Georgia Football: Are the Bulldogs Almost Alabama Now?
This is the second in a seven-part series entitled Almost: A Preview of the SEC East. Yesterday, we discussed the University of Tennessee’s almost-ness, so check that out.
One could argue that December 1, 2012 marked the beginning of the end for The Georgia Way™. On that particular Saturday, The Georgia Way™ fell painstakingly yet definitively short against the Crimson Tide of Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Thereafter, The Georgia Way™ seemed to do everything in its power to euthanize itself over a 36-month period.
The Georgia Way™ found a way to turn preseason optimism into a narrow defeat against a renewed rival to open the 2013 season. The Georgia Way™ severed ACL after ACL while losing five of its final nine contests (including disheartening losses to lower-ranked Missouri at home, un-ranked Vanderbilt and un-ranked Nebraska in a bowl game) to close out that campaign. The next year, The Georgia Way™ self-diagnosed itself in a way that only The Georgia Way™ could as a star running back (and the best football player in the country) faced a lengthy suspension. Even a rival at its low point (Florida) and a little sister (Georgia Tech) beat up on the afflicted in 2014. And last year, The Georgia Way™ performed exactly to expectation—winning 10 games but failing to defeat a single ranked opponent and losing to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida by a combined margin of 59 points—as it took its final breath.
We didn’t know it then, but The Georgia Way™ began dying way back in 2012. And we didn’t know it then, but that’s probably about the time The Alabama Process began gestating in Athens, Georgia. The first evolution of this new lifeform saw a former Nick Saban Assistant (Jeremy Pruitt) arrive with a few other Bama connects (Kevin Sherrer and a slew of unmarked assistants). And then came the more recent iteration with the hiring of longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Make no mistake about it, the Smart hire was much less about “bringing Kirby home” than it was about “Bringing The Alabama Process to Athens.” Sure, it’s a great story that Smart played in Athens. It’s lovely that he coached there early in his career and married a former Bulldog student-athlete. But he wasn’t hired for what he accomplished with UGA. His 13 interceptions as a DB didn’t matter one iota; neither did his stint as a grad assistant in 1999 or his lone year as running backs coach in 2005.
All that mattered was:
- 2008: 12-2, Final Ranking No. 6
- 2009: 14-0, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, BCS Champs
- 2010: 10-3, Final Ranking No. 10
- 2011: 12-1, Final Ranking No. 1, BCS Champs
- 2012: 13-1, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, BCS Champs
- 2013: 11-2, Final Ranking No. 7
- 2014: 12-2, Final Ranking No. 4, SEC Champs
- 2015: 14-1, Final Ranking No. 1, SEC Champs, CFB Playoff Champs
In eight years as Nick Saban’s top assistant, Kirby Smart never saw Alabama finish the season outside of the Top 10 (as ranked by the AP). The Crimson Tide won half of the national championships over that time period and half the SEC’s championships. The Crimson Tide won 98 games in eight years and lost only 12.
Georgia hired Kirby Smart to reinvent the wheel. Georgia hired Kirby Smart to make football great again. Georgia hired Kirby Smart in hopes that Number One’s Number Two might actually match or surpass Number One.
None of this should come as a surprise to keen followers of Georgia football. But from the outside looking in, Greg McGarity & Co. sure have tried to maintain a “business as usual” facade while radically altering day-to-day operations within the football program. They didn’t coincidentally hire a longtime Bama assistant. They hired Saban Lite.
Look no further than GeorgiaDogs.com for an official account this recreation.
This spring McGarity commented on the size of the football program’s support staff, saying (per Chip Towers of DawgNation), “It’s not, ‘School A has 40; I have to have 40.'”
But out of the overflow of the heart the Coaching Staff Bio page speaks.
Georgia now tallies 46 people on its football staff tab. The only SEC school with more listed (online) is Kentucky with 48. I mean, of course Kentucky, the program that gives Mark Stoops a contract extension and raise every time he successfully finds the practice field, has 48 total staff members. But 46 is a LOT. We’re talkin’ Player Relations Coordinators and Directors of Player Wellness; Quality Control Assistants and Graduate Assistants; Directors of Video Operations, Assistant Video Coordinators and Recruiting Video Coordinators; Directors of Strength and Conditioning as well as Senior Associate Directors of Strength and Conditioning and even Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coaches. You get the idea.
This is a very Alabama staff. And not just because of the numbers of job titles.
The terms “Alabama,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Tide,” “UA” and “Nick Saban” appear in staff bios exactly 54 times. And it’s worth noting that I ignored non-contextual / generic reference to the state of Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham and South Alabama. Only “UA” references to the University of Alabama were logged. Further, almost one-third (15 of 46) of the staff members listed don’t even have bios yet. Fifty-four references to the top program in the nation might 75 by the time every bio is added.
If the goal here is track Alabama, Georgia’s Human Resources Department seems to be doing a decent job so far.
