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Is this ‘the year’ for Georgia? Either way, Kirby Smart has 24 years to catch up to Nick Saban

HOOVER, Ala. — The question is being asked wrong. Instead of inquiring whether this is the year for Georgia, consider the man ultimately in charge of answering that question. More to the point, Kirby Smart has 24 of them — years, that is — on the legend he is chasing.

During his rotation through the 2021 SEC Media Days on Tuesday, the Georgia coach barely mentioned Alabama. He certainly didn’t mention Nick Saban, who at age 69 has to yet to lose to a former assistant (11-0).

Instead, Smart immediately disarmed a roomful of sportswriters by quoting Thoreau.

“Success comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it,” Smart said. “That’s Henry David Thoreau. For me, that’s it. I’m too busy working. I’m too busy trying to do that next thing. I’m too busy trying to take the next step to give our team a competitive advantage to really worry about expectations.”

Just a guess, but maybe a philosopher who died 159 years ago was never clued in on the Alabama-Georgia rivalry.

A quick update: This might be Smart’s best Georgia team. The Bulldogs are loaded at virtually every position. But for them to beat the Crimson Tide and win the SEC for the second time under Smart, Bama will have to come back to the pack a bit.

Whether Georgia wins or not, that has certainly happened. There is the feeling among those who are picking the Dawgs to win the SEC East — and the SEC as a whole — that the Tide simply cannot replace six first-round draft choices, a Heisman Trophy winner (DeVonta Smith), Doak Walker winner (Najee Harris), a Johnny Unitas Award winner (Mac Jones) and winners of the Joe Moore Trophy (best offensive line).

Or can they?

That’s part of the reason why we’ve gathered here this week to answer the media days’ biggest question: Is this the year for Georgia?

Short answer: It doesn’t have to be. At age 45, Smart has plenty of seasons A.S. (After Saban) to chase championships.

Long answer: Patience might as well be a curse word in the SEC. Five years into the Smart era, the Dawgs have won 52 games, an SEC title, three New Year’s Six bowls and come within an overtime of winning the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship. We all know how that ended.

The Dawgs even have their own hashtag for the struggle: #unfinishedbusiness.

If you really want to get under the skin of a Georgia fan, remind them that six SEC teams have won 15 national championships since the last time their team won it all (1980).

But for the first time since coaching against his old boss, Smart may finally have a better team than Alabama. Just don’t ask for clarity in July. The ultimate answer may come until the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game some 4 ½ months from now. That’s how similarly the two teams are constructed.

Seasons as head coach 3 5
Division titles 0 3

Conference titles

0

1

National title appearances

0

1

Postseason record

0-3

4-2

Saban and Alabama have been doubted before following personnel losses after a national title. Then something always seems to happen. This year, Saban dipped into the transfer portal landing Ohio State wide receiver Jameson Williams and linebacker Henry To’o To’o, a tackling machine from Tennessee.

Smart likes to say, as far as a schedule, there is no schedule. The ultimate prize will come. Eventually. For now, here’s what we know:

For the first time under Smart, offense is leading the way for the Dawgs. Quarterback J.T. Daniels is hoping to play his first full season since breaking out as a freshman at USC in 2018. This is a big deal because, as Smart likes to say, Georgia finished ranked No. 7 playing three quarterbacks last year in Daniels’ absence.

The difference might be Georgia is now explosive on offense. And explosive is all the rage. Why plod when you can strike quickly and often? The Dawgs led the nation with 4.5% of its plays being either runs of 10+ yards or passes of 30+ yards, both better marks than Alabama’s quick-strike offense.

Smart has hit the transfer portal like a gangster, landing LSU pass catcher Arik Gilbert, West Virginia safety Tykee Smith and Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick. Even with the loss of leading WR George Pickens, Gilbert is a huge boost for the Dawgs. The former Tigers tight end has convinced Smart he can play receiver. Good luck defending that at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds … along with 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end Darnell Washington.

The defense is absolutely loaded. Senior nose tackle Jordan Davis returned to a unit that led the SEC in average yards per play. “I just wanted to savor the moment because I feel like I didn’t really savor my last season,” Davis said.

Georgia has chosen this moment because it kicks off in Charlotte against Clemson. The risk is minimal — in the long run. Georgia took on scheduling such opponents as a philosophy. When the College Football Playoff expands, there is little downside to playing top 10 teams. In the future, 10-2 and 9-3 will get you in the playoff.

Future nonconference opponents include Oregon (2022), Oklahoma (2023), Clemson again (2024) and UCLA (2025-26).

“I’m looking at it [expanded playoff] heading in that direction,” Smart said. “I want the strength of schedule to play in my favor.”

With that kind of vision, the answer to the ultimate question this week might be view. You just might have to squint to see it. However long Saban is going to be around, Smart already has him beat. By years. 



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