John Clay: Mark Stoops and Kirby Smart may not be 'besties' but they know how to build defenses

By John Clay

It's little wonder Saturday's Kentucky-Georgia matchup in Athens features the two best defenses in the SEC. Their head coaches, Kirby Smart and Mark Stoops, are cut from the same cloth.

The 54-year-old Stoops played defensive back from 1986-88 for Hayden Fry at Iowa. His first college coaching job was defensive backs coach for Jim Leavitt at South Florida. The 45-year-old Smart played defensive back from 1995-98 for Ray Goff and Jim Donnan at Georgia. His first college coaching job was defensive backs coach at Valdosta State for former UK assistant Chris Hatcher.

Stoops was defensive coordinator for his brother Mike at Arizona and then for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State before becoming Kentucky's head coach in 2013. Smart was Nick Saban's defensive coordinator at Alabama before becoming Georgia's head coach in 2016.

Now here they are head-to-head Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Sanford Stadium on CBS. Georgia is ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Bulldogs are 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the SEC. Kentucky is ranked No. 11 in the nation. The Wildcats are 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the SEC.

Are the two friends?

"I have a good relationship with Kirby," Stoops said Monday. "I think a lot of him as a coach."

"I've known (Mark) a long time," Smart said Monday. "Recruited against him. We went head-to-head on a lot of recruits back when he was Florida State's defensive coordinator and I was at Alabama."

Yes, but are they friends?

"I like Kirby," said Stoops when pressed on the subject. "You asked what your relationship was and if I had friendship with him. I like his personality and he's a fun guy to be around, but it's not like we are besties or anything like that."

Besties, no. Mutual admirers, yes. And for good reason. Georgia boasts the nation's No. 1 ranked defense in almost every statistical category, from scoring defense (5.5 points per game), to total defense (203.5 yards per game), to yards per play (3.60). Kentucky isn't too far behind. The Cats are second in the SEC in yards per play (4.61), third in total defense (305.0) and second in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.8).

Said Stoops of the Dogs: "They are playing at a ridiculous level defensively."

Said Smart of the Cats: "When you look at what Coach Stoops has been able to do, it's pretty remarkable."

Plus, the two have succeeded where others of their ilk have failed. The story goes Smart was ready to accept the head coaching job at South Carolina before Georgia parted ways with Mark Richt. South Carolina ended up hiring Will Muschamp, who was fired after going 28-30 with the Gamecocks. Muschamp is now on Smart's staff at Georgia.

A year after Kentucky hired Stoops, Vanderbilt hired Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason as head coach. Fired by Vandy after going 27-55, Mason is now Auburn's defensive coordinator. The same year Georgia hired Smart, Missouri promoted defensive coordinator Barry Odom as head coach. Fired by Mizzou after going 25-25, Odom is now Arkansas' defensive coordinator.

It's also interesting the manner in which the two men have built their defenses. Smart has proved to be a lights-out recruiter. Rivals ranked Georgia's 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes as best in the nation. (In 2021, the Dogs slipped to fifth.) While Stoops has improved Kentucky's recruiting, his staff has relied on development, turning two- and three-star recruits into five-star NFL prospects. Examples: Josh Allen in 2018, Jamin Davis in 2020.

"They have a great system set up that they recruit to," Smart said Monday.

In building their defenses, Stoops has the higher mountain to climb. Smart's first season at Georgia, the Bulldogs finished 16th nationally in total defense, their lowest ranking during his tenure. Stoops' total defense rankings at UK: 92, 77, 59, 85, 92, 23, 20, 45 and 18th so far this season.

Can Kentucky's defense match Georgia's defense on Saturday? That's a tough ask. The Bulldogs are a 23.5-point favorite, after all. The over/under is 44.5 points. Given the two head coaches, you might want to go with the under.

———

Saturday

No. 11 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia

When: 3:30 p.m. ET

Records: UK (6-0, 4-0 SEC); Georgia (6-0, 4-0 SEC)


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