The UGA football program is starting to realize its potential. It has been a long time coming.
I feel like I am decently familiar with UGA, as I grew up watching them a lot since I live in the state and have previously covered them a solid amount. The Bulldogs (football-wise) have always had so many advantages over many of its peers.
For one, the school is the premier athletic institution (particularly in football in the state), and it is not really that close. Georgia is also a football recruiting-rich state, so getting talent to come to the school is never a problem if the person in charge is not totally incompetent.
The team also has a strong history and a winning tradition. No, it is not an Alabama, a Michigan, a Texas, a Notre Dame or an Ohio State, but it still has a very good history.
It has also developed into one of the true blue blood programs in the country. After the winning drought of the ’90s following the Vince Dooley glory days, Mark Richt took over in 2001 and saw much success at the Georgia helm. Also, more than that he was a consistent winner. One could always expect the Bulldogs to win around ten games most seasons.
With that, the program’s status as a power in this millennium went up. While Richt was a very good head coach and an even better individual, he could not seem to win the right games at UGA as his teams were known to show up small in big moments.
The Georgia fans yearned for more. They wanted to compete and win more championships, and that was something Richt did not seem to be able to do, particularly in the latter part of his coaching career in Athens. He seemed to have hit his ceiling at Georgia.
The first main warning sign in Richt’s tenure at Georgia (in my opinion) was in his ninth year. The Bulldogs struggled mightily in 2010 even though they had plenty of future talent on the team. They backed their way into a bowl game with their win over Ga. Tech that year.
In one of the worst games of football I have ever seen, UGA somehow lost an almost unwatchable game against non-Power 5 UCF in the Liberty Bowl, 10-6. Georgia did not even manage an offensive touchdown in the game. The main thing I remember from that game was that Georgia had a first down on the 12-yard line, ran the ball three times behind an offensive line that had several future NFL players on it but could not manage to get three yards against UCF and settled for a field goal from the UCF three.
That train wreck of a game was arguably the lowest point of the Georgia program of the decade. Fortunately for the Richt regime, the dark days soon ended as Georgia signed an excellent recruiting class in 2011, which played a major factor in them winning the SEC East that year (after a rough start).
The following year was extremely successful for Georgia but proved to be an anomaly. Despite having arguably one of the most talented Bulldog teams ever, Georgia somehow fell just short in the SEC Championship and a shot to go to the national championship. The next two years, Georgia had more mind-blowing losses, but Richt still survived.
The 2015 season was a different story as everyone found out. A lot of Georgia fans had given up hope and accepted what they would get with Richt. The Bulldogs started the season on a bright note at 4-0, and fans felt positive leading up to their showdown with Alabama in Athens.
But this soon changed as the Tide embarrassed Georgia at home. The season was over when the Bulldogs lost to Tennessee (despite being up 24-3 at one time) and got blown out by Florida (27-3).
UGA went on to a decent record that year at a solid 10-3 mark. However, the Dawgs did not defeat a single team with a winning record and won ugly a lot (9-6 over a bad Missouri team in Athens, an overtime victory over Ga. Southern at home, etc.) The final game of Richt at Georgia proved to be the last regular season game of the year as Georgia barely beat a 3-9 Ga. Tech team.
The Georgia athletic department had finally had enough, and Richt was fired soon after. Many people criticized Georgia for the move, but the rational UGA fans knew it was for the best as long as Georgia got the right guy.
The critics of the move pointed to how Tennessee handled the Fulmer firing and the mediocrity that happened after that. People said that Georgia should be content with winning nine or 10 games a year, as a lot of teams would love to be in those shoes.
But UGA is not just anyone. It is one of the best jobs in the country and should be competing for and winning championships on a consistent basis. (The Bulldogs had not won the SEC since 2005.) That was not happening anymore.
Firing a solid head coach can cause problems if one does not have a plan, but UGA athletic director Greg McGarity and the others in leadership had one. They quickly pulled the trigger and hired Kirby Smart.
Smart was the perfect guy for UGA and proved to be a home-run hire. (I, for one, thought Smart would be great at UGA and advocated for him before Richt was fired.)
Smart made perfect sense for several reasons. First, UGA was his alma mater, and he grew up in the state as he hailed from Bainbridge, Ga. His father was also a well-known high school football coach in the state of Georgia, so Smart already had an amazing relationship with coaches in the state (which he helped develop on the recruiting trail) and bolstered his prowess as an outstanding recruiter. Finally, he had already gained a lot of valuable experience, serving as defensive coordinator and assistant under one of the best coaches in Nick Saban of Alabama.
The Georgia leadership banked on the fact that he would bring all his prior experience, recruiting acumen and “the Process” to Athens. And, indeed, he did.
Smart’s first season was definitely rocky at times (not an uncommon occurrence for a first-year head coach) as Georgia went 8-5 and could have gone 11-2 if the ball bounced right. However, Georgia finished with a positive ending to the season when they defeated TCU in the Liberty Bowl.
Smart’s program starting making real waves on the recruiting trail as Georgia hauled in a historically good class (No. 3 overall). The class of 2018 was not the same though. It was slow at first, as players just like fans were seeing if Smart was going to fulfill his promises.
He sure did. The Bulldogs went 11-1 in the regular season and won the SEC Championship in dominant fashion (28-7) in a rematch with Auburn and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. Dominant can describe their season as well. The Bulldogs gave up an average of only 13.2 points per game, and that number was skewed by the regular season loss at Auburn. They also averaged 34.9 points a game, which is a nice improvement from 2016. Most notably, Georgia defeated every single team it lost to last year.
Now, enter the present day. We are mere days away from UGA’s Rose Bowl date with Oklahoma with a chance to advance to the National Championship. Regardless of what happens in the game, the sleeping SEC giant Georgia is finally starting to wake up and contend and win championships.(It also finished Signing Day Pt. 1 with the program’s first No. 1 overall class in history.)
Smart has proven he is the right man for the job. Georgia is back. It’s about damn time.
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