ATLANTA — When Georgia hired Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs were taking a calculated risk.
Smart had never been a head coach before, at any level. But he knew the school. He knew the league. And after watching Nick Saban run his famed Process as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, Georgia thought he could do the same in Athens.
Twenty-five months and two days later, Smart will be coaching against his old boss in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Georgia wasn’t the first SEC program to try to Sabanize itself. It’s not the most recent, either.
The Bulldogs are just the most successful one — which makes them the exact opposite of Florida.
The Gators hired two former Saban lieutenants as head coaches. Both failed. Will Muschamp flopped to a 28-21 record after four years. Jim McElwain won SEC East titles in his first two seasons but couldn’t make it through a third; he and UF parted ways in October.
Dozens of factors contribute to a coach’s success or failure, but there are six main reasons why the Gators are 0-for-2 on hiring Sabanites while the rival Bulldogs are riding theirs toward their first national title in 37 years.
Smart inherited a great situation
It’s easier to reach the pinnacle when you start relatively high, which Smart did.
His predecessor, Mark Richt, was fired because he was merely good, not great. The Bulldogs had double-digit wins in four of the five seasons and signed back-to-back top eight-recruiting classes before Smart’s arrival.
"Kirby stayed for a long time, waited to be very selective with where he went," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "He happened to go back to his alma mater, and he happened to pick a roster that had not only talent but experience."
It wasn’t just star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — the most productive rushing pair in Division I-A history. All five Bulldogs named to this season’s all-SEC first or second teams were Richt recruits, including Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith.
Muschamp and McElwain weren’t so fortunate. The Gators were 8-5 before Muschamp’s hire, and he had to clean up a program Urban Meyer famously called broken on his way out of Gainesville.
UF won only 11 games in the two seasons before McElwain took over in December 2014. In his first spring practice, he was hamstrung with only seven healthy offensive linemen. Speaking of which …
The offensive line gap is huge
In seven seasons with Muschamp/McElwain, the Gators’ line was a major liability. UF ranked outside the top 100 in tackles for loss allowed four times and in sacks allowed three times. It cracked the top 50 in each category only once.
Georgia’s line wasn’t great in 2016 but ranked in the top 20 in tackles for loss allowed (4.3 per game) and sacks allowed (1.3) this season. To see the transformation, look at Isaiah Wynn, the 6-foot-2, 302-pound Lakewood High alumnus.
Although Wynn started 12 games last season at left guard, position coach Sam Pittman said he wasn’t great. By September, Wynn was ready to become an all-SEC left tackle.
"Very rarely do you see a guy that’s not a great player as a junior turn into a wonderful player as a senior…" Pittman said. "It’s because he got stronger. He bought into techniques. He bought into the room. Once he got confident, it just poured into everybody else."
Georgia is strong enough to compete in the SEC
UF athletic director Scott Stricklin highlighted strength and conditioning as one of the reasons he hired Dan Mullen from Mississippi State in November.
"I think any successful program has a really strong strength and conditioning program that builds accountability," Stricklin said after introducing Mullen in November. "And I think programs that aren’t as successful usually are lacking in that area."
Stricklin didn’t say it directly, but the 4-7 Gators fell into the second category. Only six programs allowed more sacks per game than UF, and the Gators were outscored by almost two points per game in the second half.
The second year of Georgia’s strength program created major leaps. Wynn gained 10-15 pounds and increased his bench presses, squats and power cleans by 30.
"Being at the top of the SEC, you have to be strong, tough and physical," tight end Isaac Nauta said. "That’s how we train, and that’s a big part of it."
It shows on the field. Georgia was tied or trailing at the start of the fourth quarter in seven of Smart’s 21 career wins. The Bulldogs outscored their Division I-A opponents by an average of 10.9 points per game in the second half this season. That’s second only to Wisconsin (12.3).
No. 3? Alabama, of course (9.5).
Smart is an ace recruiter
When receiver Matt Landers was a three-star recruit in St. Petersburg, some schools began cooling on him because of academic reasons. Georgia never did — and Smart was at the center of it.
"I saw him more than any other head coach that was recruiting me," Landers said.
Pittman said he has never worked with a head coach who is so hands-on in recruiting. Smart constantly wants to know what prospects he’s texting.
"It’s not like he’s checking up on you," Pittman said. "You’re in it together."
Although Muschamp recruited well, McElwain never got on that level. He signed 24 blue-chip recruits in his three classes; Smart signed 34 in his first two, plus another 18 last month. Georgia’s 2018 haul ranks No. 1 nationally and is on track to end Alabama’s run of seven consecutive top-ranked classes.
Smart has a quarterback
A couple of them, in fact. He’s the first coach in the Rivals era to sign a five-star quarterback in three consecutive classes: Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and the incoming Justin Fields.
When Eason sprained his knee in the opener, Fromm stepped in seamlessly as a true freshman. His passer rating (166.4) ranks fourth in the country.
Florida hasn’t sniffed anything like that. The Gators have cycled through a dozen quarterbacks while failing to rank higher than 69th in passing efficiency since Tim Tebow left for the 2010 NFL draft.
Smart is Saban Jr.
The simplest explanation for why Smart is the most successful branch of Saban’s coaching tree? He’s the closest thing to the original.
"He was kind of like another Coach Saban," said ’Bama linebacker Rashaan Evans, who played on Smart’s defense from 2014-15.
McElwain spent four years under Saban. Muschamp had five. Smart and Saban were together for nine consecutive seasons at ’Bama.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer explain Georgia’s transformation. A holdover from Richt’s staff, Sherrer said Smart overhauled the Bulldogs’ philosophy into a top-down, single-minded approach. It sounds exactly like the Process that Sherrer saw up close as a ’Bama staffer from 2010-12.
"I think that’s the biggest change," Sherrer said.
It seems complete at Georgia.
The Gators are still waiting.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart didn’t need to warm up on the recruiting trails. Here’s how his haul of four- and five-star recruits in his first two classes (2016-17) compared to other notable programs:
Ohio State: 37
Florida State: 30
Source: 247Sports’ composite rankings
Master vs. apprentice
Although this is the first meeting between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, this isn’t the first time Saban has matched up against a former assistant at ’Bama. His 11-0 record against them only tells part of the dominance:
Derek Dooley (Tennessee) 41-10
Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) 49-7
Derek Dooley (Tennessee) 37-6
Will Muschamp (Florida) 38-10
Derek Dooley (Tennessee) 44-13
Jim McElwain (Colorado State) 31-6
Will Muschamp (Florida) 42-21
Jim McElwain (Florida) 42-13
Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) 38-0
Jim McElwain (Florida) 54-16
Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) 24-7