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Friday, April 12, 2024

Kirby Smart created a monster and became Florida’s next great villain

The Bulldogs have won five of six against the Gators

<p><span>Georgia coach Kirby Smart looks on during an NCAA college football practice at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019.</span></p>

Georgia coach Kirby Smart looks on during an NCAA college football practice at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019.

Florida-Georgia is a rivalry of era-defining coaches. Vince Dooley dominated the Gators in the 1980s, and Steve Spurrier flipped the series with an 11-1 record against the Dogs. Urban Meyer kept the dominance alive in the late 2000s with five wins against Georgia in six years.

The Bulldogs needed to consistently clear their Gator-shaped hurdle to reach the heights expected of a program loaded with resources and talent. 

“That's why they fired Jim Donnan, and that's why [they] went to Mark Richt [and] had moderate success against Florida but still didn't really flip the rivalry,” said Chip Towers, a longtime Georgia beat reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After two decades of inconsistent success against Florida, the Bulldogs found their new savior — and the Gators’ new boogeyman — in Kirby Smart.

Smart’s tenure between the hedges started on shaky ground. Inheriting a 10-win Bulldogs team, the first-year head coach led Georgia to a mediocre 8-5 record in 2016 that included a 24-10 drubbing by Florida.

Things changed almost overnight for Smart’s program the next season. After the Gators won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016, Georgia started a new reign of terror over the division — and the sport — in 2017. 

The Bulldogs started the year 9-0 and eventually won the SEC Championship, the Rose Bowl and nearly defeated Alabama in overtime of the National Championship. Among the many highlights of the 2017 season came in Jacksonville.

Georgia lost three straight to the Gators entering the season, but Smart’s team walked away with a cathartic 42-7 drubbing of a listless Florida team in Jim McElwain’s last game at the helm.

“I remember after falling 0-3 to the Gators, all I wanted my senior year was to beat [Florida] and be able to play for the SEC Championship,” said former Bulldogs tight end Jeb Blazevich.

The Bulldogs continued to roll through the season and won their first SEC title since 2005 and fell a touchdown short of a national championship.

Even as Dan Mullen returned to the Swamp and led Florida to two New Year’s Six wins in 2018 and 2019, it was clear the tide had turned at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Smart’s Bulldogs won the division three years in a row and beat the Gators all three years.

Georgia’s ascension is largely attributed to one defining thing: recruiting.

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“We get caught up all the time and schemes and coaching strategies and all that, but the bottom line is you got to have better players,” Towers said.

UGA’s signed seven top-five recruiting classes since Smart took over in 2016. Georgia signed the top class in the country twice in that time. 

The sheer dominance on the recruiting trail has not only made winning at a high level possible, it’s become almost inevitable. The Bulldogs have ranked in the top two of the 247Sports Team Talent Composite every year since 2020.

Smart and the Georgia coaching staff deserve credit for turning that talent into production on the field. From the time he arrived, the level of intensity every day in the program has helped elevate the team.

“The demands were higher, and practices were more intense, but they were intense no matter if we win or lose,” Blazevich said. The best plan to win was put in place and not questioned, which allowed for consistent 'buy-in' from the guys.”

For a brief moment under Mullen, it looked like Florida could overcome the growing talent gap with some offensive magic in 2020.

The 3-1, No. 8 Gators traveled to Jacksonville to face 4-1, No. 5 Georgia. Mullen brought UF back to near the summit of the sport with two 10-win seasons, but this was an opportunity to get to the pinnacle of the sport and approach the program’s championship legacy.

Florida’s historic offense — led by Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and others — torched Smart’s vaunted defense en route to a 44-28 win. The Gators amassed 571 yards of offense, more than twice the offensive output of UGA. 

Mullen’s first win against Smart helped Florida get to Atlanta for the first time since 2016. The season petered out with three-straight losses, but the Gators seemed to be on par with their neighbors to the north.

After UF seemingly regained its footing alongside Georgia on the college football pyramid, however, Smart’s Bulldogs blew the gap between the two programs to a new level.

When the two teams met in late October, an undefeated UGA destroyed the Gators 34-7. Georgia almost broke Florida’s national record for games without being shut out until quarterback Emory Jones scored with less than three minutes left in the game.

Through Smart’s reign of terror in the late 2010s, Florida fans could turn to one year for salvation. 1980.

That was the last time the Bulldogs were crowned national champions, and the Gators raised three national championship banners in the ensuing 40 years. That final bragging right crumbled at the end of the 2021 season.

Smart finally got Georgia over the hump and won the program’s second-ever national championship. UGA doubled down on its new dominance with an undefeated season in 2022 and a second-straight national championship. 

The Bulldogs will travel to Jacksonville, winners of their last 24 games and last 34 regular season games. They’re once again the No. 1 team in the AP Poll and the 247Sports composite team recruiting rankings.

Mullen’s tenure in Gainesville petered out and ended with an unceremonious firing before the end of the 2021 season. To fight the changing hierarchy in the division, Florida took a page out of Georgia’s playbook and hired a recruiting-focused former Nick Saban assistant.

Billy Napier, like Smart, understands that to be one of the best teams in the country, the team needs to recruit the best players. He made that clear in his introductory press conference. 

“If we can't sign 25 good players at the University of Florida, then you'll be looking for a new coach,” Napier said. “So we've got a plan, and we're going to go execute our plan.”

Napier’s transition class in 2022 only ranked 18th nationally but landed playmakers like Shemar James and Arlis Boardingham. The 2023 class ranked 13th, but Florida’s already hit on evaluations such as Jordan Castell and Eugene Wilson III, who are key contributors this year.

On the field, Napier’s rebuild is still a work in progress. Georgia crushed Napier’s Gators in their first matchup last season, 42-20. Florida went 6-7 last season but is off to a promising 5-2 start this year. More importantly, Napier continues to build on the recruiting trail.

The Gators have the No. 3 class in the 247Sports composite rankings, with several top prospects still on the board. The signs are pointing to a potential leveling of power in the SEC East, but Smart is going anywhere anytime soon.

“It's like when you're running a race on a track,” Towers said. “They've got a long lead, and they're not slowing down. So I mean, you really gotta go fast.”

Florida and Georgia will meet for the 101st time, according to UF, Oct. 28 at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on CBS.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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