Georgia coaches don’t get a mulligan, especially ones who come into the job after the program has won 10 games in each of the previous two years. I hope — and expect — Kirby Smart is aware of that.
The days of building for the future are long gone, especially in the win-or-hit-the-road reality that is SEC football. Georgia is no exception.
The 2016 Bulldogs squad is widely assumed to be a top-25 team. Simply put, Smart and his new staff don’t have any excuses not to compete for at least a division title. Not because the SEC East is a dumpster fire — which it is — and not because Smart is the next great coach — no one knows the answer to that just yet. The reason Smart doesn’t get a pass is because expectations have been reset after the firing of Mark Richt. Athletic dirctor Greg McGarity has set the precedent that failing to win the SEC East isn’t good enough. Period. Graduation rates, ethics, 10-win seasons and fan-approval ratings don’t matter if the team isn’t producing championships, divisional or otherwise.
Richt is no longer in Athens because Missouri (twice) and Florida played for the past three SEC Championships. The bar has been chiseled — in stone — for Smart to be in Atlanta this December. Anything less is a failure.
Here’s why that’s not an unrealistic expectation.
Remember when I said the SEC East was a dumpster fire? I was being kind. Tennessee is potentially the best, most complete team in the SEC. Seriously. If you told me the Volunteers would win the SEC in 2016, I wouldn’t blush. After the Vols, though, 2016 might be the single worst year the SEC East has had in more than a decade.
Florida won the SEC East in 2016 with a patchwork offensive line and 5-foot-11 wide receiver playing quarterback The 2016 Gators will trot out a new quarterback who won’t have Kelvin Taylor to help ease the transition. Will Jim McElwain hand the keys to consensus four-star freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks? Or will a transfer from, gulp, Purdue take over?
South Carolina is fresh off of its worst season since 1999, which led to the retirement of Steve Spurrier and the hiring of Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks have a lack of playmaking talent at nearly every position, which made the early departure of do-it-all wide receiver Pharoh Cooper even more painful.
Kentucky is on its fourth offensive coordinator since 2011, and Mark Stoops has yet to prove he can get the Wildcats from nuisance to threat. Then add in Patrick Towles leaving, and the quarterback spot suddenly becomes Drew Barker or bust.
Missouri had perhaps the most bizarre 2015 season in the SEC. The campus protest that led to the football team threatening to boycott a game and longtime coach Gary Pinkel retiring to battle cancer are all that anyone remembers. Well, that and former starting quarterback Maty Mauk being dismissed from school. Barry Odom takes over as a first-year coach, and he and his staff must rebuild whatever confidence Drew Lock had before a disastrous freshmen campaign.
Lastly, we have Vanderbilt, a program seemingly on the brink of a free-fall back to the days when it was every other team’s homecoming game. Vanderbilt can thank Missouri for having an all-time terrible offense last year; otherwise it would have finished last in the league for the second consecutive season. Derek Mason improved the defense dramatically in 2015, but right now there isn’t enough talent in Nashville to scare anyone.
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