Kirby Smart will not let Georgia fall victim to an upset loss
In recent years, Kirby Smart has dealt with the primetime atmosphere of Notre Dame coming to Athens and Sanford Stadium showing off its new state-of-the-art lighting system. And even playing upstart Cincinnati in a bowl game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a short distance from campus.
Just about weekly now, Smart fields questions about his defense’s dominance, and years back, his running backs. The Georgia coach also has already faced a range of talent on the schedule, from Clemson, to Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Auburn.
To put it bluntly, Georgia has already experienced much of what this week will bring, from national exposure, to a test from the other side.
Now the Bulldogs get Kentucky after they showed no sign of regressing coming off their latest challenge against a scrambling Bo Nix. After all, Georgia is the destination of ESPN’s “College GameDay” for the second time in 3 weeks.
So Smart has already been down this road with this group of players. He faced national media attention all summer ahead of the Clemson game, and then again before Arkansas, especially with the reunion with former assistant Sam Pittman.
But how about when his players hear about rankings and stats, particularly about the defense. Last week, Smart addressed dealing with that attention, and how he coaches his players on how to handle it.
This week, the comparisons to 2018 will be made. Then, Kentucky had a chance to take the SEC East lead, if the Wildcats beat Georgia, they would have had a tiebreaker for the SEC East lead. That didn’t happen.
“I think that the standard of being elite is what keeps them from becoming poisoned,” Smart said. “When you compare yourself against greatness, there is a certain standard you have to reach and it supersedes the opponent. When you say, ‘I want to be great.’ What does great look like, and want to see pictures of that and stats that reflect that. That is what you are trying to emulate and you are not trying to make it about who you are playing.”
Then after the Auburn game, Smart addressed it again, even after a smothering effort, he wanted more.
“Elite can be a loose term. I thought we were elite at times,” he said. “I never use the term that we were elite. We didn’t force turnovers enough to be elite. You know what I mean? Offensively, I’d rather see some stats, but we were explosive at the right times. You know what we were? We were elite toughness. And we were elite composure. You know, Nolan Smith, one of our leaders, had a boneheaded penalty and I told him, ‘Wipe it up, fold it up, let it go and throw it away. Let it go. It’s over. Go play.’ We can’t have those on the road. We’ll learn from that. But there’s a lot of opportunities that our players had to have bad composure or lose energy and they didn’t do that.”
Georgia has ascended to the nation’s best in total defense in recent years, including No. 6 in 2017, and No. 3 in 2019. Now it’s No. 1. But since the Clemson game this year, the group has come into its own, and realized it has something special.
Star defensive tackle Jordan Davis calls it confidence, and he said it’s “in the air.”
“The way we play, we’re always confident in ourselves,” Davis said. “We’re always confident in our training. But we don’t go in with a big chest and a big head. We always know we have a mission to do, we have a job to do and we complete that mission when we win the game. That’s all the confidence, you’ll see it in the game, you’ll see guys smiling. It’s not really boastful, it’s really just a quiet storm, a quiet pep and that’s how we carry ourselves on defense. We talk with our actions.”
There will be plenty of emotions this week, among the Big Blue Nation faithful, and with the student section at Sanford Stadium. But within the program, it’s all business.
“That’s how we carry ourselves as a team,” Davis said. “We celebrate together. We win together. It’s not really an emotional game for us. We try to take the emotions out of it and look at it as a job to do.”
Just how Smart likes it.