First and 10: What happens if Kirby Smart loses the Cocktail Party?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Until now, there has been no reason to question Kirby Smart. Blind faith from all things red and black.
But let things get sideways this weekend in Jacksonville against rival Florida, and everything comes into play. Blown leads against Alabama, questionable game and clock management, and yes, even personnel decisions.
Smart, entering his 4th Cocktail Party as Georgia’s coach, says the Dawgs are excited about getting on the field again, “regardless of how we have played.”
Yet that’s the problem. A season that was set up for elite success is suddenly at a crossroads – and has left Smart staring at the first critical game of his head coaching tenure.
Georgia has better players than Florida. Georgia recruits better than Florida.
Georgia has the better quarterback, is better on the lines of scrimmage and has the No. 1 scoring defense in the SEC (and 5th in the nation).
Florida is playing with a backup quarterback and a banged up defensive line and a secondary that gets younger with each injury.
There’s no way in hell Georgia should lose this game, yet this is where we are: The Gators are a dangerous and confident team, and Smart is one loss from everything he has built since he arrived in 2016 coming into critical focus.
A) The unraveling of his teams with double-digit leads to Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff Championship Game and the 2018 SEC Championship Game.
B) The atrocious fake punt call at midfield during the SEC Championship Game, with the game tied in the 4th quarter.
C) The fake field goal at LSU in 2018.
D) Most recently, the decision to run a play with 8 seconds remaining in regulation against South Carolina, instead of allowing Rodrigo Blankenship – one of the nation’s best kickers – try to win the game that was eventually lost in overtime.
The decision to take unthinkable risk is bad enough. The execution of those decisions has been downright putrid. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is coaching.
But this isn’t the biggest problem on the horizon for Smart should the Bulldogs lose as favorites to their bitter rivals. The oversized cloud hanging over everything this season is Smart’s decision to force former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields into playing the Georgia offense instead of Smart tweaking his offense to better suit Fields’ multiple skills.
Fields, of course, left after last season (when all he was known for was the aforementioned disastrous fake punt) and transferred to Ohio State, where he has 33 total TDs (24 pass/9 rush) and 1 INT.
Smart’s quarterback, Jake Fromm, threw 3 interceptions 2 weeks ago in the loss to South Carolina and has 9 total TDs this season. His regression is as startling as Georgia’s ineffective and inefficient play on offense (more on that later).
This isn’t rocket science: If Georgia can’t beat Florida and Fields continues to light up scoreboards in Columbus (don’t kid yourselves, UGA fans, Ohio State’s schedule isn’t any less daunting than UGA’s), guess who starts feeling heat for the first time as the coach in Athens?
Smart arrived at his alma mater with Nick Saban’s Process in tow. But for all the organizational skills and ability to motivate and the precision of preparation he learned from Saban, Smart hasn’t learned how to do the one thing Saban does better than any coach: manage the game and the team.
That’s why this weekend’s Cocktail Party is a bright, flashing warning sign for Smart. Lose this game, and Georgia’s trend line looks like this: a play from winning it all in 2017, blowing a lead and losing the SEC Championship Game in 2018, not winning your own division in 2019.
Meanwhile, he’ll have just given Florida coach Dan Mullen, who really hasn’t proven he can recruit at the level of Saban and Smart, the ability to do just that with a big rivalry win in his pocket.
2. Consequences of choice
Years ago, when Alabama was in the infant stages of Saban’s unthinkable run of success, an overwhelmed Tennessee team came to Tuscaloosa and nearly beat Crimson Tide.
But for a blocked field goal on the last play of the game in 2009, Tennessee and first-year coach Lane Kiffin would have beaten the eventual national champions. Saban remembered that game, and not because Kiffin’s childish personality had rubbed so many SEC coaches the wrong way over the previous 10 months.
He remembered it because he saw what Kiffin’s offense did to his defense, and years later after Kiffin was fired from USC, Saban hired him to run the Alabama offense and bring it into the 21st century. He didn’t hire a friend; he hired the best guy for the job.
