The 1 stat that prevents me from thinking Kirby Smart is Mark Richt 2.0
Every time Kirby Smart loses a game that ends Georgia’s chances of ending the 1980 jokes, you can count on it like clockwork.
You know. The Mark Richt comparisons.
Go figure that being compared to arguably the SEC’s No. 3 or No. 4 coach of the 21st century is considered a jab, but when you’ve reached the heights that Smart has reached, it comes with the territory.
I’ll spare you the rant on Smart being wired differently than Richt, and how the former’s relentless recruiting ways and Nick Saban-like disdain for anything less than perfection should be what separates the coaches. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but there’s a 0.0% chance that Smart would’ve been cracking jokes with Holly Rowe at halftime of that 2008 Blackout Game like Richt was. Just sayin’.
The next time that someone makes the Richt vs. Smart comparison, remind them of an important stat that’ll be in play this weekend. No, it isn’t that through their first 62 games at UGA, Smart is 48-14 (29-9 vs. SEC) compared to 50-12 (30-10 vs. SEC) for Richt. I get that.
Consider this, though. On Saturday, Georgia won’t be ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Poll when it faces Mississippi State. That’ll end a streak of 45 consecutive games in which UGA played as a top-10 team. What was Richt’s longest streak playing games as a top-10 team? Just 16 games.
In Richt’s 15 years at Georgia, his teams played 90 games as a top-10 team. That’s 46% of the games he coached in Athens. So far, Smart’s teams were ranked in the top 10 in 74% of the games they played.
Remember that aforementioned 2008 season? About 6 weeks after the Blackout Game, UGA began a streak of 44 consecutive games played as a non-top 10 team.
Can you imagine any sort of universe in which Smart repeats that? For some perspective, Smart’s streak of 45 consecutive games as a top-10 team dated to after the Mississippi State win in 2017 — go figure that Dan Mullen was the coach who bookended that run — to this Saturday. That’s more than 3 years. Smart’s floor is much too high to think about that top-10 drought lasting 1 full year, much less 3.
Yes, being a top-10 team matters. It means being in the national title hunt. It means getting primetime TV slots. It means having an engaged fan base. It means not playing games in half-empty stadiums when recruits turn on the TV.
Oh, my bad. It’s 2020. Crowds don’t matter this year.
What still matters? Being nationally relevant. It matters having national title chances in December, which UGA had each of the past 3 years. I’d argue that the Dawgs only had that twice (2002 and 2012) during the entire Richt era, which was a decade longer than Smart’s active tenure.
And for the “that just means UGA was overrated during Smart’s top-10 streak” crowd, I hate to break it to you, but that’s just not true. Since the start of 2017, Smart went 14-8 vs. ranked foes and 34-1 against unranked foes (history tells us that a winning record vs. ranked teams means you’re doing something right). During that stretch, Smart went 19-2 against the division.
That includes the most recent loss to Florida. It ended Smart’s 3-year winning streak against the Gators, which matched the longest of the Richt era, though his wins all came by 1 score and they were in the first 3 years of the post-Urban Meyer era in Gainesville (Richt went 1-4 vs. Meyer).
Why is all of this worth bringing up? There are a lot of people who are going to throw dirt on Georgia’s 2020 grave and declare that in Year 5, Smart is heading in the wrong direction. Those people will say that he messed up the quarterback situation, and he didn’t even win a division title with one of the best defenses in program history. They’ll get hung up on those things and tell themselves that the floor is about to drop significantly post-Year 5, just as it did for Richt when he went 4-4 in SEC play in 2006.
My advice to those people would be simple — look a little deeper. Look at the fact that the only other team in all of college football that held a top-10 ranking for the duration of Georgia’s 45-game stretch was Clemson. Even Alabama played a game outside the top 10 after it fell in the Iron Bowl last year, and same with Ohio State when it suffered that inexplicable blowout loss at Iowa in 2017.
They don’t hand out national titles for that, but that sure as heck isn’t a sign that history is about to repeat itself.
If you’re a UGA fan wondering what it’ll take to finally get over that hump, take solace in knowing that Smart tweaked the offense to finally have a system that doesn’t limit UGA’s ceiling, but it just needs a quarterback who can execute said system. Take solace in knowing that the Dawgs have been a much more consistent contender than they were under Richt, and unlike the previous regime, a recruiting class ranked outside the top 2 nationally is deemed a failure.
Saturday will feel weird playing a regular-season game without SEC/Playoff aspirations for the first time in over 4 years. There’s no doubt about that. But appreciate and understand why that’s so weird for the Smart era.
Soon, a new top-10 streak will begin. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll be the one that ends the title drought in Athens.