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Kirby Smart Has Changed College Football’s Idea of What a Title Winner Is Supposed to Look Like

Graham Coffey

Kirby Smart and Georgia just won their second consecutive national championship. That is plenty difficult on its own, but what makes it more remarkable is how Smart and UGA did it. 

Let’s flashback two years to the off-season following the 2020 college football season. 2020 was college football’s “covid season” but it solidified a few media narratives around who can compete for and win national championships in the sport. As a reminder, here were some of the things that were being said at the time…

Media Narratives on What it Takes to Win a Championship Prior to 2021…

National Championships can only be won with ELITE offenses…

2020 Alabama had just won the title while scoring 48.5 points a game (1st in P5/2nd in FBS). The year before, 2019 LSU won the title while scoring 47.2 points per game (1st in P5 & FBS). 

Those elite offenses need to have 1st round draft picks at QB…

Going back five years, the national title winners had been quarterbacked by future first round picks…

  • 2016 Clemson - Deshaun Watson (12th overall pick)
  • 2017 Alabama - Tua Tagovailoa (5th overall pick) ***Jalen Hurts started every game that year and would end up being a R2 pick after Lincoln Riley worked his magic, but Bama doesn’t win that title without Tua’s 2nd half performance
  • 2018 Clemson - Trevor Lawerence (1st overall pick)
  • 2019 LSU - Joe Burrow (1st overall pick)
  • 2020 Alabama - Mac Jones (15th overall pick)

At the time, it also looked like you needed a future high round pick at QB just to reach the CFP. The 2018 CFP featured 3 future 1st round picks and 2 future #1 overall picks (Trevor Lawrence, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa). The 2019 CFP also had 3 future 1st round picks (Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields) as did the 2020 CFP (Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence). 

You need a future 1st round WR for your 1st round QB to throw to… 

Want to win a championship? You better have a WR (or two) who is a future 1st round pick… 

  • 2016 Clemson - Mike Williams (98 REC’s & 1361 YDS) 7th overall 
  • 2017 Alabama - Calvin Ridley (63 REC’s & 967 YDS) 26th overall ***Alabama also had future R1 wideouts Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith on its 2017 roster
  • 2018 Clemson - Tee Higgins (59 REC’s & 936 YDS) 33rd overall, Justyn Ross (46 REC’s & 1000 YDS) ***if not for a neck/spinal injury Ross is likely a first round pick
  • 2019 LSU - Justin Jefferson 111 REC’s & 1540 YDS (22nd overall), Ja’Marr Chase 84 REC’s & 1780 YDS (5th overall)
  • 2020 Alabama - Devonta Smith 117 REC’s & 1856 YDS (10th overall), Jaylen Waddle 28 REC’s & 591 YDS (6th overall)

Your defense doesn’t have to be elite to win a national title…

Title winners, and most contenders, (looking at you, Lincoln Riley) were still playing defense on a very good to elite level up until 2019. Then back-to-back national titles were won by teams with less potent defenses. 2019 LSU & 2020 Alabama became the inspiration behind a widespread media narrative that stated elite defense was no longer requisite to winning a national title. 

  • 2016 Clemson (11th in Points Per Game/10th in Yds Per Game allowed)
  • 2017 Alabama (1st in PPG/1st in YPG)
  • 2018 Clemson (1st in PPG/4th in YPG)
  • 2019 LSU (29th in PPG/27th in YPG)
  • 2020 Alabama (13th in PPG/29th in YPG)

Now that you have an idea of where the patterns/narratives were at the time, let’s take a second to remember what was about the UGA program two off-seasons ago… 

UGA/Kirby Smart Related Media Narratives Prior to 2021… 

Kirby can’t develop…

There were many doubters of Smart following UGA’s 8-2 season in 2020. Georgia had just lost its two biggest games of the season (Alabama/Florida) despite a string of recruiting classes ranked in the top three nationally. Smart was recruiting talent but UGA wasn’t winning big enough in many people’s eyes. The idea that Smart wasn’t developing talent was absurd at the time. He was putting a higher than average percentage of his five, four, and three star prospects into the NFL Draft. Despite that, there were many who thought Smart was on track to going down as a guy who couldn’t cash in the talent he recruited. 

