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It May Be Time for Kirby Smart's Georgia to Finally Get Over the Hump

Six years into his tenure in Athens, Smart is looking to reach the one peak he hasn't summited: a national championship victory.
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“Strain” is a favorite word of Kirby Smart’s. He sometimes uses it in place of “effort” or “grind” or other coaching buzzwords when talking about trying hard all the time. “Six seconds of strain” is a Smart phrase for the ideal of players maxing out on each play.

“I definitely think strain is important,” the Georgia football coach said this week, ahead of his fifth-ranked team’s season-opening showdown with No. 3 Clemson on Saturday. “I’ve stressed that you can be outstrained, and it’s critical to any game. I think it measures somebody’s heart and courage and toughness to strain a little longer than the other guy. Are you going to hold your block a little longer? Are you going to fight a little harder? Everybody wants to win, but will you outstrain the guy across from you in every one-on-one battle?”

Applying that to Smart’s own coaching career at Georgia, the ideal becomes “15 games of strain.” Can a coach who has recruited so well and won so much take the next step and win the biggest ones? Can he put together a full season? Can he win a national championship?

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart

This marks the start of a fifth straight season wherein Georgia is (at least on paper) in that elite mix. In 37 of the past 41 AP polls, the Bulldogs have been in the top 10—an admirable level of consistency. In each of the past five years, they have finished in the top five of the rivals.com recruiting rankings.

They’ve done everything but finish the job. Which brings us back to 15 games of strain.

Amid all the winning, Georgia annually manages to throw in a dumpster-fire performance. One game where everything goes wrong. “Strain” becomes “stress” becomes “struggle” becomes a three-hour abdication of poise. And that one very bad day sometimes is the difference between a chance to be champion and being Georgia.

In 2018 the Bulldogs melted down at LSU and were beaten by 20 points in October, then wound up finishing fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings. The next year, Georgia absolutely butchered a home game against a bad South Carolina team and again finished fifth in the playoff rankings. In both cases the Bulldogs could well have withstood a loss in the Southeastern Conference championship game and still made the field of four. Instead, they were out after being beaten by Bama in ’18 and LSU in ’19.

The same could have happened last year if Georgia hadn’t collapsed against Florida and lost the SEC East. But two losses to Alabama (one in the regular season and certainly what would have been another in the SEC title game) might have been too much to make the CFP.

Smart is like Phil Mickelson was in golf: in contention for years to win a major without doing it. Eventually, Mickelson broke through—and now has won six of them. If Smart keeps hanging around, he’ll get there. Georgia fans just need to tone down the angst and keep the faith.

“When you have strong, powerful teams the way he’s built them, pretty soon they will get to the top of the pile,” none other than former Florida head ball coach Steve Spurrier told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Spurrier’s Florida tenure could be an instructive case in terms of measuring Smart’s.

Spurrier took Florida very quickly up the SEC ladder, but it was a tough slog to reach the summit of a national title. He reached the national championship game in 1995 and got destroyed by Nebraska, then went back the next year and won it.

That was his seventh season at Florida. Smart is beginning his sixth at Georgia.

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Looking at semirecent history, some coaches have been quicker studies once they arrived at powerhouse programs with everything in place to win a title: Urban Meyer won one in his second season at Florida, then another in his third season at Ohio State. Bob Stoops won one in Year 2 at Oklahoma; Pete Carroll his first in Year 3 and his second in Year 4 at USC; Nick Saban in his fourth year at LSU and his third at Alabama; Ed Orgeron in his fourth at LSU; Jimbo Fisher in his fourth at Florida State.

But others took a slower route. Dabo Swinney was eight seasons in at Clemson before winning a title, and now he’s in the mix annually. Mack Brown was in his eighth season at Texas. Bobby Bowden chased it for 15 years at FSU before finishing the deal.

And let’s be clear: Other than Swinney and Orgeron, none of the rest of these guys had to go through Alabama-era Saban to win it all. In addition to the meltdown games, that has been what’s kept Kirby at bay—his record against his former boss.

Swinney has beaten Saban twice in CFP championship games. Orgeron beat him in Tuscaloosa to pave his path to the title. Smart has lost to Saban three times, including one of the all-time heartbreakers.

That was the 2017 CFP title game, in which Tua Tagovailoa became a folk hero—first by coming off the bench and rallying Alabama into overtime, then throwing the immortal bomb for the winning score. Georgia was about as close as you can come to winning a title (in only Smart’s second year) without winning a title.

Then came the loss in the SEC title game the following year, when Jalen Hurts and Tua swapped roles. And finally the second-half tidal wave that Bama dropped on the Bulldogs last year in Tuscaloosa. Life is hard behind the Alabama roadblock.

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This year, maybe? Alabama has more rebuilding to do than Georgia does. But first looms Clemson on Saturday, and with it another season of pent-up dreaming begins. It’s now 41 years since Herschel Walker led the Dawgs past Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the title. Today, 59-year-old Walker is running for office—and quite likely wondering when the boys in silver britches are going to follow his path to glory.

“If [the expectations] are not coming, then what are we doing?”

Smart said this week. "I know the people in this organization, the administration, the people in the state, the people that love Georgia, and the energy and enthusiasm they have, it's just always been long overdue, right? I don't care if you won one years ago, it's overdue.”

There is a due date in Kirby Smart’s future. He’s straining to reach it, while Georgia fans strain their patience.

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