This offseason, former Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney – instrumental in Fromm’s development his first 2 seasons – got a job offer from Tennessee and Smart didn’t want to match it. Instead, Smart decided to promote longtime friend James Coley, who had a less than stellar run calling the offenses at Miami under Al Golden.
Saban’s past 3 offensive coordinator hires were guys with which he had zero previous relationship but who were well-respected as Xs and Os coaches within the profession: Kiffin, Mike Locksley/Dan Enos, Steve Sarkisian.
Now Georgia’s offense is predictable with Coley, and his play calling is more conservative than Chaney. Fromm has significantly regressed (part of that is Georgia’s struggling receiving corps), and the offense is averaging 28 points vs. Power 5 teams (from 33.6 ppg. in 2018).
Georgia is heading into the homestretch of the season – games against Florida, Missouri, at Auburn, Texas A&M and potentially the SEC Championship Game – with an offense that struggles to score points.
It could be over early Saturday night if Georgia can’t shake the funk it has been treading in since the beginning of the season.
3. The importance of the Cocktail Party, the Epilogue
For months Smart has talked about the need to move the annual rivalry with Florida out of Jacksonville and into a home and home series. His reason: recruiting.
Because it’s a neutral site game, Georgia can’t invite and host recruits and loses a recruiting weekend others in the SEC have. In other words, it’s a competitive disadvantage.
The two universities last week signed a contract extension to keep the game in Jacksonville for the near future, and Georgia did so despite Smart’s constant offseason drum beating about wanting the game moved.
If Smart had won the 2017 national title, if he had won the SEC Championship again in 2018 and again advanced to the CFP, he’d have more bargaining power. Instead, his desire for a recruiting weekend lost out to millions of dollars.
A source close to the negotiations told me each school will receive at least $5.5 million per game. That means Florida and Georgia – which both earn anywhere from $2.5-3 million revenue for every home game – will pocket at least $11 million every 2 years by playing the game in Jacksonville.
If the game were played on campus, the two schools would earn $2.5-3 million every other year. That’s an $8 million difference every 2 years.
There are 2 coaches who have the on-field capital to convince their universities to walk away from revenue like that: Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Smart’s not there yet.
4. Big Orange push
It’s still ugly and discombobulated and there’s no quarterback rhyme or reason to speak of, but one thing is becoming clear about Tennessee: The players respond to Jeremy Pruitt.
Despite all of the problems on and off the field, that is something critical to build on – especially with a back half of the schedule that could not only lead to the postseason, but to momentum for 2020.
Tennessee isn’t beating the elite of the SEC. It already has been blown out in 3 games against league heavyweights (and rivals) Florida, Alabama and Georgia. But the quarterback play is beginning to evolve (not surprising with Chaney leading the way), and the team is beginning to mirror the tough – if not, somewhat reckless – personality of its coach.
“Jeremy is all guts,” one SEC coach told me last week. “There’s nothing fancy about him. He’s just a ball coach. Considering what they’ve had there in the past, why not someone like him?”
Games against UAB, at Kentucky, at Missouri and Vanderbilt to finish this regular season gives the Vols a chance at the postseason for the first time since 2016 and gives Priutt the chance to win and continue selling his brand of football.
The more he wins, the more non-football miscues – from talking to police investigating his player to pulling the facemask of a player – don’t have as much impact on his future.
5. The Weekly 5
Five games against the spread.
- Florida (+4) vs. Georgia
- Vanderbilt at South Carolina (-15)
- UAB at Tennessee (-12)
- Ole Miss at Auburn (-18.5)
- Mississippi State (-7) at Arkansas
Last week: 2-3 (.400)
Season: 21-25 (.456)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down the draft prospects of an SEC player. This week: LSU QB Joe Burrow.
“You could tell last year early that the offense wasn’t a fit for him. He looked and played uncomfortable. They opened it up in November last year, and he started to look like a guy who might get drafted. Now he’s in everyone’s 1st round. It’s more than just the arm talent and accuracy – don’t get me wrong, those are important.
