Before we get started, let me list off a couple of names for you: Tua Tagovailoa, Cam Newton, Jalen Hurts, Johnny Manziel, and Joe Burrow. Now those are five quarterbacks that played in the SEC since 2010. They are also five players that were named SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year at their respected schools. Since 2001, there are 20 former offensive players of the year in the Southeastern Conference.
They come from schools all over the southern part of the United States. Tua Tagovailoa ended his career at Alabama in 2019 and was drafted by the Dolphins with the number five pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Joe Burrow won a Heisman in 2019, and was drafted first overall by the Bengals in the 2020 NFL Draft. Artose Pinner from Kentucky, Eli Manning from Ole Miss, and even Jay Cutler from Vanderbilt. Those players all won the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year at some point since 2002.
Mississippi State, Tennessee, South Carolina, and newly added Missouri are four teams now in the SEC who haven’t had a player win the SEC Offensive Player of the Year while playing in the SEC. Well, them and one other team. This team stands out. They are often seen as a cut above the middling teams in the SEC. They have a stout defense, and every year people will say it is their time to finally play with the big boys like Alabama, LSU, and Florida. That team is the Georgia Bulldogs. In fact, the Bulldogs haven’t had a player win the SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Garrison Hearst won the award in 1992!
The unfortunate truth for Bulldog fans is that their head coach, Kirby Smart, isn’t in the same league as Nick Saban at Alabama, Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, or even Dan Mullen at Florida. Since leaving his post as the defensive coordinator at Alabama to take the Georgia head coaching vacancy, Kirby Smart has had top-five recruiting classes in all six years he’s been at Georgia, and it looks like they will have another top-five class in 2022. With such great recruiting classes, why is it that Georgia has made the College Football Playoff only once since it’s conception in 2014? How is it that they keep getting dominated by superior coached Alabama and LSU teams in the SEC Title Game every year? Well, there are many problems at Georgia when it comes to their roster make-up as a whole, the real issue is simple: Kirby Smart can recruit top level quarterbacks, but he can’t coach them.
The Puzzling Story of Nick Saban’s Disciples
Key – *=Eight if you count Jeremy Pruitt who was recently fired from Tennessee
Kirby Smart had been the defensive coordinator at Alabama for eight years before accepting the Georgia position. From 2000 until this year, Saban has had seven assistant coaches leave his staff for other big-time jobs*. While he was at Michigan State from 1995-1999, Mark Dantonio was his defensive backs coach, who went on to become the head coach of the Spartans from 2007-2019. Dantonio had a combined record of 132-74, and made the College Football Playoff once in 2015. When Saban took over at LSU in 2000, he had three bright young minds on his staff that would go on to be head coaches after their tenure under Saban. The most well-known and most successful was Jimbo Fisher who won a National Championship in 2013 with quarterback Jameis Winston. Fisher moved on to Texas A&M in 2018 and has many around the country believing next year could be the Aggie’s’ year.
The two other coaches on Saban’s staff at LSU were Will Muschamp, the defensive coordinator, and Derek Dooley, an assistant head coach. Both of those two coaches won a split-National Title in 2003, when the Tigers beat the Oklahoma Sooners 21-14. LSU would end the year as the number one team in the coaches poll, while USC took the title in the AP. Dooley left for Tennessee in 2010 to replace then head coach, Lane Kiffin. Dooley was a disaster at Tennessee, finishing below .500 in all three years with the Volunteers. Muschamp found a home in Gainesville in 2011, succeeding Urban Meyer as the Head Coach of the Florida Gators. In his first year, Muschamp’s Gators went 7-6, with an SEC record of 3-5. It was the Gators first losing conference record since 1979. However, in 2012 Muschamp led the Gators to a 11-2 record and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Following a great 2012, expectations were high for Muschamp in Gainesville. During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Gators under-performed, and Muschamp stepped down following an overtime loss to South Carolina, which oddly enough is where Muschamp ended up in 2016. During his five year stint with the Gamecocks, he compiled a record of 28-30, and was fired after seven games into this season.
Now we get into the final branches of Nick Saban’s coaching tree, which took shape during his on-going years at Alabama. To keep up with the disappointment which was Dooley and Muschamp, we turn our heads to Lane Kiffin and Jim McElwain. McElwain was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Alabama from 2008-2011. He took a bit of a risk accepting the Colorado State head coaching vacancy in 2012. In his first year, the Rams had a bad year going 4-8. However, in 2013 the program was expanding and they compiled a record of 8-6, including a New Mexico Bowl victory over Washington State. After fully turning the program around in 2014, McElwain jumped ship and headed to Florida, where he would succeed the coach previously talked about, Will Muschamp. The Gators had a good start to the 2015 season, ranking as high as 11 in the polls. However, they suffered three back-to-back blowout losses to Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan. McElwain was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2015. Things really started to fall apart for McElwain in 2017, after a man who resembled McElwain was seen naked in a compromising position with a shark on a boat. McElwain was the focus of a lot of online ridicule, and in a press conference in October of 2017, he said that he had received death threats, along with his players. He never told Florida officials the details of the threats, which led to the school to seriously consider firing him. In 2017, after a loss to Georgia, McElwain met with school officials and they told him of their intent to fire him. As of right now, McElwain is the head coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas football team.
