Three games, 3 second-half leads, 3 losses.

Zero 4th quarter points, zero moral victories, zero actual victories.

Those are the stats that define Kirby Smart’s 3 attempts to beat Nick Saban. Of course, those aren’t the only stats. How about the fact that in 180 minutes of football against Saban — not including overtime in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship — Smart led for 98 minutes and 55 seconds. Compare that to Saban, who only led for 31 minutes and 28 seconds against Smart. But when you have a 31-0 advantage in those 3 4th quarters, well, that’s the type of thing you can overcome if you’re the G.O.A.T. like Saban.

Saturday’s SEC Championship is different from the previous 3 matchups.

For the first time, Smart arguably has the better team. Georgia is favored. It’s the first time Alabama has been an underdog in a game since the 2015 matchup against Georgia. That day, ironically enough, Smart’s Alabama defense stymied Mark Richt and the Dawgs en route to a 38-10 victory in Athens. That blowout signaled the beginning of the end for the Richt era.

It’s been 14 years since Georgia took down Alabama. As long as that streak looms over Smart, there will always be that “yeah, but.”

Irrelevant for Smart is the likely possibility that his team has a Playoff berth clinched, win or lose against Alabama. There’s no denying that Georgia has been the best team in the sport this year. It’s the first team to hold each of its first 12 opponents to 17 points or fewer since Brian Bosworth’s 1986 Oklahoma defense accomplished that feat.

This Georgia team, this version of Smart, this has to be different.

That’s right. This version of Smart does appear different. That goes back farther than the leaked audio of his halftime speech in the Florida game. That’s always been in Smart.

But go back to SEC Media Days in July. Smart took the podium with a certain swagger. He name dropped Quavo, he openly discussed his team’s COVID vaccination rate and he heaped praise on his team. He wasn’t pushing the spotlight away like he has in the past; he was welcoming it.

Maybe back in July, Smart knew he had a special group. Certainly nobody could’ve predicted his team would be this dominant. Like, so dominant that it hasn’t trailed in a game later than the 9:42 mark of the second quarter. Shoot, nobody would’ve believed that Stetson Bennett IV would see the field, much less become one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks for the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.

So much of Smart’s unfulfilled legacy is defined by his quarterback decisions. The anti-Smart crowd loves to cite the Justin Fields-Jake Fromm decision while ignoring the fact that one guy led UGA to its first national championship game since the Herschel Walker era, and did so as a true freshman. He wasn’t getting benched Year 2 unless his play warranted it.

What’s a fair critique of Smart is how Fields was used, all the way down to his infamous final play in a Georgia uniform. The fake punt attempt at the end of the 2018 SEC Championship was as costly of a coaching gaffe as one could’ve had in that spot. It was only magnified that Fields left and became a star at Ohio State while Fromm regressed in Year 3. Even if UGA wins a title, maybe that will always be a demerit for Smart.

How fitting it is that we’re in a similar spot this year, albeit with some different context. There’s no denying that Smart has a more talented quarterback on the bench in JT Daniels. If Bennett is the reason Georgia doesn’t win a national championship, the Smart criticism will be deafening.

Surely Smart knew that the second he decided to stick with Bennett. To this point, that decision has been rewarded. Bennett has been one of the most accurate downfield passers in the country. As a result, the Dawgs are No. 3 in FBS in yards per play. That’s why Smart hasn’t felt compelled to go back to Daniels, who was with Smart as 1 of 2 player representatives at SEC Media Days.

Smart gets accused of playing favorites at quarterback, and his critics say that’s been his undoing. He does play favorites; his favorite quarterback is the one who he believes gives him the best chance to win a national title. The rest of us play the results. We’ll play the results on this one, too. If 5-foot-11 Stetson Bennett stands atop the SEC Championship podium and is picking confetti out of his curly hair on Saturday night, even the loudest of the anti-Smart will have to give him credit.

Favorite or not, the road to get there isn’t clear. It’s got Will Anderson standing in the way of it. And if he forces Bennett to change course, Phidarian Mathis can block that path, too. Fair or not, Smart would take the blame for that.

Smart would also take the blame if another late-game decision comes back to bite him. There can’t be another “2nd and 26” and if there’s a fake punt attempt, maybe don’t do it late in a tie game on 4th and 11 with your backup quarterback at midfield. Just a thought.

Can Smart finally get out of his own way? And if he doesn’t, should we ever expect that to change?

Smart admitted he doesn’t know how his team will respond if it finds itself in a close game in the 4th quarter. How could he? His team hasn’t been there. Not yet at least.

What Smart won’t admit is that this one means more to him. How could it not? Beating Saban is last piece of the puzzle. Well, and winning a national championship. Those 2 things seem synonymous with one another.

Three years ago when Smart coughed up that opportunity with the infamous fake punt, he said afterwards when asked about the decision “Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie.” Read too quickly and you’d think Smart didn’t know that overtime was on the table, even though he was less than a year removed from Alabama stunning Georgia in double overtime to win the national title.

He knew was at stake, and he knew what slipped away.

On Saturday, Smart knows exactly what’s at stake, and he knows he can’t let it slip away.

Smart’s time to take that next step is now. The 4th time has to be the charm.

If not now, when?