Exactly what it will all mean in the long run, only time will tell. But Georgia coach Kirby Smart has just accomplished the unthinkable.
Smart has dethroned Alabama’s Nick Saban as the top recruiter in college football.
Mack Brown and Rod Gilmore both called Georgia “the cool school.” Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik was not ready to strip Alabama of its crown as perennial recruiting champs. But he did say this much about Georgia:
“Kirby has entered the picture as the new sheriff in town that Nick has to compete with in the state of Georgia, because Alabama has always had great players from the state of Georgia. So that’s changing somewhat. But the bottom line is these programs almost mirror each other with how they’re recruiting.”
Never miss a local story.
Mind you, it’s important to remember this up front. Here are two things that it doesn’t mean:
- It does NOT mean Georgia will beat Alabama in recruiting again next season. (For what’s worth, though, only three players in ESPN’s top nine for 2019 have verbally committed. All three committed to Georgia.)
- It also does NOT mean Georgia has unseated Alabama where it only truly matters — on the field. The Bulldogs may hold the trophy as 2017 SEC champs. But a national championship trumps a conference title, especially when it was won head-to-head.
When the 2018 season begins, Alabama likely will — and should — be ranked No. 1 in the country, with Georgia a few places behind. Both teams have to replace several key players from the rosters that played in the national championship game. Actually, Alabama was probably hit harder, which we’ll see when the NFL holds its draft in April. But Georgia doesn’t have the depth in its junior and senior classes that the Crimson Tide has to offset those losses.
At least not yet.
In his press conference following that loss to Alabama, Smart made a bold pronouncement.
“We’re not going anywhere.”
That was backed up by the latest signing class, which was wrapped up Wednesday. The Bulldogs didn’t just edge Alabama out of the top spot. It was decisive. According to 247Sports Composite rankings, Georgia finished first and landed seven five-star players. Bama finished seventh in the country and had two five-stars.
To put that in perspective, Georgia had eight five-stars in the three previous signing classes combined. Bama had 15.
Let me throw in a few disclaimers. I don’t follow recruiting that closely, especially individual rankings. I don’t know if Justin Fields, rated the top player in this year’s signing class, will be another Deshaun Watson or another Christian LeMay. I also don’t put more stock in one ranking site than another. What matters more is being consistent. Every year there are busts and sleepers.
All that said, as distorted as the recruiting coverage has become, there is a direct correlation between overall team rankings and performance down the road. It’s not coincidental that Alabama has dominated the country in recruiting since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa and produced five national championships in the past nine seasons.
Georgia consistently ranked in the top 10-15 under Mark Richt. That sounds good. But the difference between finishing first every year and top 10-15 is the difference between winning national championships and being just good enough to frustrate the fan base.
Here’s something else winning the recruiting national championship means. It means Smart will have absolute no excuses for not winning a real national championship.
The Georgia administration has given Smart an indoor practice facility, a recruiting center inside Sanford Stadium, an enormous support staff and a virtually open-ended recruiting budget to bring that national championship to Athens.
Whether this recruiting success is the result of the above, or Smart’s own recruiting skills, or Dell McGee’s impact on the program, or some combination thereof, this heightened commitment from the administration comes with the expectation of winning it all.
Any win over Saban is a big deal. So far, Smart has looked his mentor in the eye and not blinked, whether it’s fighting for Maurice Smith to transfer from Bama to Georgia or going toe-to-toe in recruiting. Again, it’s unknown whether that translates to a power shift on the field. But it always comes down to players, and it begins with recruiting.