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Kirby Smart knows improvement at Georgia is a must ahead of SEC Media Days
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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart talks to Georgia wide receiver Riley Ridley (8) in he first half of the game against Auburn on Nov. 12 in Auburn, Ala. - photo by John Bazemore

Kirby Smart gets it.

After an 8-5 mark in his first season as Georgia’s football coach, he knows substantial improvement is expected.

The former undersized but hard-hitting Bulldogs defensive back knows winning a title is expected sooner than later.

That’s the sole reason Mark Richt was chased out of Athens after 15 seasons of consistently coming up just short of the prize.

Smart will step to the podium Tuesday during Day 2 of the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, trying to moderate some of the chatter that Georgia is a shoo-in to win the Eastern Division while maintaining his program will fare better in the big games (Florida, Tennessee and Georgia Tech come to mind right away).

Speaking after Smart will be Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Florida’s Jim McElwain.

Smart’s Bulldogs underachieved in 2016, but he certainly deserves a little wiggle room with the coaching transition and talent turnover.

Except for the regular platitudes coaches spit out, Smart can outline the reasons he’s optimistic to lead the Bulldogs to a much better bowl game and be a legit contender in the Eastern division race.

In 2017, its easy to believe Georgia could produce a pair of 1,000 yard runners — maybe even 1,500 yards each with decent blocking — with seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

The running game will need to improve with the per-game average being less than 200 yards a game for back-to-back seasons, despite a wealth of talent.

Really, skepticism about the offensive line is the only concern on the field Smart will have to quell this offseason.

That’s why it is expected Georgia can reach double-digit wins again, which was something Richt was able to accomplish in nine of his 15 seasons in Athens.

At quarterback, Jacob Eason is coming back from a solid freshman season and will have a great shot at being the Bulldogs’ first 3,000-yard passer since Aaron Murray threw for 3,075 in 2013. Waiting in the wings is highly-touted freshman Jake Fromm.

Georgia’s defense should also see increased production with 10 returning starters from a unit that allowed 329 yards per game in 2016 (fourth best in the SEC), but still 25 yards per game more than the previous season.

Junior linebacker Roquan Smith, who racked up a team-high 95 tackles (five for a loss), is one of three Bulldogs players speaking today to print, radio and television media members.

Michel and Chubb are the other two Bulldogs players scheduled to speak and answer the same handful of questions.
Now, some of those questions are completely relevant.

How will Georgia improve from a 4-4 mark in league play? Why did you lose to Vanderbilt at Sanford Stadium, and almost fall to Nicholls State, too?

However, that’s mild in comparison to some of the questions coaches will face.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze will certainly have to address serious recruiting violations, which have already resulted in the Rebels declaring themselves ineligible for a bowl game this year, even before NCAA sanctions have been imposed.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will be asked about his job status after back-to-back, eight-win seasons and a general decline in the Aggies’ program since Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012. 

And we all miss Steve Spurrier and his knack for witty one-liners about the competition.

The rest of SEC Media Days is simply pageantry.

Players will be asked about wardrobe choice and ranked as who is the sharpest dresser. Alabama fans will show up to try and touch the great Nick Saban as he walks the building between snarky remarks to questions.

Smart, meanwhile, gets that his program has a lot left to prove. His leash for not winning a championship will likely be shorter than Richt’s — even if it is not fair.

Bulldogs fans are thirsty for their first title in more than 35 years.

It all starts with a strong summer ahead of the opener against Appalachian State on Sept. 2 in Athens.

Smart is keen to the fact he’s expected to win now in order to keep the job at one of the premier programs in the country.

Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com

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