The expression “sophomore slump” has no place in football coaching. On the contrary, a sophomore surge is the only acceptable outcome.
Kirby Smart begins his second year at the helm of the Georgia Bulldogs, and all indications are that this year will be better than the last. History is certainly on Smart’s side.
After a disappointing 8-5 season last fall that often put the “pain” in campaign, Smart’s second team is expected to win the SEC East and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. It’s not an outrageous expectation considering that second-year coaches often enjoy significant escalations.
That certainly was the case for Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt. Like Smart, Richt showed up in Athens in 2001 as a highly regarded coordinator from a hugely successful program with no previous head coaching experience. His first team went through some growing pains in an 8-4 season led by a freshman quarterback.
In year two, however, the Bulldogs went 13-1, won their first SEC championship in two decades and won the Sugar Bowl.
That kind of dramatic improvement isn’t an anomaly in the collegiate ranks. Florida’s Urban Meyer, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops all won national championships in their second seasons.
Smart has his own experience to lean on. He was an assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama when it went from 7-6, including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season in Tuscaloosa, to 12-0 regular season the next year that helped launch a dynasty.
“I think that’s a great analogy,” Smart said Monday in his press conference to kick off Georgia’s preseason training camp. “Last night, I had a guy that we used consulting with our team, Trevor Moawad, who does a great job. He actually sent me some bits and pieces of video from this day, the second year at Alabama. Now it was just the players. It wasn’t coach. Just the players, and the players talking about how they felt much more comfortable understanding what the standard was, what the expectation was and that no matter what, you can’t really relax out at practice because you don’t know what’s coming — to expect the unexpected.
“We’ve tried that a lot here to make these guys uncomfortable in summer workouts. We would say the workout is going to be one thing, and then we would change it while we’re out there to make it uncomfortable. That’s the experience we want. So, I draw back on that year coming off a pretty average year, just saying, how we’re going to get to the next spot. Well, first way you get there you is get really good players on your roster. You improve that through your recruiting process. You develop the ones you’ve got. We’re hoping to develop the ones we’ve got.”
Bulldogs who experienced last year’s transition can vouch for the development. There will be no more leaning on learning a new system from new leadership as an excuse. Georgia needs to step up to a higher potential this season.
“It is not a new system anymore,” said senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter, one of six critical returning players who passed up a chance to go to the NFL to give it one more chance to fulfill championship goals. “It is our second year under our belts. We have been with Coach Smart and the whole coaching staff for a second year so everybody is a lot more comfortable. We know what to expect and what the coaches expect from us, so we just have to go out there and produce.”
Not all second-year teams are the same. Vince Dooley didn’t gain championship traction until going 10-1 his third season at Georgia in 1966, but he inherited a program much further down. Ray Goff’s SEC contending team came in his fourth season, and he was gone two years later. Jim Donnan won 10 games his second season but never got any better.
Smart spent a little too much time a year ago down-playing the hand he was dealt from a regime coming off consecutive 10-win seasons that weren’t enough to satisfy UGA fans or administrators. He frequently likened it to turning around a battleship, which seemed a little excessive.
He still contends that expecting more than “average” out of last year’s team was unreasonable.
“I also knew the expectation didn’t necessarily meet the quality of players that were here, and I think that’s indicative of what the NFL thought of our roster last year,” Smart said, citing the fact that the only Bulldog drafted was Isaiah McKenzie, the lone junior among seven who would likely have been taken to leave school early.
Georgia’s shortcomings in 2016 were as much on the coaching staff as they were on the talent. The offensive failures could be attributed to a tepid system as much as it was on true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason or the offensive line.
Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have acknowledged as much, and the areas where Georgia needs to improve to step up to fulfill goals as SEC East champs are obvious.
“Obviously, throwing the ball more efficient is a big goal of ours,” Smart said. “Because I think if you throw the ball efficiently, you’ll be able to run ball with the backs we’ve got. When you can’t throw the ball, it makes it hard. It doesn’t matter who your backs are.
“The red-area offense was not where it needs to be. We have to score touchdowns and we have to cash the ball in, which when you get in the red area and the field shrinks, you have to be able to run the ball.”
Georgia has no shortage of quality personnel, from proven returning stars like Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Dominick Sanders, Trenton Thompson and Carter to expected breakthrough talents like Mecole Hardman, Richard LeCount III and D’Andre Swift. There are no depth issues.
So with Season Two on tap, there’s no reason to expect the Bulldogs to go anywhere but up. The consequences for anything less will only grow.