There is no such thing as a “good loss” in football. Any coach, player or fan who tells you otherwise is just kidding themselves.
There are, however, degrees of “bad losses.” Some defeats rank much worse than others. On the scale of 1 (Alabama) to 10 (Nicholls State), you could rate pretty much any loss as a measure of how hard it would be to cope with the aftermath.
Losing to Vanderbilt ... on Homecoming ... leading into a bye week ... that has to count among the worst kinds of loss a program like Georgia could absorb. It’s probably a 9 in terms of degree of difficulty sleeping with the outcome.
It happened last Saturday, and it created a storm of reaction from both inside and outside the program. First-year head coach Kirby Smart called it “sickening.” Fans took sides in defending or condemning their new coaching staff. Hashtags popped up on social media from #FireMcGarity (Georgia’s director of athletics Greg McGarity who fired Mark Richt) to the amusingly ironic #BringBackBobo (the frequently beleaguered former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo who is in his second year as head coach at Colorado State).
Two weeks is a long time to sit and stew over a 17-16 loss to one of the Southeastern Conference’s weakest teams. Too much time to start dreaming up worst-case scenarios and draw absolute conclusions based on small sample sizes.
It’s ridiculous to judge Smart a failure based on the Bulldogs’ 4-3 record as they try to prepare for the annual rivalry game against Florida. But it’s not unfair to criticize and be concerned about the direction of the Georgia program.
Smart understands that.
“With this job comes criticism,” he said this week. “I’m accepting of that. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with good friends. I’ve seen it with programs I’ve been in. That doesn’t scare me. What I’m worried about is our team and our players developing and getting better. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s natural for a program to take a little time to adjust to change. Smart’s style and designs are a major departure from the former regime. It’s not as simple as just learning new plays and terminology and picking up where you left off. Smart himself likened it to “turning a battleship” around in the second week of the season.
But the program Smart inherited certainly wasn’t in the kind of shape that needed a reboot. It won 10 games last year and 10 games the year before that. In fact, only once in the previous five years did Georgia not win at least 10 games.
It’s pretty disingenuous for critics who blamed Richt for not winning enough games with the collective talent he had to suddenly start claiming that the talent isn’t good enough. Smart was not left with a barren roster.
He certainly wasn’t left with a team that should struggle to fend off Nicholls State or require late fourth-down conversions to beat the likes of Missouri and Vanderbilt.
There’s no telling what the Bulldogs might have done this year without a coaching change, but it’s pretty safe to say that if it were 4-3 and lost to Vanderbilt that this off week would have been spent preparing under an interim head coach. The way this season has unfolded would not have been tolerated by a restless administration and fan base that deem anything short of SEC titles and competing for national championships a failure.
Another exercise in ridiculousness is drawing false parallels to other circumstances. You can’t compare Smart’s start at Georgia to Richt’s at Miami. The Hurricanes have lost two in a row, which has led a few people to say “I told you so.” Miami, however, hasn’t won 10 games or won its division since it joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. It’s almost exactly the same kind of mediocre program that Richt inherited when he came to Georgia in 2001.
Nevertheless, Richt went 8-4 with a redshirt freshman quarterback his first season and won Georgia’s first SEC title in 20 seasons a year later. He ultimately didn’t win enough to satisfy his critics, but he certainly didn’t leave the program in remotely the same mediocre place that he found it in 15 years earlier.
Then there’s the comparison to Smart’s former boss, Nick Saban. Back when Saban took over Alabama in 2007, he finished 7-6 his first year including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe that would rank as a 10 on the “bad loss” scale. Of course, Saban inherited a program facing NCAA sanctions that went 6-7 the year before and had more losing seasons (4) than 10-win seasons (3) in the previous decade under Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula.
Saban, of course, went 12-2 in year two with the Tide and has won at least a share of the SEC West six of the last eight years and four national titles. He’s arguably the best coach in college football history.
That’s the model Georgia hopes it imported with Smart. McGarity took a risk on an inexperienced lifetime assistant hoping that the lessons rubbed off the same way they did with Richt coming from the Bobby Bowden tree. There are no guarantees. Just because four sons had Jack Nicklaus’ DNA and in-house example didn’t mean any of them turned into major champions.
Smart is learning to run the show in real time at a place not known for its patience. He’s the one who chose to deal with the volatility of an 18-year-old true freshman starting quarterback when he has a 22-year-old graduate senior – who won 10 games in a relatively mistake-free season as a starter – who could have offered stability as his successor is eased into the saddle. It’s a long-range move at the possible expense of short-term costs.
Meanwhile, there have been the same kind of curious play calls and time management mistakes and discipline penalties that drove fans nuts under the former regime.
Smart deserves time to work things out and get the Bulldogs trending in the right direction. Next year, the expectations won’t be as forgiving. But he understands what he got himself into.
“Welcome to the world we live in as coaches,” Smart said.
Until Georgia starts dominating the teams it should and winning a larger share of the competitive toss-ups, every loss – regardless of how bad it’s perceived – will only stoke justified criticism.