There’s a weather forecasting method called climatology. It uses averages over time as a starting point to forecast the weather during normal weather patterns. On a typical July day in Georgia, climatology might tell you to expect temperatures in the 90s with a stray thunderstorm possible. Individual days can be hotter or cooler, drier or wetter, but climatology is a good place to start unless there are solid reasons not to. Climatology can also be used as a sanity check for extreme forecasts: if another forecasting tool tells you to expect snow in June, climatology leads you to doubt the model or at least to examine why the model gave the result it did.
But climatology is only one tool of many, and it can break down when there are abnormal conditions. Is there a legitimately unusual weather system developing? Have other variables changed? Has the climate itself shifted to a new normal?
The climatology of college football tells us to tap the brakes on big expectations for the 2016 season. There’s a track record for first-year head coaches and especially assistants-turned-head coaches. We know that no first-year Georgia head coach has won more than nine games, and the most recent head coach set that benchmark. If we want to keep going, history warns us about freshman quarterbacks – even the best rarely started out of the gate.
Are there enough special conditions though that might lead us to question what history says to expect? Smart isn’t stepping into a typical first-year situation. Four of Georgia’s last five teams have won at least ten games, and Smart is expected to improve on that. Georgia might start a freshman quarterback, but he’ll be handing off to one of the most talented backfields in the nation. We might even say that the climate has changed for new SEC coaches: the most recent hires for Auburn and Florida won their divisions immediately, and the window for producing results is as narrow as it’s ever been.
Kirby Smart doesn’t care one bit about what history says about the first seasons of Ray Goff or Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn, and he won’t let his decisions be clouded by the results of Matthew Stafford’s 2006 freshman year. That’s fine, but he and his team are going to have to make some extraordinary things happen to stand out from the typical first year. These are a couple of questions I’ll have on my mind during the season:
When will we know that things are different?
The 2001 season got off to a so-so start: there was an easy cupcake win in the opener, a disappointing home loss to South Carolina, and a nice rebound win over Arkansas. It was fairly similar to the way the 2000 season began. Though fans were generally positive, the late game-winning drive allowed to South Carolina and indecisiveness at the quarterback position had made it a brief honeymoon.
Things changed of course with the trip to Knoxville and one of the most famous playcalls in program history. It wasn’t just that Georgia had defeated Tennessee; they had done so the year before. It wasn’t just that Georgia won in Knoxville though it had been decades since the last win up there. It was that Georgia twice got off the mat in situations where previous teams might’ve folded. The Dawgs recovered first from the shock of an early 14-3 deficit and then found a way to recover with an improbable drive after Tennessee’s late go-ahead score. The team reflected the calmness and confidence of its coach, and the win was a significant moment in shoring up the buy-in for both players and fans.
The 2016 Bulldogs will face several tests within the first month of the season. Within five games we should have a fairly good sense of Georgia’s relative standing in the SEC East and learn how well Georgia measures up against a nonconference opponent favored to win its division. Smart doesn’t have to win them all – Mark Richt’s 2001 team stumbled late against Auburn and Boston College, but those losses didn’t undo the groundwork that led to a successful run. But with a successful and popular coach suddenly fired last year, Smart does have to show enough of a difference for fans, players, and recruits to understand that the right decision was made. Will Smart’s teams down the road be able to point to events in 2016 as the foundation for their success?
What’s the two-point conversion play?
Indulge me in one of my favorite obscure game situations. Mark Richt came to favor, with a little variation, a certain play on conversions. (See these plays from 2006 and 2011. The play was also used for the score that should have been the game-winner against Tech in 2014.) A receiver came in motion, often from left-to-right, and went underneath. Meanwhile the other two receivers on the right side of the formation cleared out the defenders. The play rolled right, the QB had some options, and the underneath receiver was usually open.
It’s one of those little details, but the right go-to play at the right time will win games. As much thought as Smart has put into other details across the program, I’m looking forward to seeing what the staff has up their sleeves. I’m focusing on the two-point conversion here, but similar thought and preparation has to go into third-and-short, the red zone, the two-minute drill, and other circumstances that might only come up a few times each game but which can determine the outcome. (Same goes for the other side of the ball – is Georgia’s defense prepared for opponents’ go-to plays and favorite tricks?)
What will Smart have to learn on the job?
Even with all of the preparation in the world, there are some lessons that have to be taught by experience. For Mark Richt, it was clock management. Richt’s self-assessment following his first season at Georgia in 2001 led him to seek out help in that area. The Dawgs fared much better in close games in the years that followed.
We have a fairly good sense by now of how Kirby Smart approaches building a program. We’ve seen the investment in staff and facilities. We’re impressed with the staff’s commitment to recruiting. We know a little bit about how he conducts an offseason. We don’t know how Smart will prepare a team during game week. We don’t know if he’s able to motivate a team from week to week during a taxing SEC season. We don’t know how he’ll manage a sideline or consider in-game adjustments. Does he panic too soon when he falls behind, or does he get too conservative with a lead? It’s possible that Smart has picked up many of these skills along the way, but it’s also likely that, as with Richt, he’ll be able to look back on his debut season and identify specific areas for self-improvement. With that in mind, how will those deficiencies show up during the season, and will the team be able to overcome them?