SEC championship: Georgia, Kirby Smart planted on solid ground in unstable SEC

ATLANTA — Georgia coach Kirby Smart recalled the first thing that popped through when he watched Auburn defeat Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25.

SEC championship: Georgia, Kirby Smart planted on solid ground in unstable SEC

SEC championship: Georgia, Kirby Smart planted on solid ground in unstable SEC

"How are we going to play better against Auburn?" Smart recalled at his Friday news conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. "That's my first statement that went through that head. ... I can only imagine sitting here today, if we were playing them, what the questions would be like."

WEEK 14 PICKS: Straight up | Against the spread

"Them," of course, would be No. 5 Alabama (11-1). No. 6 Georgia (11-1) gets a rematch with No. 2 Auburn (10-2) in the SEC championship game instead, and a chance to avenge its 40-17 loss on Nov. 11.

But the one-loss Tide aren't here, and the two-loss Tigers are the hottest team in college football. The Bulldogs, however, are by no means stuck in the middle. They're in a great spot in Smart's second season. This won't be the last time the Bulldogs are in the College Football Playoff hunt.

It's a remarkable turnaround from a 8-5 record in Smart's first season, and he continues to take a restrained approach.

"I don't think you can speed up the relationship process or the recruiting process," Smart said. "It takes time, and I'll be honest with you, I think we learned a lot of lessons in our first season. … I don't think we're playing in this game if we don't learn those lessons."

You've heard that line before. Process. Lessons. Smart continues to follow the model he was a part of as Nick Saban's defensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-15, all while putting his own personal touch on Georgia. The paths in the SEC are similar, too. Saban was in the same spot in his second season at Alabama in 2008. The Tide didn't win the SEC championship game, but a dynasty followed that defined the conference pretty much up until this season. It's the first time in four years the Crimson Tide aren't the dominant headline in Atlanta.

It's a new stadium, new matchup and a chance for an SEC East school to win the conference for the first time since 2008.

Georgia has outscored opponents 426-165 this season, a point differential of plus-261, between Auburn at plus-243 and Alabama at plus-331. The Bulldogs ranked ninth in the FBS with 265.7 rushing yards per game and fourth in total defense, at 271.9 yards per game. Of all the SEC schools that have tried to follow the Saban model, Georgia is the first one to have big-time success. Smart said that approach began in another familiar place.

"I'd probably start with the practice habits going from last year to this year," Smart said. "I think there's a certain standard and a certain — I don't know if the right word is pain threshold, but endurance threshold where you can handle a certain amount of practices throughout the season. I think the kids embraced that more this year."

MORE: What's on the line in conference championships

What does that create for Georgia? Stability in a conference that went haywire on this turn through the coaching carousel. Florida and Tennessee fired their coaches during the season. The Gators brought in Dan Mullen. The Vols have put together the handbook for how to botch a coaching search in the social media era. In the SEC West, Saban turns 67 next season. Rumors continue to swirl about Auburn's Gus Malzahn and the Arkansas opening. Mississippi State hired Joe Moorhead and Ole Miss will face a second season without a bowl, plus scholarship reductions. Texas A&M landed Jimbo Fisher for $75 million.

Four SEC coaches have more tenure than Smart at their current school, a list that includes Saban, Malzahn, Vanderbilt's Derek Mason and Kentucky's Mark Stoops. Which coach out of that group is the best bet to still be at their school in five years, given Saban's age?

Or, to use the pun, the Smart bet. There's nothing flashy about the approach. He's the one-day-at-a-time-coach with the traditional spiel every coach wants to dish out this time of year.

"The goals of the seniors was more than to come back and beat Georgia Tech," Smart said. "They wanted to put Georgia in its rightful place. They wanted to do it the right way. And thus far, they've done a good job of buying in and doing what we asked them to do."

That rightful place isn't stuck in the middle. Georgia hasn't been in this spot since 2012, hasn't won this game since 2005 and is still on the clock among the blue bloods with its last national championship coming in 1980. Smart is trying to get them there through process, practice and patience. That approach is endorsed in Tuscaloosa and Auburn and clearly not enforced in a few other places.

"I'm just excited to see them have success," Smart said. "I want them to have the success they deserve tomorrow. That doesn't come without a price. That doesn't come without a tremendous effort. That doesn't come without a championship effort because we're playing a really good football team."

That comes from knowing who you are. Georgia does with Smart.

There's no question about it now.

Back To Top