These are the glory days for Kirby Smart.

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Georgia coach led the program to 3 College Football Playoff national title game berths, 2 titles and he’s the owner of the longest win streak in SEC history at 29 games, which will be on the line on Saturday in Atlanta.

In that 7-season stretch, Smart led the program to 6 SEC East crowns, 6 consecutive top-7 finishes and an 85-10 record. There’s no more “Kirby can’t win the big one” narrative. He overcame that in spades by winning consecutive national titles. Nobody has ever repeated as a national champ after losing 15 (!) players to the NFL Draft. That is, until Smart did.

All of that is true. But there’s 1 thing missing from the Smart legacy — beating Saban in Atlanta.

Wait a minute. Why is that significant? Didn’t Smart already get over the Saban hump by beating him in the national championship in 2021?

Absolutely. There’s no question that UGA runs the sport right now, which is why the Dawgs are nearly a touchdown favorite on Saturday.

But of those 10 Smart losses since the start of the 2017 season, 3 were against the Tide in Atlanta (2017 CFP National Championship, 2018 SEC Championship, 2021 SEC Championship). That’s not lost on Georgia fans. Even crazier is that the Dawgs only trailed for 39 minutes and 10 seconds of those 180 minutes of football (not including overtime).

Of course, not lost on Alabama fans is the fact that after the Tide lost the 2008 SEC Championship to eventual national champ Florida, the G.O.A.T. has been untouchable in Atlanta:

  • 2009 season opener: W, 34-24 vs. No. 7 Virginia Tech
  • 2009 SEC Championship: W, 32-13 vs. No. 1 Florida
  • 2012 SEC Championship: W, 32-28 vs. No. 3 Georgia
  • 2013 season opener: W, 35-10 vs. Virginia Tech
  • 2014 season opener: W, 33-23 vs. West Virginia
  • 2014 SEC Championship: W, 42-13 vs. No. 14 Mizzou
  • 2015 SEC Championship: W, 29-15 vs. No. 18 Florida
  • 2016 SEC Championship: W, 54-16 vs. No. 15 Florida
  • 2016 CFP Semifinal: W, 24-7 vs. No. 4 Washington
  • 2017 season opener: W, 24-7 vs. No. 3 Florida State
  • 2017 CFP National Championship: W, 26-23 vs. No. 3 Georgia (OT)
  • 2018 SEC Championship: W, 35-28 vs. No. 4 Georgia
  • 2019 season opener: W, 42-3 vs. Duke
  • 2020 SEC Championship: W, 52-46 vs. No. 11 Florida
  • 2021 season opener: W, 44-13 vs. No. 14 Miami (FL)
  • 2021 SEC Championship: W, 41-24 vs. No. 1 Georgia

That’s 16 consecutive wins in Atlanta, 12 of which were by double digits. Of those 4 single-digit wins for the Tide in Atlanta, 3 were against Georgia. Go figure that the Dawgs’ lone loss by double digits to Alabama during that stretch came when they went on to win their first national title in 41 years.

Saturday, however, has different stakes for Georgia and Smart. Could UGA still make the Playoff with a loss? Sure, but it’s not a lock by any means because this is the first time in the Playoff era that there are 8 Power 5 teams with 0 or 1 loss heading into conference championship weekend. We could have as many as 4 undefeated Power 5 champs.

Of course in that scenario, that would mean UGA did something that nobody has since Tim Tebow: Beat the Tide in Atlanta.

We can no longer call Atlanta a house of horrors for Georgia after last year’s squad beat Oregon in the season opener, LSU in the SEC Championship and then rallied back to beat Ohio State in the Playoff semifinal. Plus, that would be ignoring the fact that the Dawgs haven’t lost a game at Georgia Tech in the 21st century.

At the same time, let’s focus on just the games played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since it opened in 2017. Go figure that it coincided with the start of Smart’s run of dominance at UGA. In that building, Smart is 5-4 (don’t forget about the 2020 Peach Bowl vs. Cincinnati). That’s 40% of his losses in the past 7 seasons. Of those 10 UGA losses since the start of the 2017 season, here’s the breakdown by location:

  • Mercedes-Benz Stadium: 4 losses (2017 CFP National Championship, 2018 SEC Championship, 2019 SEC Championship, 2021 SEC Championship)
  • Sanford Stadium: 1 loss (2019 vs. South Carolina)
  • Jordan-Hare Stadium 1 loss (2017 at Auburn)
  • Tiger Stadium: 1 loss (2018 at LSU)
  • Mercedes-Benz Superdome: 1 loss (2018 Sugar Bowl)
  • Bryant-Denny Stadium: 1 loss (2020 at Alabama)
  • TIAA Bank Field: 1 loss (2020 vs. Florida)

And yes, I get that Smart’s teams played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium more than any non-home venue in those past 7 seasons (UGA even played there more often than TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville). But even Georgia fans would tell you, it’s by no means been a “home away from home.” Shoot, 2 of those 4 wins were dramatic, come-from-behind victories that went down to the wire. Alabama can call Atlanta a home away from home whether it’s the Georgia Dome or Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Tide are 7-0 since it opened its doors in 2017.

Some will say that the venue won’t matter when that ball is kicked, and it’s nothing more than a pregame storyline. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

It’s worth noting that the only current UGA players who recorded a catch, carry or tackle in the last Mercedes-Benz Stadium loss — the 2021 SEC Championship — were Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and Dan Jackson. The common denominator, of course, is Smart.

It’s strange to say that it feels like Saturday’s showdown against Alabama is the last level of the video game for someone who already beat Saban en route to a national title, and then ran it back the following year. But there’s also something to be said for beating the king of the SEC in the place where he’s been darn near untouchable, especially as we close the book on this current era of the sport.

That’s not moving the goalposts for Smart’s legacy. He could never coach another game and that’d be safe. This is about eliminating the last “yeah, but” that could possibly remain.

But something tells me that Smart will show up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with all the motivation in the world to add yet another notch to his ever-growing belt. He was a 33-year-old Alabama defensive coordinator the last time that Saban lost in Atlanta. To say that he’s grown up on his own since then would be an understatement.

Beating Saban in Atlanta en route to perhaps the first college football 3-peat in 87 years? That’s a grown-man feat if I’ve ever seen one.