Before we get into Kirby Smart, and the reason for this series of articles, we have to take a look at the interesting careers of Lane Kiffin and Jeremy Pruitt, who were both disciples of Saban. If anybody remembers the MTV show Two-A-Days, then you will remember former Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt was the defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator for the Hoover High School Buccaneers, a top level Alabama football high school. Saban plucked him from Hoover in 2009 to become an assistant at Alabama. After one year, he was named defensive backs coach. He left for the defensive coordinator spot at Florida State in 2013, where he won a national championship with Jimbo Fisher. From 2014-2017 he was a defensive coordinator for Georgia (2014-2015), and Alabama (2016-2017). He took over the Volunteer football program in 2018. His first season was a disaster, as the Vols went 5-7, and 2-6 in SEC play. Pruitt added the country’s 13th best recruiting class in 2019. After a 2-5 starts, the Volunteers finished 7-5, with a come-from-behind bowl win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. Tennessee came into this season ranked 16th in the polls. However, they finished 3-7, in the COVID-filled season which also saw them lose to rival Kentucky at home for the first time in 36 years. Pruitt was fired from Tennessee on January 18, 2021 after an internal investigation of recruiting violations. Nine other coaches on the staff were fired as well.
Finally! We get into the coaching life of the great Lane Kiffin. Kiffin’s spot in this coaching tree is different from the others, as he didn’t become a true Saban disciple until 2016. He had a rough short-term coaching position at Tennessee in 2009. That year he accused Urban Meyer, then at Florida State, of recruiting violations. However, it all backfired on him when he broke a recruiting violation and was out of Tennessee by the year’s end. After coaching the Volunteers, Kiffin headed out west to become the head coach of the USC Trojans. He had a couple mildly successful seasons at USC, compiling a record of 28-15. In 2013, after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, USC fired Kiffin a couple of hours after the game. Kiffin went on to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2014-2016, winning a national title in 2015. After the 2016 Tide season, Kiffin took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. In 2018 he led the Florida Atlantic Owls to an 11-3 record and a Conference-USA Championship. In 2019 he did the same with a 10-win Owls team. Lane Kiffin had finally had enough of Florida, and on December 6th, 2019, he became the head coach at Louisiana University, or Ole Miss. He led the Rebels to a 5-5 record this year with a win in the Outback Bowl. Kiffin’s Rebels were third in the country with 555.5 yards per game. They were also seventh in the country in passing yards per game, and fourteenth in passing yards per game.
Now that we’ve thoroughly gone through the Nick Saban coaching tree, we land on the main focus of the article, Kirby Smart. Before joining Saban’s staff in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Smart had a couple of stops on Saban’s coaching tree. In 2004 he was the defensive backs coach for Saban at LSU. After that in 2005, he moved to Athens, Georgia to be the Bulldogs running back coach under Mark Richt. Finally, he was the safeties coach for the Miami Dolphins in 2006, while Saban was the head coach.
In 2007, Smart moved permanently to Saban’s staff. In 2007 he was just an assistant coach, and defensive backs coach. He was given a raise in 2008 to become the defensive coordinator of the Tide. While at the helm of the Tide defense he won three national championships. On top of that, his defenses ranked in the top ten in the country every year he was the defensive coordinator at Alabama. His worst two years were his first in 2008, where Alabama finished seventh in total defense, and 2014 when the Tide finished sixth in total defense. Up until his tenure at Georgia, Smart was widely regarded as the best Saban disciple since Jimbo Fisher.
On December 6, 2015, the worst-kept secret in the SEC came to fruition, as Smart was named the head coach at Georgia. The Dogs went 8-5 in Smart’s first season at the helm. In 2017, things were looking fantastic for Georgia and head coach Kirby Smart. They tallied up 12 wins, including an SEC Championship Game victory over Auburn 28-7. The Bulldogs were ranked number three by the College Football Playoff Committee, and were set to take on #2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Bulldogs came back from a 31-14 half-time deficit to beat the Sooners in double-overtime 54-48. That game is still considered the best semi-final game in the College Football Playoff era. The Bulldogs would go on to win the SEC East in 2018 and 2019 as well, but Georgia’s philosophy of dominating defense and an above average offense was beginning to weigh heavily on the defensive side.
Coming into the 2020 season, Georgia was ranked fourth in the AP Poll. Things were looking bright for Georgia, as they landed former USC and 5-Star quarterback recruit, JT Daniels. Daniels was coming off of a knee injury that he suffered in the first game of 2019, while still playing for USC. He was still recovering during the Dogs week one victory over Arkansas. However, in a report from Mark Schlabach of ESPN, Smart is quoted as saying Daniels is available to play in the Auburn game. However, after losing to Alabama in week four 41-24, and Florida in week seven 44-28, Daniels was finally handed the reigns to the offense in week nine versus Mississippi State. Smart chose to start a former walk-on, Stetson Bennett, and a four star little known recruit, D’Wan Mathis, instead of the highly touted Daniels for the first eight weeks of the season.
Smart’s decision to start Bennett and Mathis, while Daniels was healthy on the bench is just where this story jumps off. We still have so many questions to answer before this series is done. What happened to Jake Fromm from his freshman year to his junior year? How did Smart not play ESPN’s number one ranked player, Justin Fields, while he was on the roster behind a struggling Jake Fromm? What happened this year? Why did it take so long for Smart to put in Daniels? These are all questions that will be answered in the coming days of this five-part series. Before we jump ahead to tomorrow’s part of the story, ask yourselves this tonight: how is the supposed best Saban disciple, struggling to find ways to score and why do Georgia fans love him so much?
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Obviously this is a five-part series that will have an article every day, concluding with the final findings on Friday. Tomorrow we will take a look at Smart’s first three years at Georgia, and the emergence of Jake Fromm.