The discussion for who holds the title as the second-best head coach in the SEC may seem like an easy conversation for Georgia football fans as they believe head coach Kirby Smart takes that title.
Nobody will come close to overtaking Nick Saban as the top dog, but the number two spot is less stable. There are a few options to consider, but Smart should ultimately be the coach viewed as the second-best.
In recent conversations, the “knock” on Smart has been how similar his first five seasons played out compared to Mark Richt’s first five seasons at Georgia. Smart’s record stood at 52-14, including three SEC East titles, one SEC title, and an appearance in just his second season as a head coach in the National Championship Game.
Richt held a record after five seasons of 52-19 with three SEC East titles two SEC titles.
While the similarities between the two tenures are evident, most people pushing this narrative fail to consider Richt wasn’t fired after his first five years.
The comparison is favorable for Smart, especially considering he is in a better position in year six to keep building upward. He has the Dawgs focused on competing for another playoff appearance. Richt’s sixth season was a letdown that included four losses, two of which came to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Beyond the Richt comparisons, building the case for Smart involves considering multiple aspects of how well his actions contribute to success and how well he matches up and compares with other coaches whose names get thrown into the mix.
For the majority of arguments, people include Dan Mullen and two head coaches with a national championship — Jimbo Fisher and Ed Orgeron.
Let’s start with Mullen. The Florida Gators head coach tends to be the most compared to Smart, given the bitter rivalry between Georgia and Florida.
The main argument that gets tossed around is that Mullen is the better coach while Smart is the better recruiter. This argument is a bit flawed for a couple of reasons. Mullen is 1-3 head-to-head against Smart (including his time at Mississippi State), and recruiting is a major aspect of being a college coach.
Mullen’s only win came by virtue of arguably one of Florida’s best teams since the departure of Urban Meyer. Despite this, Mullen still could not lead Florida anywhere as they went on a three-game losing streak to finish the season with a record of 8-4, including a massive upset loss to a lowly LSU team.
Currently, in his 13th season, Mullen has also been a head coach for twice as long as Smart, who is currently in his sixth season. Smart is still learning as he goes, and with that much of a gap in experience, one would think that Mullen should have a clear advantage. However, the record simply does not show it.
Some people blame the recruiting disparity, but again, recruiting is part of being a coach — lesser recruiting results from the coach’s inability to draw in talent, which contributes to the grand scheme of what it takes to be a successful head coach in college football.
Jimbo Fisher might have the most compelling case in comparison with Smart, given his background of success at Florida State. His resume speaks for itself, but his current stint at Texas A&M has been underwhelming in comparison.
Fisher has recruited well since taking over for the Aggies, hovering near the top 10 most years in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. His recruiting doesn’t come close to what Smart has done, though, as Georgia has finished no lower than sixth since he got to Athens. The head-to-head doesn’t favor Fisher either, with Smart winning the only matchup between the two back in 2019.
Texas A&M was in contention for a playoff spot in 2020 but fell short by finishing fifth in the final College Football Playoff Rankings. Expectations were high entering the 2021 season, but after a couple of ugly games and an early loss to a surprise Arkansas team, many are beginning to question whether Fisher has what it takes to win in the SEC consistently.
Even though his background is decorated and successful in the ACC, he has not proved enough yet in the SEC to take the title of second-best SEC head coach.
The head coach of the LSU Tigers, Ed Orgeron, is an interesting case because of the rollercoaster that his tenure has become. Upon being promoted from the interim position to full-time head coach, Orgeron and the Tigers steadily built their way into a contending team.
They trounced Smart and the Bulldogs 36-16 in Orgeron’s second full season as head coach in 2018. They ran the table in 2019, defeating Smart and Georgia once again in the SEC Championship on their way to a national championship.
The emergence of the Joe Burrow and Joe Brady combination led to arguably the most remarkable season ever for a quarterback and a dream season for LSU. This vaulted Orgeron into the conversation of being one of the top coaches in the SEC, and many believed he had surpassed Smart.
Since then, however, LSU has fallen off a cliff.
Roster turnover completely gutted the Tigers as they only returned five starters from the championship-winning team. Joe Brady’s departure to the NFL allowed Orgeron to try to prove the championship season wasn’t a fluke, but he did the opposite.
LSU finished 2020 with a measly 5-5 record and proceeded to open the 2021 season with a disappointing loss at the hands of UCLA.
Given LSU’s inability to remain a contender, speculators should question Orgeron’s status as a top head coach in the SEC. He still has time to turn things around, but with off-the-field issues surrounding the program and the underwhelming product they put on the field, it doesn’t seem likely that a quick fix will be happening any time soon.
Similar to recruiting, continuity and consistency are vital aspects of the makeup of a successful college football head coach. Recruiting correlates to continuity because a coach can’t simply be content in the present.
Building for the future and continuing to bring in top talent to reload is arguably just as important as day-to-day coaching. The winning culture established by Smart is a prime example of this as the Dawgs have yet to lose more than three games in a season outside of his first season as head coach.
Winning a national championship is the ultimate goal for any team, but many other factors make a good head coach. While Smart has yet to get over the hump with Georgia, his culture in Athens gives him the edge.
He might not be the leader in all of the measurable aspects of what makes a good head coach, but he is currently the best blend of recruiting, winning, and continuity that the SEC has to offer behind Nick Saban.
When considering all that Smart brings to the table, it’s important to remember that he’s still learning as he goes. He’s taken his lumps and learned from earlier mistakes. The dedication he has to winning is undeniable.
The notion that he will continue to improve as a coach as he gains more experience should really excite Georgia fans who are waiting to see the Dawgs breakthrough and finally capture that ever-elusive national championship.