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Can UGA Match Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs for National Prestige?

May 19, 2022

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ATHENS - Georgia football’s four month long, free advertising campaign – starting with its destruction of second ranked Michigan in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, its besting of Alabama for the National Championship by fifteen points, and then UGA’s domination of the NFL Combine and NFL Draft – is likely to lead to an increase in applications for admission.

Doug Flutie’s 1984 heroics did that for Boston College, and that has been the case for other schools who gained increased national attention on the field or court.  To be sure, the University of Georgia’s  academic reputation has been steadily climbing since Kirby Smart came back to Athens, and encouraged one hundred thousand people to show up for an intra-squad scrimmage in April of 2016, but can it become a top five public university in the United States?

UGA football had been described as a “sleeping giant” – a giant that Coach Smart has stirred and is now as wide awake as ever.  During Kirby’s tenure, in large measure likely because of the national spotlight from the football team’s success, high school students, from coast to coast, have been applying to the school in record numbers. According to UGA’s Admissions website, the number of applications for admission has been rising steadily each year since 2016 and Kirby’s arrival. In 2016, UGA received approximately 23,000 applications for admission, compared to nearly 40,000 in 2021.   Of course, a rise in applicants leads to a more competitive (academic) class, in the same way that Kirby is now able to be more selective in who he adds to his every improving roster.  2016 was apparently UGA’s most competitive academic class ever, and each year since has surpassed the prior.

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Kirby Smart’s Georgia has become one of the best two or three programs in recruiting.  Coach Smart has gotten to the point where he can, for the most part, pick among the very best prospects, who also possess great character traits – players that have significant athletic upside and are also likely to thrive in the classroom and college environment, in general.  To be sure, he has the advantage of the State of Georgia being the number one, per capita, producer of NFL talent, as thirty players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft were Georgians, second only to the State of Texas, with a population almost three times greater, that had only two more players selected.  Kirby has been able to cherry pick among the top in-state talent, gaining their commitments more often than not, while also recruiting the very best talent nationwide.  A few examples of recent major “national” recruits that will again likely be major impact players next season, include Jalen Carter (Florida), Brock Bowers (California), Kelee Ringo (Arizona), Kendall Milton (California) and Darnell Washington (Nevada).      

Similarly, on the academic front during the “Kirby Era,” the near doubling of applications for admission, have included significant gains from out-of-state. Some of the most populous states in the Northeast and California are now among the most represented (outside of Georgia) by UGA’s undergraduates. Like Coach Smart’s football recruiting, academically UGA continues to be more selective.  Admission rates have fallen from approximately 50% in 2016 to approximately 42% this year.  The most recent US News & World Report College Rankings has UGA ranked as the No. 16 Public University and No. 48 National University in America. 

UGA is the reigning CFP National Champion and a perennial top five football program.  Like Kirby Smart’s mantra: “You’re either elite or you’re not,” can UGA also become a perennial top five public university?  Can it set its sights for such elevated status in the classroom, as well? Is it even possible?  The University of Michigan (UM) was a top five football program again this year, after some absence from gridiron prowess, but is, and has been, a top five public university consistently.  UM is a good school for UGA to strive to become, at least academically, given the drubbing that UGA handed to it in the CFP Semifinal.  

UM has roughly the same number of total undergraduates (approximately 31,000) as UGA, however, given that it currently receives almost double the number of applications for admission as UGA (nearly 80,000 in 2021), UM’s acceptance rate is a paltry 20%. Both schools are flagship public universities in states with similar populations, as the State of Michigan has approximately 10 million residents, while Georgia has approximately 10.8 million.  As far as a state producer of football talent, Michigan lags significantly behind, with only five Michiganders represented in the 2022 NFL Draft.  UM must, by necessity, recruit more players beyond its state’s borders than UGA and, judging from their most recent match-up, it has not done a good enough job of this to remain competitive on the field.  

Academically, with similar state populations and with UGA (and the “Kirby” effect) enticing more and more future applicants, it would seem UGA could further close the rankings gap with UM.  One current difference of note between UM and UGA, however, is that UM undergraduates are split evenly between in-state and out-of-state students, while approximately 85% of the UGA student body is made up of Georgians.  Selecting more students from the over four million high school seniors nationwide, rather than mostly from one’s home state, is likely a driver of more and more “elite” academic classes.  Put another way, it would seem unlikely that UM could be selective enough to rank as a top five public school, if 85% of its students were homegrown.      

This is not designed to debate the wisdom of UGA admitting more out-of-state students or “excluding” more in-state students, depending upon your perspective.  It is nevertheless true, however, that UGA is now at a juncture where the national spotlight is burning brighter and brighter, as football success encourages more blue-chip players and “blue-chip” students alike, nationwide, to consider the Classic City.  And just like on the football recruiting trail, once a prospective student is on campus and gets a taste of Athens (or as Old School’s Frank the Tank would say: “Once it hits your lips!”), UGA will often be the school of choice. If in the future, UGA seeks out the very best students, regardless of location, as if they were a football recruit, then the University of Georgia would likely beat just about any public institution in the classroom, as well as between the hedges. 

Tags: Kirby Smart
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