This year, Dan Mullen gets to start at Florida what Urban Meyer began with him in Gainesville in 2005. Mullen had joined Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001, and then accompanied Meyer on the journey to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah in 2003. At each of those two stops, Meyer and Mullen showed they could totally transform a program in two years. When the two men moved to Florida in 2005, the stakes were naturally higher: Could Meyer and Mullen take over for Ron Zook and restore Steve Spurrier-level success at a program which expected massive, not merely solid, achievements?
It was one thing for Mullen to accompany Meyer to a MAC and then a Mountain West program. When he came to Gainesville, the principle of program-building was the same, but the circumstances surrounding that challenge were substantially different. Mullen was entering the big leagues as Meyer’s offensive coordinator in that 2005 season. His subsequent success gave rise to his head coaching career at Mississippi State. Now, in 2018, Mullen will find out if his head coaching acumen, seasoned by several seasons at a historically impoverished SEC program, can translate to an SEC blueblood.
Two years ago, one of college football’s most experienced defensive coordinators — tested and refined by years in the SEC West — took the leap into the head coaching fraternity. As was the case with Florida (2005 or 2018, take your pick), the University of Georgia, at the end of the 2015 season, was not meeting expectations. It is true that Georgia — in 2015 — was far less dysfunctional than the Florida program Jim McElwain left behind at the end of 2017. It is similarly true that Georgia was far less underachieving on the field under Mark Richt than 2004 Florida was under “The Zooker.” Yet, Georgia brass made the very public and intentional statement that nine regular-season wins were simply not good enough. The heritage and recruiting position of the program raised internal expectations. Administrators were tired of being moderately good and occasionally very good. They wanted GREATNESS.
They turned to Smart, Nick Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator at Alabama.
Smart’s 2016 debut season was predictably rocky, not because of Smart’s flaws or limitations, but simply because inheriting programs normally involves turbulence and inadequacy. The recruits came from the previous coach who was shown the door. The system isn’t easily or automatically understood by the players. The culture requires change and the internal vocabulary of the program necessitates adjustments in thought processes and methods. The 2017 season — with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Roquan Smith all having a year under their belts — was going to say a lot about Smart’s coaching prowess. It was going to offer the SEC and the nation the first profound window into a man’s chalkboard chops, recruiting reliability, and managerial mastery.
Smart came within one coverage bust of a national title.
Tua Tagovailoa’s second-and-forever sideline pass dashed Georgia’s national title dream, but it didn’t change the quality of Smart’s coaching performance this past season.
He adjusted to Lincoln Riley’s play selection at halftime in the Rose Bowl.
He had Jake Fromm ready for the road game at Notre Dame early in the season after an injury. Smart’s preparation in September enabled a team which had been unsure of itself to find a confidence which endured. That confidence deserted Georgia only once all year, at Auburn in mid-November.
Smart took Jim Chaney, an offensive coordinator many (myself included) thought was past his prime, and watched his assistant turn in an excellent performance throughout the 2017 campaign.
Smart’s recruiting has transcended expectations. The stars in the skies — and next to recruits’ names — are hard to keep track of. Motivation, managing, recruiting, adjusting, scheming — Smart has convincingly answered questions and doubts. Georgia appears poised to defend its SEC East title, but far more than that, the Dawgs have given their fan base reason to think that this will be the SEC’s new powerhouse — not better than the Saban machine in Tuscaloosa, but solidly better than everyone else on a relatively consistent basis.
The formula has been found. Smart has crossed multiple thresholds — some within the context of his own career, some within the context of Georgia football and what the program has not been able to achieve since the early-1980s golden days under Vince Dooley. The pundits and commentators think that a new Georgia ascendancy is at hand, recalling the Herschel Walker years.
The importance — and pressure — associated with the 2018 season lie in the fact that this coming autumn will either affirm UGA’s rise or create fresh questions.
This could be a season akin to 1981, when Georgia — having played for the national title the previous season — once again played for the national title in the Sugar Bowl against Dan Marino and Pittsburgh. UGA lost that game, but the momentum of the program continued and didn’t end until two years later. From 1980 through 1983, Georgia never finished lower than sixth in the final Associated Press poll after the bowl games. The Dawgs played for the national title three times, made three Sugar Bowls, and reached the Cotton Bowl. They won three SEC titles and finished just one AP poll spot (4th) behind SEC champion Auburn (3rd) in the 1983 poll. If this season is like 1981, it won’t be perfect, but it will also affirm Georgia’s place at the top of the SEC. It would represent a continued fulfillment of the expectations of administrators and fans when Richt was ushered out and Smart was welcomed in.
This could also be a season akin to 2008, when Georgia was coming off a No. 2 national finish in 2007 and had generated huge expectations for a follow-up season (the kind of season 1981 became). Georgia was preseason AP No. 1 in 2008 but stumbled to three losses. It is true that Florida swooped in and won the 2008 national title. There will not be any similar Gator resurgence this year (because Mullen is overseeing the same basic transition Smart had to deal with in 2016), but the larger point remains: If Georgia loses three regular season games this season, the rest of the SEC will have the chance to recruit much more effectively against Smart. The idea that Georgia is a runaway freight train will lose traction. The program could struggle to regain the mindset of a juggernaut, and if Mullen is as skilled in restoring Florida in two seasons — much as Smart transformed UGA in the same two-year period — the 2019 season could enable Florida to outflank Georgia in the Cocktail Party and elsewhere.
The 2018 season is important for Georgia not solely within the context of one season and its own ambitions and possibilities; this season is about planting deeper roots in the SEC East and broadcasting the emphatic statement that this is Georgia’s turf, and will remain that way for a very long while.
The formula has been found, and yes, it should be expected that Kirby Smart will apply it with great success in 2018 — let that be clear. However, if Georgia doesn’t replicate its 2017 formula this year, the familiar doubts which have shadowed this program and its fan base for the better part of the past 30 years will come flooding back.
It is up to Kirby Smart to build a dam to keep those floodwaters from entering the Hedges.