But that doesn’t mean Georgia is almost Alabama. Right now, Georgia is still much closer to the 2015 Georgia Bulldogs than the 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide, and that gap makes the use of almost damn-near laughable. Consider a few measurables:
|Category||2015 Alabama||2015 Georgia|
|Top 25 Wins||8||0|
|Top 10 Wins||5||0|
What’s more, these finishes are every bit as indicative of the recent state of both programs as they are of the singular 2015 campaign for each respective team. Alabama is (and has been since 2008) the best program in the country. On the other side, Georgia is (and has been for most of recent history) a middle-of-the-SEC program. That might be a hard pill for for Dawg fans to swallow (and it was painful for me to write), but ultimately Georgia is in its current wheel-reinventing state because even with the two other traditional powers in the division down and with omnipresent menace Steve Spurrier reeling, Georgia missed out on winning the weaker division in the SEC in 2013, 2014 and 2015. That’s pretty middle-of-the-pack.
But back to almost Bama and the 2015 season analysis. Consider how hard it would be for Georgia to match 2015 Alabama. The last time the Bulldogs finished with the top spot in the country was in 1980. Georgia has literally never won 14 games in a single season and the last time Georgia lost just one game was in 2002. That was also the last time Georgia won eight SEC games (both Alabama in 2015 and Georgia in 2002 include the SECCG). Alabama won eight games against ranked opponents last year; Georgia beat eight ranked opponents in total during the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons. Bama defeated five Top 10 foes last year. Georgia has only defeated five Top 10 teams since defeating Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl after the 2007 season. Bama won the division last year. Georgia won its division in 2012.
I knocked Tennessee for not being “close” based solely on 2015 results, and by the same measurement Georgia is on the exact same page. Yes, Georgia won 10 games last season. But no, the Bulldogs didn’t really beat anyone of note. Which of these victories was anything more than a game Georgia would have no excuse losing?
- Louisiana-Monroe at home
- At Vanderbilt
- South Carolina at home
- Southern University at home
- Missouri at home
- Kentucky at home
- Auburn on the road
- Georgia Southern at home
- Georgia Tech on the road
LA-Mo didn’t beat a single Power 5 Conference opponent and won just two games over all. Vandy’s only two Power 5 Conference wins came against other schools on this list (Missouri and Kentucky). South Carolina beat North Carolina and Vanderbilt. South Carolina was so bad that Spurrier quite mid-season which was the second most surprising thing to happen involving Gamecock football (most surprising was Greyson Lambert completing 24 of 25 passes against them). Southern did not beat any FBS foes. Missouri’s only Power 5 win was against South Carolina. Kentucky’s only Power 5 wins were South Carolina and Missouri. Auburn was the best team of the bunch with Power 5 Wins over Louisville, Kentucky and Texas A&M, but the Tigers missed bowl season. Georgia Southern won zero Power 5 games. Georgia Tech won one – against Florida State (quite hilariously).
That right there is nine regular season wins. Toss in a meaningless bowl win over Penn State and you have double-digits. And if you think 1. Tennessee is a good team and 2. That almost beating good teams should count for something, then give the Bulldogs credit for almost beating Tennessee on the road. But I don’t personally believe either of those things.
So I wouldn’t say that Georgia is almost Alabama in any way, shape or form.
But to be sure, there is optimism to cling to.
Georgia is immensely talented (not quite on the level of Alabama, but only one of Georgia’s last five recruiting classes failed to crack the Top 10 per 247Sports). And the coaching staff is presumably solid. After all, if ever there was an assistant coach geared to replicate Nick Saban, surely it would be his most-tenured high-ranking lieutenant. But there’s a multifaceted danger in assuming that Smart can become Saban.
First and foremost, no one prior to Nick Saban ever became Nick Saban. And I don’t mean that merely in a literal sense. I mean that Nick Saban is the best coach college football has ever seen. To win with this degree of consistency, with this amount of pressure and with this much competition is insane. With that in mind, we’d be foolish to assume that Smart will ever match Saban. At best, we should hope he competes with him. And if you witnessed Georgia’s 2015 matchup against the Crimson Tide, you know that would be one hell of an improvement.
Secondly, we need to remember that Saban didn’t become Saban overnight. We tend to remember Saban’s 9-2 campaign in 1999 at Michigan State, his BCS National Championship at LSU in 2003 and his four national titles in the last seven years at Alabama. But, we forget some of those early stages of The Process.
Nick Saban was 25-22-1 in his first four seasons at East Lansing. Over that time period he never won a bowl game or conference title.
Nick Saban never finished better than 5-3 in conference play and lost a total of 12 games during his first three seasons in Baton Rouge.
Nick Saban lost his final four regular season games (including a matchup with Louisiana-Monroe) during his first season in Tuscaloosa. Several games were vacated as punishment for a previous regime’s missteps, but the outcome of the games itself that year resulted in a 7-6 record (vs. a 6-6 record the year before under ousted Mike Shula).
It may take Kirby Smart two or three years to right this ship and he may never be the captain that Saban is. The good news, however, is that he is inheriting a stronger crew and more calm waters than what greeted Saban when he arrived at Alabama in 2007. So in that regard it’s almost possible to imagine what the program is capable.
With that in mind, Georgia belongs squarely in the conversation for the SEC East divisional crown (along with Tennessee and Florida), but to say that will be enough to make this team feel like Alabama…well, maybe we’ll get a chance to see in December. But my gut tells me that the best possible result for this team is “this is no longer the 2015 Georgia team.”
Almost Alabama still seems a ways off.
That’s all I got/