranked seventh by both the AP and the Coaches polls). What’s more, nobody has defeated a team currently ranked higher than Notre Dame (10th in both polls). This is the best win of the season…for anybody.
- LSU beat Texas when the Longhorns were ranked ninth (when Notre Dame was ranked 8th, by the way) and the Longhorns are still ranked lower than Notre Dame. Georgia’s 6-point win over Notre Dame was more impressive than LSU’s 7-point win over lower-ranked Texas.
- Auburn defeated Oregon by six points when the Ducks were ranked 11th and Texas A&M by eight points when the Aggies were ranked 17th. Neither of those wins were more impressive than Georgia’s win this past weekend. Though in terms of volume, sure Auburn has two better wins than Georgia’s two best wins.
- Southern Cal beat Utah by seven points at home when the Utes were ranked 10th. Is that supposed to mean more than Georgia’s win?
- Cal beat Washington when the Huskies were ranked 14th. Sure.
- Wisconsin dismantled a Michigan team (then ranked 11th) that is now ranked 20th.
No one in the country has a better win—as defined by rankings—than Georgia. That’s indisputable.
As for blemishes outside of Georgia’s win over the Fighting Irish (which made Georgia look irreparably broken to some), I’m not sure what would detract from the Bulldogs. There obviously aren’t any losses. Beyond that, Georgia defeated Vanderbilt 30-6 in a game that was paced quite differently but every bit as uncontested as LSU’s 66-38 win over the Commodores. Nobody has beaten Vanderbilt worse. The Dawgs beat Murray State by 46 points (the Racers largest deficit this year). Georgia handed Arkansas State, a team riding an 8-year Bowl streak, 55-0. The last time the Red Wolves lost by 55 points was in 2003 (a 55-0 loss at Ole Miss). Since that time, the following ranked teams failed to hand Arkansas State a 55-point defeat.
- 2004: #18 Missouri (52-20), #6 LSU (53-3), #25 Memphis (47-35)
- 2006: #6 Auburn (27-0)
- 2007: #4 Texas (21-13)
- 2008: #2 Alabama (35-0)
- 2009: #22 Nebraska (38-9), #13 Iowa (24-21)
- 2010: #22 Auburn (52-26)
- 2011: #13 Virginia Tech (26-7)
- 2012: #5 Oregon (57-34), #25 Kent State (17-13 WIN)
- 2015: #8 USC (55-6), #21 Missouri (27-20)
- 2018: #1 Alabama (57-7)
Arkansas State isn’t an elite team. But nobody in the country has hammered the Red Wolves this way over the past 15+ years.
If a resume is built by signature wins without setbacks, Georgia has to be at the top of the list.
But for a bit more nuance on just how good this Georgia team might actually be, let’s revisit the Notre Dame game itself. I don’t think most Georgia fans felt the Bulldogs played all that well on Saturday. Dawgs247 graded Georgia’s position groups as follows:
- Quarterback: B+
- Running Back: A-
- Receivers and Tight Ends: B
- Offensive Line: B
- Defensive Line: A-
- Outside Linebackers: B
- Inside Linebackers: A-
- Defensive Backs: A
- Special Teams: C-
- Overall: B
If anything, I’d peg the team a tick lower. Seemed like low-B / high-C execution to me. Credit to Notre Dame for forcing some of the hits to the GPA, but not all of it (terrible punts, the muffed punt, a refusal to commit to the run early, a refusal to throw the ball downfield early) was a byproduct of Notre Dame. And these problems aren’t necessarily recurring.
But let’s presume, just for a moment, that this report card is accurate and accurate solely for one performance. If that’s the case, then a B-effort from Georgia, playing much of the game without two starters on the offensive line and down three guys in the secondary, was driving and in a position to go up by as much as 17 points with under seven minutes to play against the nation’s seventh-best team.
If the portion of media that thinks “Notre Dame is for real” is in fact right, then Georgia is the scariest team in the country—as least based on what we’ve seen so far. After all, with a less-than-stellar performance, the Bulldogs damn-near ran away with this thing. So why didn’t they? Some (myself included) have accused Kirby Smart of being too conservative and “playing not to lose.” That could be it. In particular, some (see: me) question:
- His decision to kick a field goal from the 26-yard line on fourth-and-one after the spot was close enough to mandate a video review. I hated that.
- His refusal to call a timeout as Notre Dame marched down the field on the ensuing possession. That was maddening.
But given the B/C-level performance from everyone not named Rodrigo Blankenship, maybe the field goal was the right move. What do I know?
Hear me out on this, though. It seems like if the two teams’ best performances were truly on display and as evenly matched as the game’s final score and final statistical line ended up, there would have been a larger premium placed on getting seven points (as opposed to the three the Bulldogs got). In other words, if the best effort from Georgia was truly only six points better than the best effort from Notre Dame, don’t you think you’d chase points any chance you had?
Georgia was not terribly opportunistic on Saturday, but the Bulldogs didn’t have to be (failing to cash in on opportunities still yielded a win). Maybe the urgency to create an opportunity for seven points didn’t exist because it didn’t need to exist.
Perhaps there was insecurity in Smart’s faking of the field goal. Or maybe the field goal actually had a bit of confidence behind it—confidence in recognizing that a sub-par effort was enough to beat a Top-7 team. Get the win and move on. After all, that’s what Georgia did.
Or maybe Georgia doesn’t belong. Believe what you want.
