How Georgia's Kirby Smart can move closer to Dabo Swinney and not Bo Schembechler | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Kirby Smart won’t suddenly become smarter if his third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (13-1) beat No. 1 Alabama (13-1) in the national championship on Monday (7 p.m. CT, ESPN) in Indianapolis.

A win won’t even make him a better coach.

But a win will shift the narrative. It will remove the Saban-sized monkey from his back – Smart is 0-4 against his former boss – and will end SEC fans chastising Georgia because it hasn’t won a national championship since the 1980 season.

A win will elevate Smart’s legacy.

Smart is college football’s best active coach who has never won a national championship. If Georgia loses, that asterisk will remain, and the narrative that Smart can’t win the big one will follow him until he busts through that ceiling.

For some coaches, that narrative lasts an entire career.

Bo Schembechler ranks among college football’s greatest coaches ever, compiling a record of 234-65-8 across tenures at Miami (Ohio) and Michigan. But he never won a national championship, and Michigan went 2-8 in Rose Bowl appearances under him.

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After Schembechler’s final game – a 17-10 loss to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl – Sports Illustrated summarized his career with these words: “Bo Schembechler's glorious 21-year coaching career at Michigan ended on a fitting note at the Rose Bowl late Monday afternoon. He lost.”

The magazine dubbed Schembechler’s final game “A Most Appropriate Exit.” It quoted the coach as saying before the game: “My bowl record is pathetic.”

To equate Smart, 46, to Schembechler at this stage of his career is brazenly premature. For one, a victory on Monday wouldn’t elevate Smart to the stature Schembechler attained throughout a long, consistently successful career.

Also, Smart hasn’t flopped in most big games throughout his career. He’s just flopped against Saban, an attribute nearly all his coaching peers share.

Georgia’s 2017 team squandered a 13-0 halftime lead against Alabama in the national championship game and lost 26-23 in overtime. Exclude that lone postseason matchup against Saban, and Smart is 5-1 in bowl games. Four of those bowl victories came in New Year’s Six or College Football Playoff games. Smart is 1-3 in SEC Championship games – with two of those losses coming to Alabama. Against Georgia’s top SEC rivals, Auburn and Florida, he’s a combined 10-3.

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Smart, who is in his sixth season at Georgia, isn’t taking the long road to winning a national championship – not yet, anyway.

Saban didn’t win the first of his seven national championships until his 10th year as a coach, which came in his fourth season at LSU. Dabo Swinney has two national titles, with the first coming in his eighth full season at Clemson. Urban Meyer won the first of his three national titles in just his second season at Florida, but he’d warmed up across four seasons coaching Bowling Green and Utah. Mack Brown’s lone national championship came in his eighth season at Texas amid his 22nd season overall.

Smart became a first-time head coach at Georgia after a eight-year stint as Saban’s defensive coordinator.

Coaching Georgia came with inherent advantages. Since 1997, the Bulldogs have endured just one losing season. The state possesses a deep well of elite high school talent from which to recruit. Smart also finds himself in the navigable SEC East, where Tennessee hasn’t been nationally relevant in two decades, and Florida misses Steve Spurrier and Meyer.

We’re quick to assign labels like genius, mastermind and guru to successful coaches. Alabama and Georgia can attest that Smart is a skilled defensive mind. But Georgia’s success under Smart isn’t the byproduct of innovative coaching wizardry. Rather, he elevated Georgia to this lofty stratosphere via the most tried and true manner: He stockpiled elite talent. Since Smart’s arrival, Alabama and Georgia, on average, have recruited better than any other program.

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Saban evolved Alabama’s playing style throughout his tenure. He began winning national titles with elite defenses and dominant ground games. A few years ago, Saban’s approach shifted. Alabama’s offensive tempo increased after Saban bemoaned how fast-paced offenses were a drain on the sport. The Crimson Tide started to sign and develop elite quarterbacks. That culminated with Alabama’s national championship last season behind one of the best offenses in college football history.

Meanwhile, Smart forged Georgia’s program from the fires that burned in Tuscaloosa while he worked on Saban’s staff. The Bulldogs boast the nation’s stingiest defense and run the ball 57.5% of the time – the fifth-highest rushing play percentage in the SEC. Alabama ranks 11th in the SEC for percentage of run plays.

Georgia’s coach urged that this matchup isn’t about Saban vs. Smart – “It will never be about he and I,” Smart said Monday – but that’s a tough sell considering Georgia is crafted from the old Saban brand.  

This is Smart’s best team yet, but it whiffed with its first chance to land a knockout punch on Alabama, losing 41-24 in the SEC Championship on Dec. 4.

Lose again, and the narrative that Smart is winless against Saban will grab hold of him like a shackle.

Win, and Smart will cement Georgia’s place of power and bolster his legacy.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.