“I love this guy’s toughness, his moxie, his leadership. The way players rally around him. Those guys are tremendous to have in a locker room. He has been taught well, and has been around an RPO system since high school. He knows what to do, and what to look for. He knows the concepts of the passing game and the RPO’s place in it.
“It’s fun as hell to watch him read defenses and choose. He’s getting more polished, more precise, week after week. If you’re a team that’s jumping on the RPO game, he’s your guy. But I also think he can work in a typical spread system. He’s throwing in 4- and 5-wide sets. We’re all looking for the next (Tom) Brady, and I’d hate to compare anyone to him. But he has that steel trap, football IQ mind like Brady, no doubt about that.”
7. Powered up
This week’s SEC power poll (and one big thing):
1. LSU: Close win over Auburn best thing that could have happened to LSU heading into bye week. Keeps Tigers hungry.
2. Alabama: I have no doubt QB Tua Tagovailoa will play against LSU. But how weakened will his injured ankle be?
3. Georgia: Gut-check time for the Dawgs, who haven’t played a complete game all season. Now is the best time to unwrap it.
4. Florida: Gators coach Dan Mullen jabbed Georgia all offseason. Time to put up or choke down another loss to the Dawgs.
5. Auburn: Bo Nix’s progression has been slow (and tedious) against elite teams. He has to get better, quicker, with Georgia and Alabama on the horizon.
6. Texas A&M: Aggies are holding serve in games they should win (UTSA and South Carolina are next), until 2 games they shouldn’t (at Georgia, at LSU) arrive.
7. Missouri: It just got significantly harder for Missouri to win the SEC East – and the Tigers haven’t played Georgia and Florida.
8. Tennessee: A 3-win team is the No. 8 team in the SEC. Why, you ask? They’re 8th-best – and because they’ll have 7 wins by the end of the season.
9. South Carolina: Now Gamecocks to win 3 of next 4 (vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Appalachian State, at Texas A&M, vs. Clemson) just to get bowl eligible. That’s a tall order.
10. Ole Miss: Rebels have a bye week to get healthy and ready for a brutal stretch run. The goal for the last month of the season: play QB John Rhys Plumlee more, not less.
11. Mississippi State: Bulldogs have lost 4 in a row and TB Kylin Hill has gained 242 yards in those games. See the correlation?
12. Kentucky: Lynn Bowden Jr. will play in the NFL. Not as a quarterback, but a wide receiver. You don’t do what he’s doing without the league noticing.
13. Vanderbilt: Find a good rotation with QBs Riley Neal and Mo Hasan and stick with it.
14. Arkansas: This home game vs. Mississippi State might be the Hogs’ best shot at winning a league game this season.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why do you think it hasn’t clocked with Chad Morris at Arkansas? I’m getting really tired of hearing about how he loves the effort.
Carlton: I’m guessing Morris is getting really tired of walking into his quarterback room and seeing noting but ineffective play.
There’s no way of getting around it: Morris walked into a roster that was built to run the ball like Wisconsin, and his style is 180 degrees opposite. Turning over a roster like that is difficult, but even more so if you can’t win a few conference games in the first 2 years to sustain small growth steps.
They’re not winning a game or 2 here or there because they can’t get smart, mistake-free quarterback play. Nick Starkel wasn’t the answer, nor was Ben Hicks. Now Morris has moved to John Stephens Jones to run more zone read principles and slow down the game.
Arkansas won’t fix its quarterback problem until 2020, when Chandler Morris (Chad’s son and an elite QB Clemson wanted) arrives on campus. Unfortunately, that also means Arkansas isn’t winning an SEC game until 2020.
9. Numbers game
7. Florida DEs Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga have missed most or all of the past 2 games, and the Florida pass rush (and defense) has suffered because of it.
They have combined for 7 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, and when they’re on the field, the Gators can play more combination coverages in the back end because they can get home with the rush by using the front 4.
Without Greenard and Zuniga, the Gators have had to gamble more with various blitz packages. Both players are probable to play vs. Georgia.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on the looming game with Alabama, which has beaten the Tigers 8 consecutive games: “We know what’s upon us.”