The Unstoppable Kirby Smart Defense
Han Vance on Georgia football: Defense used to win championships in football at all levels, remember that? Defense wins championships. The long-told maxim.
Kirby is credited for two primary strengths: He is undeniably amazing at defense and known to be the greatest at recruiting high school players, where I still see some notable chinks in his armor. His defense rules.
Before the SECCG in Atlanta, I queried: Does defense still win championships? Because if it really did, still, the University of Georgia Bulldogs were getting ready to claim their 14th SEC crown (2nd-most in SEC history currently, tied with Tennessee at 13) and 16th overall conference crown (Georgia won two pre-SEC formation, for 15 total) and only the school’s 2nd ever undisputed national championship (1980) and only 3rd claimed national title (1942 UGA won a split title and the Rose Bowl, with Ohio State getting a piece, before the WWII draft decimated college football talent levels; unblemished 1946 team was straight-up robbed by the schmaltzy voters in favor of blemished Army and Notre Dame after the troops came home. One prominent poll did pick Georgia, but the school does not recognize the championship).
At the end of the sad big game in my hometown of Atlanta-proper, Smart had been blown out by an SEC West school in one game of each of his four seasons as a head football coach and had an new school record for coaching the most consecutive postseason defeats.
The team lost by 27, growing further from a league title than after the 11-3 2018 season, when Georgia blew a lead to Bama in-state. And much further from a national championship than the SEC title year of 2017, when Kirby coached (by far) mostly his predecessor’s recruits to a 13th league crown in-state, to a thrilling improbable Rose Bowl double overtime win, and survived into overtime, again in-state, again blowing a lead to Bama. Now, another school had become the SEC’s next.
I wanted to still be impressed by my alumnus but was so far from any feeling of satisfaction. Something had to give, and Smart’s hand-picked offensive coordinator James Coley fell on the sword.
Nationally, lots of the smarter football people noticed the weaknesses and the inability to get over the hump, which was the only thing he was brought into Athens to do besides run a clean, competitive program. That’s what he inherited, a Georgia coming off three-straight 10-win years and led by the most-reputable character coach in football.
The ballyhooed Kirby upgrade in win percentage has been minor, and in terms of championships, Richt had two SEC titles in his first five years and a 13-1 team. Kirby has lost a minimum of two games per year. This is Kirby’s fifth year. He has one league title and has made the CFP once, both in the same season. …The pressure should be on!
Within the red prism Bulldog bubble, I’ve perhaps been the loudest and definitely been the most topically-pointed in my criticisms of Coach Smart, but Kirby has been relatively untouchable at defense. I value the shady art of recruiting the least of any skill set which college coaches must possess to win at the highest level, under a sheerly hypocritical system of rule where conferences like the super-flush SEC and NCAA – which gets a billion dollars annually off televising college basketball alone, source “The Scheme” HBO 2020 (highly recommended) – are nonprofits who refuse to pay their (often Black and poor, by the way) real employees, the kids who earn the money and take the hits.
Though Georgia has gotten the recruiting love, lesser-valued LSU and recruiting giant Alabama have still been putting more total guys and more key defenders into the NFL, with Auburn having more top-tier defensive draft picks, as well.
While only getting one guy drafted at all off his 2019 defense, as the last pick taken and seeing his all-SEC senior safety go unpicked, Kirby had the best defense in UGA history last season.
He replaced a great outgoing defense coordinator in Mel Tucker, who left to be the head coach at Colorado, with a young promoted Dan Lanning and actually improved, even after losing the best defensive back in the country. Going into the SECCG, UGA had the number one total defense in the country and the top scoring defense. At season’s end, the total D fell to 3rd, but the scoring defense still gave up just 12.6 per.
Everybody is back! Almost all the key contributors return, with safety Richard LeCounte the only very highly-heralded guy and monster Jordan Davis in the middle. Georgia plays more people than other schools, returning 8-of-11 starters and 12-of-15 tacklers. The defense should be the strength of the team.