Context is always important when analyzing sports, so before we really kick this article off let’s throw it out there: The 2016 season is year one of the Kirby Smart era of Georgia football. In fact, 2016 is his first season ever as a head football coach.
So that’s the perspective. Especially playing in the SEC, a 4-3 record with a 2-3 in-conference record isn’t terrible for a head coach’s first go-around.
Unfortunately for Smart, context and perspective aren’t two things the Georgia brass seem to have much of. If they did, perhaps Mark Richt would still be coaching in Athens instead of Miami and Smart would still be at Alabama.
The expectations are high at Georgia, so even in Smart’s rookie season with a freshman quarterback running the show, there has to be a sense of disappointment in the air regarding Georgia’s past few games.
After starting off the season 3-0, the Bulldogs have lost 3 out of 4 games, all to SEC opponents. Losses at Mississippi and against a talented and ranked Tennessee team can be understood (even if Georgia’s loss to Tennessee was because of this), but the latest loss to Vanderbilt is a big red mark on Smart’s inaugural season.
Vandy came into the contest at 2-4 and beat UGA, 17-16, between the hedges. It wasn’t a good look for Georgia or Smart, and the Bulldogs had a whole week off to think about it.
Next up is the Florida Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) in a heated rivalry game officially known as The River City Showdown, but we all know it’s the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. The Gators are coming off a 40-14 win over Missouri and find themselves on top of the SEC East. In Jim McElwain’s second season as head coach, Florida is eying a second-straight trip to the SEC championship game and this time around they may be coming for revenge against Alabama.
The Bulldogs stand in the way of that goal, which makes the Bulldogs a dangerous opponent for the Gators. The game will be played at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., and the stakes are high.
From Georgia’s perspective, context must go out the window. This is a must-win for Smart and his Bulldogs.
First and foremost, there’s the recruiting factor to consider. This game between these two rivals goes far beyond the gridiron. Georgia and Florida oftentimes go after the same recruits, and it’s wins and losses in big-time games like this that can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing a recruit. Smart is already building an extremely impressive recruiting class — currently ranked No. 3 nationally and featuring five-star safety Richard LeCounte III — so a win over McElwain (also a very good recruiter) would be the cherry on top.
He could pitch remaining 2017 recruits plus all interested 2018 recruits on the fact that in his first year on the job, he took the Bulldogs down to Jacksonville and won on a huge stage.
That’s something Smart talked about earlier this week, according to the school website.
“It’s a unique experience for our players and theirs,” said Smart. “It’s a great sell in recruiting, you tell them you get to play in a neutral site in a pro stadium. It’s always a great atmosphere. We’ve had great practices leading up to it thus far.”
A win against Florida would have a huge impact on this actual 2016 season for Georgia as well, though.
Outside of Vanderbilt, both of Georgia’s losses have come to ranked SEC teams. Georgia’s only win against a ranked opponent came against No. 22 North Carolina to start the season.
With only one more ranked SEC opponent left on the schedule, Auburn in mid-November, the Bulldogs are running out of chances to pick up a statement win in Smart’s first season. And though they’re currently fourth in the SEC East standings, who know how things could shake out if they pull off the upset and beat Florida this weekend?
The Gators still have to play at Arkansas, at LSU and at Florida State this season, so there’s no guarantee that a loss to Georgia would be Florida’s last of the 2016 season.
Kentucky is ahead of the Bulldogs in the divisional standings, but they do have to play Georgia later in the season, and the Wildcats still have games at Tennessee and at Louisville to play.
Speaking of Tennessee, the Vols are on a two-game losing streak. Though their schedule gets significantly easier, they’ve proven themselves to be a middle of the pack SEC team this season, far from the expectations of being an SEC title contender. It wouldn’t be surprising if Tennessee loses again this season or even loses a few more games in 2016.
All of the above are scenarios that make it imperative that Georgia picks up the win this weekend.
It’s not guaranteed that the Bulldogs can win their way into the SEC title game, but at the very least there’s still a path that can be forged if they keep winning and things break the right way around them.
A loss this weekend would likely destroy that path.
So when considering that, plus the rivalry, plus the major recruiting impacts of this game, it’s easy to call this a must-win game for Georgia.