Kirby Smart is the best of Nick Saban’s former assistants, and Georgia is thriving for it

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Before last year, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Dan Lanning, left and promptly built a College Football Playoff contender on the West Coast at Oregon.

Before this year, its offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, left to call plays for a Super Bowl contender (and the privilege of no longer having to call teenagers every day and convince them to play for him).

This is the challenge of winning as big as No. 1 Georgia is winning under Kirby Smart. It’s part of why sustainability is so rarely achieved in the sport and part of what has made Georgia’s refusal to plateau so impressive. No one hires coordinators from a loser. Every program, if it can’t hire The Guy, wants somebody close to The Guy. It’s why eight former Nick Saban assistants have become SEC head coaches.

Smart and Georgia are headed toward a similar trajectory. And so far? Smart is acing an overlooked, difficult test of a program: Hiring replacements.

“We’ve got a lot of continuity,” Smart said after going to Neyland Stadium and sending home 101,915 fans, including Peyton Manning and Dolly Parton, very disappointed with a 38-10 victory against No. 18 Tennessee. “The culture’s not going to change. The scheme’s not going to change, at least on defense. It’s an opportunity for guys to come here and grow and get better.”

Quarterback Carson Beck insisted after the game the victory wasn’t easy, but beyond giving up a 75-yard touchdown run on the opening play, Georgia looked like a team that didn’t need to break a sweat to reach 11-0 and become the first team in SEC history to go 8-0 in regular-season conference play in three consecutive seasons.

Georgia has replaced Alabama as The Standard in college football. Two national title rings will do that.

But sustaining the same impossible level of success Saban brought to Tuscaloosa requires sorting through resumes and conducting offseason job interviews far more often than the average program and landing on the right hire just about every time.

It’s been the stumbling block for plenty of other dynasties that lacked the staying power of Saban. Clemson is the latest example. Dabo Swinney replaced Tony Elliott with an internal hire of Brandon Streeter and fired him after one season. He gave TCU’s Garrett Riley a $2 million contract this offseason and the Tigers have already lost the same number of ACC games this year (4) that it did from 2017-22 combined.

Last year, on the way to its second consecutive national title, Georgia’s defense didn’t have Lanning and didn’t have the record five first-round picks that suited up for the Bulldogs. The defense dropped from No. 2 nationally in yards per play to 15th, and this year, sits at 13th with internal hire Glenn Schumann at the helm calling plays for the second year.

This year, without Todd Monken and breaking in a first-year starter in Carson Beck at quarterback, Georgia’s offense dipped from No. 4 in yards to play … to No. 5 under Mike Bobo.

“It was a smooth transition. We added a lot to the offense, but the base of the offense is the same. It’s been pretty simple,” said receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, who caught a touchdown pass from fellow receiver Dillon Bell on a trick play in the first half.

Bobo was an analyst on staff a season ago so the Bulldogs’ personnel, style and scheme were familiar, and he also worked as Georgia’s offensive coordinator from 2007-14 under Mark Richt before leaving to become Colorado State’s head coach. Along with co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, he’s one of two former head coaches on Smart’s staff.

“They’re both awesome,” tight end Brock Bowers, who caught seven passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, said of Bobo and Monken. “(Bobo) will love you up when you’re doing good and he’ll yell at you when you’re not. It’s like a normal coach, I’d say.”

Bobo’s showcased creativity, competence and the right amount of aggression to take advantage of the talent at his disposal. He’s replacing a quarterback, yes, but he did inherit Bowers, who more than a few coaches believe is the best player in America.

And Georgia’s offense? Don’t say it too loudly around its defensive-minded head coach, but it’s the Bulldogs’ superior unit.

“I don’t think we as an offensive staff think we have to score 40 a game. I don’t think we think we have to. We may have to, but we don’t think we have to,” Smart said. “So you’re able to call the game differently as an offensive coordinator.”

Georgia’s roster does boast 13 five-stars (coaches are responsible for recruiting that talent, it must be noted), but Alabama has 18. Ohio State and Texas A&M have 10. Texas has nine. Georgia has 52 four-stars, but Ohio State has 63. Clemson has 49. Oklahoma has 48.

The gap between Georgia’s on-field results and its roster compared to other blue bloods with similar talent? It’s wide. Nobody else has won 28 consecutive games and 44 of their last 45 games. That lone loss? Georgia avenged it a month later by beating Alabama in the national championship after losing to the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game.

Also worth noting: Alabama has won 28 consecutive games twice but never more than 26 under Saban.

Georgia travels to rival Georgia Tech next week before facing Alabama in the SEC Championship a week later. A win would give the Bulldogs the league record for longest winning streak.

“Everybody will say it’s the players. I just don’t think it’s just players. We got good players, really good players. But there’s a lot to our culture that kids buy into. They stay levelheaded,” Smart said. “They’re not talking about the streak. They’re not worried about the streak. It’s going to end and we’re gonna start a new one. But for right now, they just keep getting better.”

(Top photo of Kirby Smart: Eakin Howard / Getty)

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