That’s all I got/
Previously in this series:
For the second week in a row, Stetson Bennett raised some questions for Georgia fans. The one echoed most loudly: Why isn’t he the starter? Bennett connected on 90% of his passes and racked up 14 yards per carry on the ground while splitting reps with incumbent Jake Fromm.
It’s easy to see why Georgia coaches (and fans) are clamoring for more given the disappointing start to the year for Fromm – especially when compared to former Bulldog QBs Jacob Eason and Justin Fields who are doing big things elsewhere. Let’s catch up:
Jacob Eason, Washington
Week 3: Eason connected on 72% of his passes for 262 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs before heading to the bench during garbage time.
This Season: Eason ranks 31st nationally in passing yards and is one of just 10 players in the country with at least a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Week 3: Fields had an “off” week accounting for just 210 yards and four touchdowns. Who am I kidding? That’s a pretty damn good week.
This Season: Fields’ 13 touchdowns in three games is still the headline.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
Week 3: Fromm had his best outing of the season – throwing for 279 yards and more than one touchdown (for the first time all year).
This Season: Fromm moved into the Top 75 in both passing yards and touchdowns thanks to a stellar showing.
Georgia Quarterback Watch Week 2 – Jake Fromm Slides in the Current/Former Georgia QB Power Rankings
Previously in this series:
Let’s check in on some current/former Georgia quarterbacks.
Jacob Eason, Washington
Week 2: Eason came back to earth a bit on Saturday (actually, early Sunday morning). After a long weather delay, the Huskies finally got onto the field but Washington lost a heart-breaker to Cal. Eason finished with 162 yards (more context on that later) 0 TDs and 1 INT but still completed 60% of his passes. Per most reports, he was plagued by dropped balls.
The Season: Eason remains in the Top 40 nationally in passing yards and TDs. He’s 13th nationally in completion percentage among passers with at least 65 attempts.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Week 2: FIelds validated early-season Heisman hype with another masterful game against a halfway-decent Cincinnati team. He hit on 20 of 25 passes for 224 yards and two TDs while adding another 42 yards and two scores on the ground.
The Season: Not much to argue about, really. Nine total touchdowns in two games is pretty damn strong. If Ohio State made it to the National Championship Game and Fields kept this pace, he’d rack up 67 or 68 TDs.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
Week 2: From was perfectly fine against Murray State. He connected on 10 of 11 passes for 166 yards and a single TD. He made the most of the opportunity against an inferior opponent. Though it should be noted, Fromm was outplayed by Bowen Smith (the quarterback for the Pikeville Bears, Murray State’s only other opponent this year), who threw for 186 yards and 1 TD versus the Racers.
The Season: Fromm ranks 97th in passing yards and 81st in passing TDs for the season.
Here’s how these three QBs stack up for the season.
Current Power Ranking of Current/Former Georgia Quarterbacks
#1. Justin Fields: Fields leads all contenders in wins, passing yards, yards of offense, passer rating and TDs. Can’t top the top.
#2. Jacob Eason: Despite a bumpy second game, Eason still edges out Fromm thanks to overall productivity. Some were disappointed with a 162-yard performance but it’s worth noting that total is better than more than a third of Fromm’s career outings. Seriously, Fromm has posted worse passing yard totals in 11 of his 31 career games. 162 isn’t great, but it’s better than 84, 101, 102, 106, 113, 123, 128, 141, 143, 156 and 157 (actual Fromm totals in prior games).
#3. Steton Bennett: Georgia’s backup edged out Fromm thanks to a strong performance. I’ll write more about this later in the week, but there may be a quarterback controversy in Athens after all. Bennett accounts for three touchdowns (two through the air, one on the ground) on Saturday and in doing so surpassed Fromm’s point production for the ENTIRE SEASON!
#4. Jake Fromm: Got to have him somewhere, I guess. Kirby just has him starting at QB for some reason.
The Kirby Smart Hater
In the interest of fairness to Coach Smart (a guy that some idiots like), I’ve decided to run a weekly column tracking the progress of three quarterbacks who saw the field at one point or another as Georgia Bulldogs. Ultimately, Coach “Smart” (and I use that term sarcastically) ran off Jacob Eason and Justin Fields in order to make sure Jake Fromm could be the starting quarterback in Athens. Was that a good decision? I guess we’ll see at season’s end. But for now, here’s where we stand after Week 1.
Jacob Eason, Washington
Week 1: Jacob Eason had the best game of his collegiate career this week. I guess that’s what happens when a real football coach gets his hands on you. Eason threw for a career high in yards (345) and touchdowns (four) while completing 75% of his passes and throwing no INTs. Decent game I guess.
This Season: Eason is 15th nationally in passing yards, fourth in passing TDs, 7th in completion percentage among QBs with at least 35 attempts and 11th in passer rating.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Week 1: Speaking of career days, Justin Fields turned one in as well. Fields nearly doubled his previous career best for passing yards as he connected on 72% of his passes for 234 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs. He also ran for 61 yards and 1 TD.
This Season: Fields is one of four players with responsibility for at least 5 TDs this season. His athleticism has never been in question, but he currently holds the 8th-best passer rating in the country.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
Week 1: Jake Fromm also played on Saturday. He completed 65% of his passes for 156 yards and 1 TD. He had no INTs and no rushing yards.
This Season: Fromm is also ranked in the Top 100 nationally in passing yards (literally ranked 100th) and passer rating (ranked 94th).
At this point, it’s pretty clear that Jake Fromm was the worst available option for Kirby Smart. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong down the road, but it’s gonna be tough to get out of this hole.
The Kirby Smart Hater