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If Georgia Loses to LSU, Coach Kirby Smart Will Only Have Himself to Blame

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterDecember 6, 2019

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 30: Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs looks on during the first half of the game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

There's no avoiding it now. The trend line is no longer pointing upward for a Georgia program that a few short years ago seemed to be on its way to becoming the next Alabama, and there are no easy answers for all those critics and their 280 characters on Twitter.

"Some of the things they're saying," head coach Kirby Smart said in a press conference last week, "they're dead-on."

Those words are as refreshing as they are painfully accurate. Somehow, Georgia—two years after going to the national championship game, and with a chance to return to the College Football Playoff with a win over LSU in Saturday's SEC Championship Game—is at a crossroads.    

Surge or sink. There seemingly is no in-between.

"We have an opportunity to make a lot of things right," says Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 02: Head coach Kirby Smart and Jake Fromm #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrate after winning a game against the Florida Gators on November 02, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

That begins and ends with the postseason. Georgia has lost one game in each of the last three regular seasons but has lost three of its past five postseason games.

A loss Saturday would continue the disturbing trend:

• 2017: Lost to Alabama in overtime of the CFP National Championship despite a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.

• 2018: Lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game despite a double-digit lead in the third quarter, failing to make the CFP.

• 2018: Lost to Texas in the Sugar Bowl despite being a double-digit favorite.

Now comes this weekend, where a loss to LSU would drop Georgia to 2-4 in its past three postseasons and throw significant doubt on where the program is headed.

Is it fair to be hypercritical of a program for losing to those dominant Alabama teams or to this season's dominant LSU team? Of course not. But that's the standard Smart set at Georgia, and that's the standard fans will hold him to.

Win in this postseason, and they'll call him a genius. Lose, and they'll want him to answer for it.

And it's not just because college football has become who plays in the CFP and everyone else. It's because Smart made a few curious decisions over the past two years that will impact the program for years and have left him in an undeniable spot.

"This is Kirby's bed," an SEC coach tells Bleacher Report. "He made it all on his own. Now he has to live with the consequences."

Smart will be held accountable for nothing more so than landing the nation's No. 2 recruit in 2018, quarterback Justin Fields, and not properly developing him—not finding where and how to fit him into the offense.

Fields is a dual-threat quarterback, and from Day 1, Georgia tried to force him into its pro-style offense. Smart could never find a way to make it work, and by the end of the 2018 season, Fields was best known for Smart's galactic gaffe of a fake punt that made the SEC Championship Game Alabama's for the taking. Weeks later, after Fields didn't throw a pass or run the ball in the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas and finished the season with all of 82 total touches (39 passes, 42 runs, one catch), he transferred to Ohio State.

A season later, he's a Heisman Trophy candidate with 47 touchdowns (37 pass, 10 rush) and one measly interception and has led the Buckeyes to a No. 1 ranking heading into this weekend's Big Ten Championship Game.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Fromm, the player Smart kept instead of Fields, has clearly regressed from his freshman and sophomore seasons. His numbers are down, and Georgia isn't remotely the same balanced offense it was in 2017 and 2018.

Fromm has gone from fifth in the nation in passer rating in 2018 to 42nd in 2019. His accuracy has dropped from 67 percent to 62 percent, and his yards per attempt from 9.0 to 7.6 (a change of half of a point in this statistic is considered significant).

The lack of a consistent receiving corps has impacted Fromm's development, but so has another curious decision from Smart. At the end of last season, UGA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney received an offer to do the same job at Tennessee for significantly more money. Smart declined to match the offer and allowed Chaney, who had been instrumental in Fromm's development, to walk.

Then, instead of hiring an experienced offensive coordinator, Smart promoted quarterbacks coach James Coley, his friend from their days in the early 2000s at LSU as assistants under Nick Saban.

The result? Georgia has fallen from 14th in the nation in scoring in 2018 to 40th this season. Even more alarming: It has gone from from 33.8 points per game in SEC play to 25.3—a stunning drop of nearly nine points per game.

Part of that is Fromm's regression, and part is due to an injury to the team's No. 1 wideout (Lawrence Cager, who played at Miami last year) and sporadic production from three other former mega wideout recruits (Demetris Robertson, George Pickens, Dominick Blaylock).

Even the tight end spot—a position of strength the last two seasons—has had limited production from Tennessee transfer Eli Wolf.

That, one Georgia staffer admitted, has left the Bulldogs (and Coley) dependent on the one thing they know works consistently: an offensive line with five future NFL starters, and tailbacks D'Andre Swift and Brian Herrien.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates with D'Andre Swift #7 after a long touchdown run during the second half against the Auburn Tigers in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2, 2017 in
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

"Very predictable," one NFL scout says of Georgia's offense. "But they're so good up front, they'll just maul you, and they've got two or three guys that they can turn around and hand it to. If you can load up and stop that run, you force them to win on the outside. And they've had problems doing that all season."

It has left one of college football's bluebloods staring at the reality of one last shot at the big prize with Fromm, who likely will leave for the NFL after this season.

Yes, Georgia is 11-1. But with no wins over teams in the Top Eight in the CFP rankings, and with a loss to unranked South Carolina, that's not enough.

Beat LSU and advance to the CFP, and all the questions go away. Lose, and everything from running off Fields to letting Chaney walk to hiring Coley to making odd game-management decisions over the last three seasons will come into play with the fury of those 280-character tweets from one of college football's most passionate fanbases.

"We have no consideration of anything outside here. I mean, we really don't," Smart said in the press conference. "... The thought of those things never even crossed my mind—because I don't look at them as punches. I don't look at them as jabs. Because I don't really listen to them."

Even if they're dead-on accurate.