We chatted this week with Jim Donnan, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who coached Georgia from 1996-2000.
If there’s one person who knows a thing or two about winning with the Bulldogs, it’s former head coach Jim Donnan. The 1997 SEC Coach of the Year had four winning seasons in five years in Athens, including four top 20 finishes and a 4-0 bowl record.
The College Football Hall of Fame coach remains close to the program and discussed what the difference has been for the Bulldogs this year, the mindset Smart needs to have heading into this clash and how the playoff system didn’t allow UCF a shot to prove itself.
JXW: Coach, all season long we’ve heard about Georgia’s defense and then we saw just how explosive their offense can be on New Year’s Day thanks to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. From a coaching standpoint, what do you think is the Bulldogs’ greatest strength?
JD: Jake Fromme has come in and done a terrific job of orchestrating everything. He is like a coach on the field, has a very good feel for what his talents are. They give him a lot of leeway up at the line to change plays. He’s an accurate passer… and I think the passing game helped him the other night because it loosened OU up a little bit and created some good running lanes for those backs.
On defense, they really have played good against the run all year and for the most part, have been ahead most of the time. They’ve got some issues in their secondary, but for the most part they’re pretty good on the back end. The number one strength of the defense is Roquan Smith, the Butkus Award winner, who plays sideline to sideline and just makes so many big plays for them.
The other thing I feel like has aided Georgia between this year and last year is a big boost in their kicking game. They brought in a senior-transfer from Columbia, Cameron Nizialek, who has been a terrific punter. Rodrigo Blankenship has been outstanding kicking field goals. The 55-yarder the other night gave Georgia a lot of juice going into halftime.
JXW: The Bulldogs could almost taste greatness under Mark Richt… but just two years later under Kirby Smart they’ve won an SEC title, secured the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and are now competing for a national title. What has Smart done with this program to take the Bulldogs to the next level?
JD: Well, you know he played for me back in the 90s and he knows the terrain from a standpoint that he’s been a player here and his dad was a high school coach in the state so he’s got tremendous ties in the state to help him in recruiting. The high school coaches know that he’s one of their own and he has easy access into it. Georgia is always going produce a lot of players, he can’t sign em all, but you need to sign the best ones if you can and he’s done that.
The other thing he’s brought into the program is his own stamp. I mean obviously he coached with coach Saban and knows his blueprint, but he’s brought in his own people. He tells them what he wants and lets them do it. He’s definitely in charge and he’s got a really good feel for how to work the players in the off-season program and the summer program and he just develops players. Georgia has made remarkable gains between last year and this year. They improved in some of the areas that cost them last year whether it was red zone, on offense or defense, and as I mentioned the kicking game. That’s one thing what you always have to do, make the improvements in the areas that got you beat last year and that’s what they’ve done.
The last thing I think is he’s just reinvigorated, reunited the Dawgnation. Everybody is just really pulling together and he’s had really good support enhancing the facilities. They got a $31 million indoor facility and a $63 million improvement to the stadium so he’s doing what’s necessary to keep it going too. He’s looking into the future so they’re building these new facilities.
The other thing is he’s taken advantage of is the East being down. The East is not anywhere near as strong as it has been, but you still have to do it on the field. How many years are you going to have Florida and Tennessee both replacing their coaches? But Kirby still had to go out and do it on the field and you know he just dominated the East and had that one loss to Auburn, but I think that shows his coaching too because they were able to get a little of a bit different game plan in the championship game and come back and beat them after sustaining their only loss.
JXW: You had a decent amount of success at Georgia, do you ever think about what could have been if you had been able to stay there longer?
JD: Well, you always look at stuff like that and this is all about the future now. When I was here, there were definitely some good teams. We did finish in the Top 15 in the nation four years in a row and won some bowl games, but Tennessee and Florida were winning national championships when I was here. They both won one… so the competition was stiff and we just didn’t win quite enough games.
JXW: We touched on this before, but the national title matchup pits Nick Saban against his former defensive coordinator. If you’re Kirby Smart, how do you feel about taking on your former boss on such a big stage?
JD: Well, I think that’s what he’s gotta separate. He can’t get into personalities even though you know what makes that program tick and you know all the things they can and can’t do. You’ve got to coach your team and understand what your strengths are and not get into that coach versus mentor or anything like that. One thing I always talk about is you’re friends with the guy, but you also like to beat your friends. So, I think it’s a big challenge for him, but it’s more Georgia vs. Alabama than it is Kirby vs. Nick.
JXW: What does Georgia need to do in order win its first national title since 1980?
JD: You know I coached a lot of these games at Marshall and Oklahoma, the main thing is you just be yourself. You’re not going to create some identity for the last game. What got you here is whats going help you win. A sound defense, a really good offense, a good kicking game… but you gotta avoid losing as much as you try to win. Avoid the mistakes of turnovers and penalties and lost yardage plays and mental errors, so play relaxed—it’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere and I think just be yourself. Go with what got you there and play to your strengths. Two outstanding teams, you know, kinda the new kid on the block versus the established guy… the established team, it’s gonna be a heck of a game.
JXW: Is the all-SEC affair bad for college football?
JD: You know I think any team that gets into the championship game regardless of which conference you’re in has to be good for football. It doesn’t make any difference what league you’re from. The fact that they’ve both won on the field and done so many good things… it’s just the way the whole situation played out all year. Alabama was ranked very high, except for that one loss… Georgia the same thing, winning a championship so… both of them won and deserve to be there so college football is great and it’s good to see two teams be there regardless of which conferences they’re from.
JXW: Coach that leads me to my last question, what do you think of the argument that UCF should be in the playoff as the only undefeated team in the country, even though their best win was over Maryland in the regular season?
JD: I just believe UCF had a phenomenal year. They did a terrific job turning that program around, Scott Frost has done a remarkable job with that team. The players deserve so much credit for what they did, but you know based on the playoff scenario and the committee, the way they rank teams, strength of schedule and how you play has a lot to do with it and it’s not their (UCF’s players’) fault that they didn’t get to play better teams. It’s just a tough situation there for them from that standpoint because they proved it against Auburn. They beat a team that beat both Georgia and Alabama so they’re certainly deserving of some recognition, but based on the way the committee votes… I see their side of the picture, but I also see the side of the two teams that are in there.