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How Kirby Smart Surpassed Nick Saban as the King of College Football

Last Updated: January 26, 2023
The transfer portal and the ongoing explosion of NIL money steal plenty of headlines, but Georgia’s head coach reached the mountaintop the old-fashioned way.

One year ago, Boardroom wrote about how Georgia’s Kirby Smart bested his mentor, Alabama’s Nick Saban, for the College Football Playoff National Championship by beating him at his own game. At the time, it wasn’t immutable college football truth-telling as much as it was a reasonable take with a decent amount of evidence to support.

But after his Bulldogs made it two chips in a row with a world-historical evisceration of outclassed TCU, we can say it safely now — Kirby Smart has definitively removed the crown from Saban’s head. He’s the King of College Football, period.

And the key here is that, in an era flooded with distractions and shiny objects in the form of the unlimited hypothetical promise of the transfer portal and the wild, wild west that is the NIL landscape, the UGA coach did it the old-fashioned way. Two ways, actually:

Recruiting and talent development.

It’s easy to lose sight of it all. But matter how much or how fast college football changes, those two things are still undefeated.

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The Georgia Bulldogs Recruiting Powerhouse

“I don’t like recruiting when it becomes, ‘Okay, well let’s sit down and talk. What are your players making in NIL, and what do you foresee him being able to make? That’s what everybody forgets about this whole NIL conversation,” Smart said at the 2022 SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida. “You get through playing, NIL is gone, what do you have to show for it? You either have an NFL career, you have a life after a football career, or you have a degree. [NIL partners] are not going to continue to pay you, whatever it is. That’s not the be-all, end-all. That’s not the goal.”

Right there, that might just be the best representation of the difference between the recruiting philosophy at UGA versus its other top rivals — and the results are plain to see.

For reference, let’s take a look at how the arms race for high school prospects has shaken out of late.

College Football Recruiting Rankings: The Last 5 Years

All rankings via 247Sports.

2022: (1) Texas A&M, (2) Alabama, (3) Georgia, (4) Ohio State, (5) Texas
2021: (1) Alabama, (2) Ohio State, (3) LSU, (4) Georgia, (5) Clemson
2020: (1) Georgia, (2) Alabama, (3) Clemson, (4) LSU, (5) Ohio State
2019: (1) Alabama, (2) Georgia, (3) Texas, (4) Texas A&M, (5) LSU
2018: (1) Georgia, (2) Ohio State, (3) Texas, (4) USC, (5) Alabama

You can’t compete for titles without a juggernaut recruiting operation, but what’s become of the other programs in the mix with the Dawgs in these rankings?

Alabama, the most successful team in the College Football Playoff era, missed the CFP entirely this season. Ohio State has won just a single Playoff game since winning the first-ever CFP title eight years ago. Clemson just suffered its second three-loss season in a row. LSU has lost 16 games in the past three seasons. Texas A&M is simply a disaster.

The difference between these hot-recruiting programs, most of which have had championship-level success here or there, and a potential dynasty like Georgia?

Talent development.

And there’s no more brilliant symbol of its power than a 25-year-old man named Stetson Bennett.

Athens, Georgia: Where Stetsons Become Stars

“I don’t care if the foundation is at home, your grandma, grandaddy, or a high school coach or mentor or trainer,” Smart said last summer in Destin. “If you have the right foundation and you’re saying the right things during recruiting, then I like recruiting.”

Stetson Fleming Bennett IV must have said a ton of right things, then. Because in this modern recruiting environment dictated by star ratings and hype videos, that man almost certainly wasn’t even supposed to be here.

A former 2-star recruit out of Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Georgia, whose offers included FCS dandies like Georgia Southern and Columbia, he opted for the JuCo route. Elevated to a 3-star prospect as he emerged from Jones College, Georgia was nevertheless the only Power Five school to offer him a scholarship in the 2019 recruiting cycle.

Defying what would seem to be the central tenets of this era of non-stop athlete transfers for any number of reasons, Kirby Smart instead had the audacity to build up the kid’s skills and confidence step by step rather than (a) mining the transfer portal for a stopgap QB or (b) pushing Bennett to leave via the portal himself.

After becoming the first starting quarterback since AJ McCarron to win back-to-back national titles, Smart is ready to bestow superlatives: “He’s the greatest Dawg of all time, in my opinion.”

Be honest, would it ever be conceivable that a program like Alabama — whose embarrassment of riches saw Heisman finalist and potential future NFL MVP Jalen Hurts transfer out of town after being replaced by Heisman winner and potential future NFL MVP Tua Tagovailoa — would put its football program in the hands of an unsung JuCo kid like Stetson Bennett IV?

No, it’s not.

And it’s the essence of the distance between the ground on which the Tide currently stand and the mountaintop exclusively populated by UGA.

It’s also the clearest signal yet that the Nick Saban Stage, as uproariously successful as it was, has officially, demonstratively given way to the Kirby Smart Cycle.

Perhaps the coach himself sums it up best:

“That part probably frustrates me more — if everything is about [NIL], I’m probably on the wrong kid. “At least have enough respect to say, ‘I want to come there and be a really good football player, and play on your team and win a championship for Georgia, [and] oh, by the way, while I’m here, I would like to attain as much as I can. I have no problem with that. But if [money] is the first priority, we probably need to find somebody else.”

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About The Author
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn is the Managing Editor of Boardroom. Before joining the team, he was an editor and multimedia talent for several sports and culture verticals at Minute Media and an editor, reporter, and site manager at SB Nation. A specialist in content strategy, copywriting, and SEO, he has additionally worked as a digital consultant in the corporate services, retail, and tech industries. He cannot be expected to be impartial on any matter regarding the Florida Gators or Atlanta Braves. Follow him on Twitter @RealFakeSamDunn.