For Kirby Smart and Georgia, a win against Alabama would be more about statement than standings
On the backs of stardom often hangs some sort of persistent obstacle, a nemesis that must be vanquished in order to achieve greatness. Reaching the summit of a foothill isn’t nearly as impressive as hiking a 14,000-foot mountain — what folks in the Rockies call a “fourteener.”
Michael Jordan’s was the Detroit Pistons. LeBron James’ was the NBA Finals. Legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne’s was Oklahoma, then later the national championship game.
Kirby Smart used to live in a spacious cottage toward the peak of his fourteener. Today, he finds himself trying to scale it from a completely different side.
For all Georgia has accomplished in 4-plus seasons under Smart, for all the strides it’s taken from SEC hopeful to national title contender, Nick Saban and Alabama continue to stand in the way. The 44-year-old Bulldogs coach and Saban’s history from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to the Crimson Tide requires no introduction.
Under Smart, Georgia is 47-12 with an SEC title, a College Playoff Berth and a spot in the national championship game. The Dawgs have appeared in each of the past 3 SEC Championship games and are 25-7 in SEC play under his watch. Smart’s mark against East Division opponents: 21-4.
His teams have appeared in 2 Sugar Bowls, a Rose Bowl and the 2017 College Football Championship. They’re 5-1 and 3-1 against rivals Auburn and Florida.
But to make it all the way to the top in this century’s SEC, you have to #BeatBama. Georgia hasn’t done that since Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa.
Smart was a young, bright defensive coordinator under Saban’s wing then. Today, he’s just another member of Papa Nick’s coaching tree who hasn’t been able to best their old man.
Another metric that’s no secret but bears repeating: Former Saban assistants are 0-21 against the 6-time national champion.
Smart has come close twice — first in the 2017 title game, which went to overtime, and against a year later in the SEC Championship Game.
Regardless of the outcome, Saturday night’s game in Tuscaloosa could well be a preview of this year’s conference title tilt. But a Georgia win wouldn’t be any less meaningful, because it would finally present objective evidence the Dawgs have reached the same echelon as their rival from the West.
It’s also Smart’s first trip back to Bama since taking the Georgia gig in 2016.
“The magnitude of every game is … huge, it’s the next game,” Smart said in typical downplaying SEC head coachspeak he inevitably inherited from Saban. “Probably in a season where you’re not playing out of conference games, every game is really important because you’re playing all SEC opponents. Obviously the magnitude of those last two we all know what they were and what they were for, so I can’t weigh the magnitude, it’s hard for me to compare those things because there’s not a game that I haven’t played in that the magnitude wasn’t great.”
But thanks to COVID-19, Georgia’s nasty defense and a Mac Jones-led offense that’s humming better than any other in FBS, it’s not often we get a matchup this juicy so early in the season.
No. 2 vs. No. 3. The nation’s top offense against its best defense to date. After Saturday, there will be only one remaining undefeated SEC team — just 4 weeks into the season.
And don’t forget the significance special teams can play in a game like this. UGA punter Jake Camarda is averaging an FBS-best 51 yards per boot, and kicker Jack Podlesny is 7-for-8 on field goals and 11-for-11 on extra points.
Smart certainly has his former boss’ respect. “This is probably one of the best teams in the country,” Nick Saban said this week. “Kirby has done an outstanding job there.”
But can Georgia prove it’s on a national championship-type level? That’s the significance Saturday — more about the statement it would make and less about the standings.