It has happened to almost all of us at one time or another. We go through a bad breakup, mourn for a bit and then move on to a new significant other. We profess happiness but look back from time to time, checking out social media feeds and wondering what our former partners are up to these days.
It happens in college football, too. Increased attention, money and pressure have led to significant turnover in the head coaching ranks. This offseason alone, 27 programs changed coaches for a variety of reasons (Illinois did twice in six months, going from Tim Beckman to Bill Cubit to Lovie Smith). The slightest hint of struggle can leave fans wondering if their program made the right move.
One of the most fascinating cases of that phenomenon will unfold in Athens, Georgia, this fall. Mark Richt had an excellent run at Georgia, going 145-51 in 15 seasons with two SEC titles, nine seasons of at least 10 wins and 15 postseason trips. But after failing to reach the SEC title game in three consecutive seasons, he and UGA parted ways.
Georgia made a very good hire in luring alum Kirby Smart, Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator and top lieutenant, away from Alabama to become its new head coach. Meanwhile, Richt landed on his feet at his alma mater, Miami, who wanted a new direction after bottoming out under Al Golden.
Both sides appear headed in the right direction. But which will feel better about their move in 2016? Will Richt or Smart enjoy greater success with their new program? Will Georgia fans feel any regret by December? Let’s take a look.
When Miami joined the ACC in 2004, the Hurricanes were expected to challenge for league titles on a consistent basis alongside bitter in-state rival Florida State. The Seminoles have re-emerged as one of the nation’s best programs, but the ‘Canes have yet to make their first ACC title game appearance.
Golden muddled through four-plus mediocre seasons, although he was handcuffed by an NCAA investigation which forced Miami to self-impose bowl bans in each of his first two seasons. A 58-0 program-worst home loss to Clemson finally ended his tenure at 32-25.
Richt is a clear upgrade, but Golden also left him with a solid foundation. The Hurricanes haven’t won a bowl game since 2006, but they do return 16 starters from 2015’s eight-win team. They’re led by junior quarterback Brad Kaaya, one of the nation’s top signal-callers. Entering his third season, he’s already fifth in Miami history in career passing yardage and eighth in touchdowns. That’s impressive, given the program’s strong passing lineage.
Tailback Joseph Yearby is a returning 1,000-yard rusher, and receiver Stacy Coley caught 47 passes for 689 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. He leads a young but talented receiver corps, and the ‘Canes hope for a breakout season from Braxton Berrios and talented sophomore tight end David Njoku.
New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will run an attacking scheme, and he has some very nice pieces in defensive ends Al-Quadin Muhammad and Chad Thomas, as well as impressive freshman linebacker Shaquille Quarterman.
However, the secondary lost cornerback Artie Burns to the NFL draft as a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and fellow veterans Deon Bush and Tracy Howard graduated. There are serious questions beyond senior cornerback Corn Elder and senior safety Rayshawn Jenkins. Same goes for Miami’s offensive line, which returns five players who started at least eight games but struggled at times to protect Kaaya and open holes for the running game a year ago.
Golden couldn’t get this program over the top, but can Richt work some magic? The schedule has its positives. Following an odd trip to Appalachian State and a visit to Georgia Tech in the first four games, the ‘Canes host Florida State and North Carolina before traveling to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
They swap Clemson for N.C. State in the ACC schedule rotation, a big positive, and also host Pitt. With a little improvement, this team could easily challenge for an ACC Coastal Division title.
Richt told Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the move re-energized him:
I think we're on track and implementing the way we're going to go about our business. I think our players have responded well. I think our coaches are all bought in, and I think we're doing all the things that we need to do to give us a chance. It's tough competing against other schools trying to do the same thing, but we're on the right track.
In Athens, the problem wasn’t talent. It was making the most of it. Richt simply didn’t do that in his last three seasons, going a combined 16-8 in a down SEC East. They finished behind Missouri twice, and winding up behind a Florida team led by first-year coach Jim McElwain was the final straw. Smart was hired to maximize that potential.
Doing so means getting the most out of the quarterback position. A year ago, quarterback Greyson Lambert was just average, throwing for 1,959 yards and 12 touchdowns against two interceptions despite being benched against Florida for now-transferred Faton Bauta. This spring, he was part of a three-way battle for the starting role with junior Brice Ramsey and incoming freshman Jacob Eason.
Eason was the prize of Smart’s first UGA recruiting class; he stands 6’5”, 208 pounds and was rated as the nation’s No. 5 overall recruit by 247Sports. He was excellent in UGA’s spring game, completing 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown with a strong touch on deep balls.
Eason is the future. Is he the present? Smart must decide that this fall. The Bulldogs return three offensive line starters but must identify solutions at both tackle spots. Whoever emerges under center has an emerging star to throw to in Terry Godwin surrounded by a talented receiver group.
The true X-factor? Tailback Nick Chubb’s health. The powerful back rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman and was on pace for another huge year in 2015, with 745 yards and seven scores through five games. But on his first carry on Oct. 10 against Tennessee, he suffered a serious, season-ending knee injury.
Sony Michel was solid, finishing the season with 1,161 yards and eight scores, but the offense wasn’t the same without Chubb. He is rehabbing, but per Brad Crawford of Dawgs247, there are no guarantees of his readiness for the season opener against North Carolina or his full health for the beginning of the season.
Smart told Seth Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is not a "subject matter expert" on knee-injury recovery.
"I don’t know if that guy is going to be back (to start 2016) or not,” Smart said. “Do I want him to be back? Yes. But it’s hard to say with where he is now whether he’ll be back or not.”
If Chubb is healthy and ready, the offense will take on a new dimension in Smart’s first season. Across the ball, the secondary, led by safety Dominick Sanders, will be a big strength. The linebackers lost No. 9 overall pick Leonard Floyd to the NFL draft but shouldn’t miss a step with Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter leading the way.
Although former top overall recruit Trent Thompson is ready to step into a starting role at defensive tackle, the line is highly inexperienced after losing three starters from 2015.
Smart’s first schedule is pretty favorable. The Georgia Dome opener against North Carolina won’t be easy, but UGA does trade an SEC West crossover game against Alabama for a road trip to Ole Miss. Rivals Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech all come to Sanford Stadium. Besides Ole Miss, there isn’t another road game against a returning postseason team.
The Volunteers will be the favorite in the SEC East, but the Bulldogs should push them strongly. Will that be enough to keep Georgia fans from looking longingly toward South Florida?
Both Georgia and Miami could challenge for division titles while playing on the weaker sides of their league. Miami’s schedule might feature slightly more difficult games, but the Bulldogs have the more talented overall roster, especially if Chubb returns healthy.
Let’s put Smart and UGA down for nine wins, with Richt and the Hurricanes clocking in with an eight-win season. Both very solid debuts, but Smart will have slightly more success in Athens.