Is Kirby smart enough to beat The Master?
That was the lingering question in the aftermath of Georgia’s 44-21 demolition of Tennessee on Saturday. That’s because Smart’s Dawgs had to overcome a pair of questionable coaching calls which left them in a hole at halftime.
After spotting the Vols a touchdown on its first offensive possession, and punting on its second, the Georgia offense began rolling. Touchdown drives of 63 and 95 yards put Georgia on top, 14-7.
On its first three possessions, Tennessee ran 17 plays for 45 yards and punted three times. Clearly the Vols offense wasn’t going to go the length of the field against the Georgia defense.
So Smart made sure they didn’t need to. He directed his offense to go for it on fourth-and-a-foot from their own 36-yard line. Moderately sized quarterback Stetson Bennett was stuffed for no gain.
On the very next play, Josh Palmer eluded Georgia’s mystifying defender DJ Daniel, catching a touchdown pass that tied the score.
Undaunted, Smart would direct another fourth-and-a foot assault just before the half, this time from the Tennessee goal line. This, too, failed.
Most observers agree that when you deploy the finest defensive team in the country, you play to your strength and give them a chance to be the best. And you support them by taking points whenever you can get them, even if it means kicking a paltry field goal.
However, I must now admit that I have changed my mind. After hearing Smart’s post-game comments, I believe he might be kind of smart after all. At the least, give him credit for this: he has a much larger picture in mind than simply winning the Tennessee game.
“I know my dad would be mad at me,” Smart acknowledged, referencing the former high school coach. “Punt the ball and play defense. You look at fourth-and-1 as appetite for risk. I don’t. I look at it as law of percentages say you’re going to make more than you don’t, and it’s disappointing we didn’t.
“If I had to go out there again today, I’d do it again,” Smart added. “I’d do it until I couldn’t do it anymore, unless someone could guarantee me we weren’t going to make it.”
Smart then offered a credible explanation for disdaining the field goal right before the half: “If you don’t go for it on fourth-and-1 at the goal, what are you telling your team? That decision was made long, long ago, so fourth and inside the 1, on the last play of the half, that decision was made for me 20 years ago.”
But it was his conclusion to this line of questioning that convinced me that Smart has his eyes on the big picture. “If I was going to play behind the defense, I’d kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 before the half.”
Then he added the hook. “I look at it as we need seven, and to be the team we want to be, we need to be explosive offensively. And in order to get to where we want to be offensively, we have to improve. People are going to score points in college football, guys. They’re too good.
“The really good teams, they score points.”
Like, say, Alabama.
When last seen late Saturday night in Oxford, the Tide was putting on a fireworks display befitting the Boston Pops by the Charles River on the Fourth of July.
Sixty-three points. Seven hundred twenty-three yards of offense. Thirty-seven first downs. Thirteen yards per pass and 7.8 yards per rush. And yet, Alabama had to keep scoring to beat Ole Miss, which also put up some gaudy numbers: 48 points, 647 yards, 31 first downs, 13.1 yards per pass, 4.7 yards per rush.
“We struggled,” Alabama coach Nick Saban understated when asked about his defense at his post-game press conference. “We didn’t do anything well. Didn’t stop the run. Gave up some big plays in the back end. Got picked. Couldn’t get the quarterback on the ground when we needed to when we got some pressure.
“We had some mistakes in coverage,” added Saban, warming to his subject. “We just didn’t play very well. I’m responsible for that, and we’ve gotta do a better job as coaches to try to help put our guys in a better position. I mean, we did get off the field on third down. They went for it on fourth down, and they went fast. We never got lined up. They must’ve converted three or four fourth-down situations in the game.
“Just gave up too many big plays. We’ve just gotta get better. Everybody on defense has gotta play better.”
It’s a good thing the Alabama defense had the Alabama offense to bail it out. And that’s what has Smart’s attention as he tries (again) to become the first of Saban’s assistants to beat him as a head coach. Perhaps Smart’s on to something when he talks about using his offense to help his defense.
We’ll find out Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.