HOOVER, Ala. — Like it or not, the spotlight is now firmly centered on Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs. The hype train is returning to Sanford Stadium, placing the Bulldogs back on the national map less than two years after long-time coach Mark Richt was fired.
Smart will be entering only his second year as head coach (at any level), but who cares? Georgia returns 10 defensive starters and a possible superstar quarterback — who is only a sophomore. Georgia is also months removed from signing the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, which featured 18 ESPN 300 members and four five-star prospects.
The Bulldogs have the luxury of playing in an SEC East division that has spent the better part of the past few years being riddled with instability. Like with Tennessee last season, this is the year we take Georgia football seriously again.
Regardless of how truly inexperienced Smart is at running an entire program, the Bulldogs have become an early media darling and will likely be pegged by most of the scribes at the conclusion of SEC media days to win the East for the first time since 2012. Fair or not for a team that went 8-5 in Smart’s inaugural season, the Bulldogs look — on paper — like a team capable of representing the East in 2017.
“This team, this group is sold on what our staff and what myself believe in,” Smart told ESPN during the spring. “We’re in a better place [than last season].
“I like this team a lot better, too.”
Put last season’s growing pains and midseason lull in the trash. Those 13 games, which included home losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech by a combined five points, are minor stains that can be scrubbed off Smart’s red-and-black Georgia polo with only a damp cloth.
According to Smart, there’s rejuvenation within this team. Jacob Eason, the former No. 1 quarterback prospect, is identifying defenses better and getting more comfortable with his offensive playbook. Future early-round draft pick Nick Chubb is back to 100 percent and projects to be one of the nation’s best running backs (again) in 2017. His sidekick, fellow 1,000-yard rusher Sony Michel, ain’t too bad, either.
Defensively, Smart has the luxury of a ton of experience and 10 returning starters. He has one of the country’s best linebacker corps, headlined by future early picks Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, and a secondary that is a nickelback away from returning to the type of unit that allowed a measly 183.8 YPG through the air in 2016.
This team isn’t perfect — far from it — but it has all the working parts you’d want in a championship team, and Smart is going to start hearing that more and more. Georgia should always be in the SEC hunt, and Smart has a roster suited for that. The media will be all over the Dawgs, as will fans who have stressed about underachievement since the Bulldogs missed out on a trip to the BCS National Championship by only a few yards during that heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC title game.
Patience isn’t a strong suit with fans or media members, which means that once they sink their teeth in a team, it’s time to put up or get out of the way. Canines have dug firmly into the Dawgs’ coats, and it’s up to them to prove they deserve the love marks.
Georgia’s hype is also helped by the six-member supporting cast with which it shares a division.
Florida hasn’t figured out its offense and now must replace a wealth of talent on defense. Kentucky is on the rise, but there’s still a wide divide in the talent gap between the Cats and Dawgs. South Carolina was a major surprise last season but still has a ways to go in the division. Vanderbilt and Missouri still have major uphill climbs of their own, and Tennessee went from SEC darling to barely even talked about in 2017.
Plus, history is on Smart’s side, as Year 2 has been a banner year for recent SEC coaches. Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik won national championships in their second seasons at Florida and Auburn, respectively. Nick Saban won 10 games and the SEC in his second year at LSU, then led an undefeated Alabama team, with Smart manning his defense, to the SEC championship game in his second year in Tuscaloosa in 2008. Les Miles won 11 games in his second season at LSU (2006), as did Will Muschamp at Florida (2012). Jim McElwain won the SEC East in his first two seasons at Florida.
Richt also won the SEC in his second season way back in 2002, which means that the man Smart replaced still casts quite the shadow over Sanford Stadium.
Maybe it isn’t fair to expect so much from Smart and his Dawgs in Year 2. After all, it is Year 2, and Smart is still trying to find his coaching legs while still trying to understand his team, which is still trying to understand itself in the second year with this staff.
But Georgia has that new car smell to it and seems like the safest bet for an Atlanta run. Ready or not, Georgia is about to feel the championship pressure.