The problem was the same in the end. Georgia once again lost in the SEC Championship Game, this time 37-10 to Ed Orgeron, Joe Burrow and the supercharged LSU Tigers. But it was a sole regular-season loss—to South Carolina this year and LSU last year—that kept Georgia from the College Football Playoff. A regular-season loss in the SEC will put you in a de facto play-in game at the SEC Championship, and that’s always a dangerous roll of the dice no matter how good you think you are. The only way to put that playoff spot on ice before Atlanta is to roll through the regular season 12-0.
Even if Georgia had found a way to scrape past LSU, it would’ve been nigh impossible to do it again against high-powered Ohio State or Clemson or LSU again. Because while the loss to South Carolina kept Georgia from the playoff, the Dawgs’ dreadful offense ruined the season.
The offense had problems last season, such as scoring in the red zone. But the offense was the problem this season. Jake Fromm regressed and had his worst season as a college quarterback, looking more like a replacement-level player than the guy who was compared positively with Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa in the offseason. The run game didn’t produce explosive plays. The production of all the receivers who left the program since last season was never replaced. Essentially, it was an offense that’s five to 10 years behind the zeitgeist. The style is old, played and simply doesn’t work anymore. It’s enough to make Georgia fans long for Mark Richt’s much-maligned former offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo.
Is first-year offensive coordinator James Coley, drawing up uninspired game plans, or is he only running a style dictated to him by Kirby Smart? Either way, this season was bad enough to warrant wholesale changes on offense.
Smart has proven he’s a very good college football coach, among the best in the game. You don’t win the SEC East and collect 11 regular-season wins three years running without being very good. But to be a truly great coach and bring national titles to Athens, he has to prove he is willing to change and adapt. Is he willing to make the necessary changes to modernize the offense, or will he be stubborn and risk this happening year after year after year?
If he needs a guiding light to show him the way, it was standing across the field from him in Atlanta. Like Georgia, LSU has long been lousy with talent at the skill positions, and like Georgia, it had long run a stale “manball” style of offense. Until last offseason, when Orgeron admitted what he didn’t know, and handed the keys to Steve Ensminger and wunderkind passing game coordinator Joe Brady. With those changes, Orgeron turned Burrow into a likely Heisman winner and LSU into the SEC champion.
And O isn’t the only coach who’s been smart enough to make this change. Back in 2011, before Clemson became the Clemson you know today, Dabo Swinney gave the offense to Chad Morris, who modernized it and helped build the Tigers into the offensive juggernaut it still is today. Dabo’s greatest strength is his ability to delegate to the right people, and that ability has been rewarded with two national titles.
The difference is, Coach O and Dabo were always known primarily as great recruiters and motivators. Kirby has a reputation as something of a defensive savant, a guy who genuinely knows a helluva lot more about football than even most coaches. Reputations like that typically come with some arrogance.
One bit of hope lies in Smart’s old boss. Nick Saban lost to enough modern, spread-happy offenses run by Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Clemson that he eventually saw which way the wind was blowing. Now, after winning multiple titles with “manball,” Alabama also has one of the most high-powered offenses in the country. And if Saban can change, why can’t Kirby?
So, will Georgia run out the same nonsense next season? Or will Kirby be smart enough to admit what he doesn’t know and ask for help? He’s already proven he’s a good head coach. Now’s the time to prove he’s a great one.
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