Smart isn’t the best coach in his own division…

Go back and look at the annual offseason lists of college football’s best coaches from the spring/summer of 2021. Go back and listen to different podcasts doing their coach drafts and rankings. It wasn’t unanimous by any means, but there were a ton of prominent media figures who felt Smart was an inferior coach to Dan Mullen. (There was a minute there where a lot of people forgot that recruiting/talent acquisition is a massive part of a college football coach’s job)

How Georgia Broke The Mold…

Alright, does your memory feel refreshed? With that in mind, let’s look at how Georgia has broken the mold on its way to back-to-back titles. 

UGA showed that a defensive minded approach still wins championships, and that elite defense can be played in the modern game…

2021 Georgia brought defense back to the national title equation and 2022 Georgia kept it there. In 2021, the Bulldogs lead the nation with just 10.4 PPG allowed. They were 3rd in the FBS with just 279.1 yards per game allowed. UGA’s opponents averaged just .154 points per play in 2021, which was the lowest amount in all of college football. The second place team in that stat was Clemson at .218 points per play. UGA also allowed just 4.0 YDS per play, which was first in the country. 

You can play elite offense and still protect your defense…

First of all, I am not here to pretend that a national title is going to be won without a good offense. 2021 Georgia’s offense was always better than most gave it credit for. The Bulldogs were 8th nationally in points per game, which is not too shabby. Still, UGA operated around a defense that often set the Bulldogs up with good field position and a lot of points off turnovers. UGA’s offense could be efficient at times (Georgia was 4th in the FBS with 6.9 YDS per game), but the Bulldogs almost always played in a manner that was designed to protect its defense and limit the number of possessions in a game. Playing slower and rarely deploying an uptempo offense was a departure from other recent national title winners. ***Seconds per play data was not available for 2017 & 2020

  • 2016 Clemson (22.3 seconds per play, 27th in FBS)
  • 2018 Clemson (23.8 seconds per play, 46th in FBS)
  • 2019 LSU (24.8 seconds per play, 56th in FBS)
  • 2021 UGA (28.8 seconds per play, 121st in FBS)
  • 2022 UGA (28.4 seconds per play, 117th in FBS)

You don’t need a 1st round pick at QB to win a national title…

You know the story of former two-star walk-on QB Stetson Bennett, so I’m not going to recount it for you. In 2022 he became UGA’s first ever 4,000 yard passer and a Heisman finalist. The offense ran through him in many ways. But before 2022 there was 2021. Remember that Bennett was an unproven commodity and Georgia leaned on him to execute smartly far more often than it asked him to make hero plays. Barring a shocking turn of events, he will not be a first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Despite the lack of blue-chip pedigree, Todd Monken designed an extremely efficient offense around Bennett in 2021. He had the 4th highest QB Rating in the FBS (176.7) and was 3rd in the nation in yards per a pass attempt with 10.0. Bennett saw a higher volume of attempts in 2022 and while he became less efficient on a per pass standpoint, he was still one of college football’s most effective quarterbacks. He came in at 7th in yards per an attempt with 9.1 and he was 12th in the FBS with a 161.1 QB Rating. 

What’s better than a big play receiver? A couple monster TE’s…

Georgia’s 2021 offense did not feature a 500-yard WR. In 2022, Ladd McConkey put up 762 yards. He is a fantastic college wideout but he is unlikely to be picked in the first round and he is not the type of big play boundary receiver that previous title winners featured. Part of the reason for McConkey’s success as UGA’s Z and sometimes Slot receiver was the amount of issues created by Georgia’s tight-ends. In 2022 the Bulldogs ran more 2 TE sets than anyone in the Power 5 but Utah. The Bulldogs used 2 and 3 tight-ends on 56% of their plays in 2022. That was up from 46% in 2021. Georgia’s leading receiver has been TE Brock Bowers each of the last two years (942 YDS in 2022/842 YDS in 2021). The Bulldogs also got 454 YDS receiving out of Darnell Washington this past season. In the big picture, the personnel mismatches that Todd Monken’s 12 personnel sets create is the thing that makes Georgia’s offense go. If you put in more DB’s, who are fast enough to cover the Georgia TE’s downfield, you are likely to get smashed by their blocking in the run game. On the flipside, the TE’s will blow right past your defenders if you bring in more defensive linemen or linebackers to try and deal with their run blocking ability. It’s a headache no matter what you choose, and one look at UGA’s recruiting tells us that the heavy TE usage is here to stay. Todd Monken is revolutionizing the college offense and creating a system that has no good answers for defensive coordinators. Even with Darnell Washington injured in the CFP, Georgia’s 2 TE sets thrived. 

