ATLANTA — Roster management never stops, even as Georgia and Alabama arrive in Atlanta collectively focused on their Saturday showdown.
The behind-the-scenes conversations and goings on leading up to the 4 p.m. SEC Championship Game on Saturday are no different than those taking place everywhere else.
There are deep talks, considerations and negotiations among coaches, players, prospects and potential portal entrants.
“We’ve been trying to focus on the game here; we’re going to look to manage all those things when this game is over,” Tide coach Nick Saban said on Thursday, asked by a DawgNation reporter about the portal.
“But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of balls in the air. "
Saban, blunt as ever, was direct about the potential distractions the newer transfer rules in place have triggered.
“I’m sure players are thinking about a lot of things right now, too,” Saban said. “Probably tough for them to manage.”
Particularly as the names of marquee players entering the portal — or even rumored to be on the verge — continue to leak out.
Florida tailback Trevor Etienne, one of the sport’s game-changing talents, is among the latest buzz, per Gators’ media and other sources familiar with the program.
Etienne, a former SEC academic honor roll student who had 753 yards rushing last season along with 21 catches for 172 yards, had offers from Georgia and Alabama among several others coming out of high school.
The Bulldogs would seem to be a more likely consideration for any veteran tailback among the two SEC title contenders, as they’ll be lacking experience in the backfield with senior tailbacks Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards expected to move on.
High-profile transfers have certainly made an impact this season.
Former Georgia players Jeremaine Burton and Trezman Marshall have started for Alabama, and Texas is making its Big 12 championship push thanks to the contributions of former UGA star receiver Adonai MItchell.
There will soon be several more names being talked about, just as trade rumors and free-agent projections and dealings take place regularly in the NFL.
It was reported earlier this week that Georgia was in negotiations with Carson Beck to stay another season, with a deal worth more than $1 million expected to be forthcoming.
UGA linebacker Smael Mondon is another player that could be on the fence, though Smart has not discussed any such negotiations nor any potential portal targets.
Smart, who has won 29 straight games and back-to-back titles, has a time and place for everything, even if it is not publicly discussed.
“We have a process that we follow, so our process is step by step,” Smart said earlier this season, discussing his roster management strategy. “There’s a day in the month of each calendar month that I go through and say, okay, it’s time to do this; it’s time to have this conversation.”
Plenty of such conversations have already taken place, and Georgia is expected to be active when the transfer portal opens on Monday with hundreds of players coming and going around the country.
The Bulldogs have already seen some attrition with secondary coach Fran Brown accepting the Syracuse head coaching job and linebacker Darris Smith entering the transfer portal.
Smart has been clear in his desire to build his program through recruiting and developing prospects recruited to Georgia out of high school.
But the UGA coach explained how the nature of the game now requires an ability to address areas of need with incoming transfers.
“We’re trying to make our team better … the more that go in, the more we have to research the portal and take, otherwise you can’t sustain,” Smart said.
“It’s not a matter of a philosophy. I would retain everybody on my team if I could, and I would play with the guys we have. But you have to take others in order to be able to field a team unless you want all freshmen.”
The portal is one thing, and then there’s also early signing day on Dec. 21, hence the pending personnel shuffle.
“It’s unfortunate to me it’s picking up pace, I think this will be a record-breaking year,” Smart said on Thursday, “because the attention, the opportunity, the seeking out the monetary side of it is going to become a really norm.”