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Post Opening the curtain on Kirby’s second act

Saturday September 1, 2018

On Saturday it will have been 288 days since Georgia took the Sanford Stadium field, and just a few things have happened during that time. We left the Kentucky game as SEC East champions and with fond memories of an accomplished senior class. That in itself marked a successful second season for Kirby Smart. The division title was the baseline expectation for most of us, and cracking the initial playoff rankings tempted us to dream of more. Georgia had established itself as a very good team, but the Auburn loss had knocked the Dawgs out of the top 4, and Georgia was an underdog in the upcoming rematch with Auburn.

The next two months were a whirlwind that changed how we looked at the 2017 season, Kirby Smart, and the players who made it all happen. It started with a fairly lopsided dismissal of Tech in the final stop on the regular season Revenge Tour. Georgia made the plays in the SEC Championship that it hadn’t at Auburn, and a close game broke open midway through the second half. The team that had taken a nice step forward during the season were now SEC Champions, and the team that was on the outside of the playoff picture was headed for Pasadena. Georgia won its second Rose Bowl in a dramatic classic that most of us have watched on loop this summer. Within a month a team that was an underdog for the SEC title had earned its shot at the national title.

We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the title game, but Georgia stood toe-to-toe with the dominant dynasty of the past decade. If we can’t avoid measuring the progress of this program against Alabama, Georgia looked much more like a peer than the 2015 squad that didn’t belong on the same field. Georgia maintained that competitiveness into recruiting season and wrapped up the nation’s top class. That momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.

Not many people expected Georgia to go as far as they did last season, and that’s the biggest change heading into 2018. There’s no escaping it this year. Georgia is top four in the preseason consensus. They’re favored at this point against every regular season opponent. They’re solid favorites to repeat as SEC East champs. If reaching Atlanta in December was the expectation last season, it’s the starting point for expectations this year.

Many Georgia fans aren’t comfortable with this situation. I understand – we’ve been burned more than once.

High expectations in 2000 brought down a coaching staff. The #1 ranking in 2008 didn’t last long. Georgia was the preseason #4 by consensus in 2013 but finished unranked after devastating injuries took their toll. The Dawgs have been overrated relative to the preseason consensus seven of the past ten years. Georgia’s had a habit of rocketing past their preseason ranking every ten years or so (’97: +16, ’07: +12, ’17: +14), but all that’s served to do is to build up expectations for the next year. Here we are again: a successful season in a year ending in “7” followed by a preseason ranking near the top.

So, barring a 2013-like run of injuries, what’s to stop 2018 from being another 2008? (Or, heaven forbid, another 2000?) After all, the cheery optimism we have after making a title run in 2017 is just a few setbacks away from turning into wistful bitterness at coming up just short.

One of Kirby Smart’s many jobs this year is managing those expectations within the program. It’s not as though he lacks experience in a program dealing with lofty expectations. He introduced (or borrowed) the “pressure is a privilege” line during Media Days, and it demonstrates how he plans to change Georgia’s approach to expectations. It’s not meant to be dreaded or avoided or buried in some bunker of Munson-like pessimism. It’s to be met head-on and used to set the standard for how the team prepares, practices, and performs.

Pressure might be a privilege, but it is still pressure. Georgia might be favored at this point in every game, but many projections have the Dawgs dropping a game or two in the regular season. One of the things Georgia did well last season was compartmentalizing each game. Smart made sure there was no looking ahead, reinforcing each week that no one remembers or cares who led the race at its midpoint. More importantly, those words were repeated and taken to heart by the team’s leadership. When Roquan Smith or Sony Michel were interviewed, it was as if Kirby Smart’s words were coming out of their mouths. I don’t doubt that this 2018 team has identified its leaders, and you can probably already name most of them. But it was the way those 2017 leaders became instruments of the coaches that distinguished them and will make them difficult to replace. Whether or not Georgia can play to its high standard and maintain focus each week as favorites will depend on how well the next group of leaders can reinforce from week to week the consistent messages from the coaches.

Even if things go well, Georgia’s going to find itself in some tight spots. Nearly every champion does. Georgia will head into some difficult road environments to face quality teams. They’ll be plugging inexperienced players in at key positions like cornerback. Depth isn’t where you’d like it to be at a handful of spots. Even at this high level, losses will happen. You’re going to have a quarterback scramble into his line, bobble the ball, and throw a touchdown anyway. You’re going to have an average quarterback put together the game of his life. You’ll have freak plays and more freak plays. Each loss hurts more because it only takes one to remove your postseason fate from your control. It’s tempting then to focus on the rare loss and not enjoy the wins, and I hope we can avoid that.

If you feel as though Kirby Smart has changed things around the program, why shouldn’t fans be a part of that change? Our apprehension about expectations should become a confidence. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but a certain amount of confidence in this program has been earned. I think we saw the beginnings of it last year. Georgia’s always had a strong showing at road games, but the confidence that came with “taking over” was new. The Revenge Tour gave us plenty of motivational fuel each week. Sleepy Sanford Stadium woke up, and a drab home schedule became a prime-time party.

More than one person noted that the 2017 Georgia football season was our version of the 1991 Atlanta Braves season. It wasn’t just the success, it was the novelty of so many unique experiences and accomplishments. It wasn’t quite worst-to-first, but 2017 was much more than just an SEC championship season. It was the validation for the new coach’s vision and reassurance that Georgia hadn’t made a huge mistake by blowing it all up in 2015. Now we see where that coach takes his program from here. The talent is there. The resources and support are there. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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  • Last year was so satisfying on so many levels that it still boggles my mind. I believe in the coach, the team and the philosophy, but past seasons still leave me with a slightly queasy feeling. If we get back to Atlanta and beat Bama then I’m all in 100%. Next week will go a long way to making me feel better if we dispatch the yardbirds with extreme prejudice.



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