  • UGA with 2 TE’s vs Ohio St: (16 Run - 110 YDS, 14 Pass - 135 YDS)… 245 YDS total on 30 plays for 8.16 YDS per play.
  • UGA with 2 TE’s vs TCU: (23 Run - 135 YDS, 14 Pass 139 YDS)… 274 YDS total on 37 plays for 7.4 YDS per play

What It Means… 

So, what does all this tell us? Kirby Smart has never been on anything resembling a hot seat since arriving in Athens, but the closest he ever came was probably in the offseason of 2020. The Bulldogs were three years removed from its national title game appearance and UGA fans had just watched Florida and Alabama play for a SEC Championship in a season where it lost to both teams by large margins. Both teams had fielded elite offenses that year and the Crimson Tide had won a national title with a potent passing attack. 

Everyone in college football was talking about how offenses ruled the sport and many were wanting Smart to change his philosophy. Smart’s former boss Nick Saban was among those who were vocal about the difficulty of stopping modern offenses. This quote is from March of 2021… 

"We have a good defense. I mean, we gave up 19 points per game last year and that was first in the SEC. 19 points per game. That is six points above what we feel is average, which is giving up 13 points per game...and it's first in the SEC.

The game is different now. People score fast. The whole idea - like I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you're going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yardage is going to win the game. You're not going to win anything now doing that.

The way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fast ball has changed college football.

So I changed my philosophy five or six years ago, well it was more than that, so when Lane came here, and we said 'We have to out score them.’”

Despite the consensus opinion that defense no longer wins championships, Smart turned around and fielded one of the best defenses in college football history in 2021, giving up 10.4 points per game over the 15 game season and allowing just 14.5 points a game during the 2021 College Football Playoff. The offense he ran in 2021 was efficient but did not have the explosiveness that recent national title winners had. 

He told the media and his team that their expectation is to give up 13 or less points a game and then went out and did it while the rest of the sport was going crazy over the necessity of offense. 

Sticking to your beliefs in the face is admirable. What is even more impressive is being willing to adapt when it will lead to success. 2022 Georgia won its national title in a very different manner than the 2021 team. 

This year’s Bulldogs slung the ball around a lot, with Bennett having the 16th most pass attempts of any college QB. Georgia relied on a lot of passes early in the season while waiting for its offensive line to find its groove in the run game. Later in the year the Bulldogs leaned on its OL to pave the way to some uglier wins. Defense remained a priority and UGA was still among the nation’s best on that side of the ball, but Smart adjusted his gameplanning and philosophy to fit his talent. 

2022 UGA looked pretty good on defense for much of the year, but it showed it could give up big plays and was susceptible to coverage errors. It found a way to hold Ohio State to just 6 points over the final 25 minutes of the CFP semifinal game, but it also gave up 41 to those Buckeyes and allowed 30 points to LSU. It did not have the pass rush ability of the 2021 Georgia team. 

In 2022 we saw UGA win a 42-41 shootout with a spot in the national title game on the line. We also saw the Dawgs beat Kentucky 16-6 in a game where UGA threw for just 116 yards. 

UGA changes its system weekly throughout the season to force teams into doing what they aren’t good at. Georgia is doing this at a macro level as well every offseason. The Bulldogs self scout and figure out how to maximize the strengths of the players on the roster. 

Unlike this time in 2021, nobody in the media is going on podcasts and talking about the requisite things a team must have to win a national title. That’s because Kirby Smart has shown that he can beat the future first round QB/WR combo across the field. Along the way he’s changed modern college football’s idea of what a national title team is supposed to look like.  

What does it take to win it all in modern college football? Right now the answer is, “whatever Kirby Smart has on his sideline.”

  • Fire 16
  • Heart 7


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