It’s at least a question.

If Kirby Smart wins his 3rd consecutive national title — something that hasn’t been done since 1936 Minnesota — we need to ask.

Would that make him the No. 2 coach in college football history?

I know, I know. Recency bias. How could I possibly suggest that 1 season could allow Smart to surpass every non-Nick Saban coach in human history?

That’s right. Saban is still No. 1 among the best coaches the sport has ever seen.

But if Smart accomplished something that even Saban couldn’t in his iconic career, yes, it would be a legacy defining feat. Not Bear Bryant, not Tom Osborne, not Steve Spurrier, not Urban Meyer, not Bobby Bowden, not anyone. Smart would have a flex unlike any other, and he’d do so in an 4-team Playoff era wherein it all but demands that you win at least 14 games, the final 3 of which are inevitably against top-10 teams.

With a third national title, Smart would move into a category of 3-time title winners that includes Osborne, Saban, Meyer, Bryant, Knute Rockne, Bud Wilkinson, Woody Hayes, John McKay, Barry Switzer, Frank Leahy, Bernie Bierman, Walter Camp, Darrell Royal, Howard Jones and Pop Warner. If we’re just including the coaches who did that in a post-integrated world (post-1972 when the entire SEC integrated), the list of coaches with 3 national titles is:

  • Nick Saban, 7 post-integration titles
  • Bear Bryant, 3 post-integration titles
  • Urban Meyer, 3 post-integration titles
  • Tom Osborne, 3 post-integration titles
  • Barry Switzer, 3 post-integration titles

That’s why we’re having this discussion. Call me crazy, but I’d argue that the post-integration world of the sport carries more weight than the previous one.

I’d also argue that we’re no longer living in a time with split national champs. As recently as 20 years ago, winning a national title wasn’t exclusive to 1 team. Two of Bryant’s post-integration titles were split, while Switzer, Saban and Osborne all had 1 split national title apiece.

What would it say if Smart had 3 undisputed national titles? And to do so now, in an era wherein there are 131 FBS teams, 65 of whom identify as Power 5, would be even more impressive.

An anti-Smart person might suggest that “anybody could win with 5-star talent galore.” A logical person would acknowledge that recruiting is the name of the game, and it’s Smart who oversees all of that. An anti-Smart person might also suggest that “it’s easy to recruit that well and win when you spend money like Georgia.” A logical person would acknowledge that if it was all about dollars and cents, why can’t Texas buy a meaningful win?

Also, the person who believes it’s never been easier for elite teams to stay elite will try to convince you that Bryant had some sort of talent disparity and that 1960s/70s Alabama only recruited second-stringers from teams within horse and buggy distance.

(Exaggerating, but you get the point.)

For my money, Smart’s single-season feat of 2022 was more impressive than any single-season feat of the coaching giants who stood in his way. Never has someone lost 15 players to the NFL Draft from a title-winning team, only to then run it back with a 15-0 season. Oh, and it was capped off by a 65-7 bludgeoning of frisky TCU.

Besides the increased acceptance for elite players to leave college early for the NFL Draft and have a fully developed roster ready to step in, let’s talk about roster retention. Recruiting your own roster is a thing in the NIL world. Transfer portal restrictions have never been looser, either.

So yes, while one could argue that Smart and modern coaches have support staffs that Bryant and the 20th century crowd would never have imagined, there’s also so much more to worry about. When Bryant and McKay were at their peak, they’d spend 6-8 weeks together golfing on the West Coast every year.

Picture any universe in which Smart goes and relaxes on the West Coast for a week.

This is the same guy who turned down an opportunity to go to Italy and stayed in Southaven, Mississippi to be a travel baseball dad for a few days. The 21st century coach doesn’t get to escape.

The 21st century coach also has more pressure than ever to produce. “Buyouts” weren’t a thing in the 20th century. Now, if Years 6-11 are nothing but seasons with at least 3 losses, you can assume the vast majority of non-title winning head coaches are gone. Bobby Bowden wasn’t gone when he followed that path at Florida State. Shoot, Frank Beamer didn’t go to a bowl game until Year 7 at Virginia Tech.

Is coaching more difficult now compared to then? That’s debatable. What’s not debatable is that there’s more pressure than ever to get it done.

It wasn’t that long ago that Smart, as a 40-something head coach, was getting all the Mark Richt comparisons as “the guy who couldn’t win the big one.” Now, he’s got 2 rings and he’s set up well to pursue a third. If Smart reaches a fourth national title game, that’ll already be more appearances than Meyer, and he’ll have matched Dabo Swinney.

For many, any notion that Smart is a title away from catching Bryant or even someone with longevity like Osborne is absurd. And to be fair, we’re comparing someone entering Year 8 at his current job to a pair of coaches who got 25 years at their respective programs. Osborne and Bryant won 13 and 15 conference titles, respectively. Smart has 2, and he’s got roughly 1/3 the all-time wins as those 2 legends. There’s no cumulative argument that favors a 47-year-old Smart. That could be what prevents him from having anywhere close to unanimous “No. 2 coach ever” approval. I won’t say someone is wrong for siding with Bryant or Osborne instead of Smart.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that Smart boasts 6 consecutive top-7 finishes, which is longer than any such streak that either Osborne or Bryant had. Plus, 3 titles in a row is a feat unlike any we’ve ever seen in college football. To accomplish that during an era when Saban not only exists, but is competing for national titles in the same conference, would vault Smart up those all-time lists in ways that perhaps no coach ever has.

Smart is approaching uncharted territory. There’s a case to be made that if he can pull off this feat, which nobody has accomplished since the first term of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, Smart is going to force plenty of college football fans to at least ask the question.

Does title No. 3 mean he’s now No. 2?