ATHENS — Georgia and South Carolina fans can and will have at it his week with their annual border state rivalry game approaching this Saturday.

But for coaches Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp, it’s all about mutual respect, and not just as former teammates, but as professional colleagues.

Most all coaches praise one another publicly, but with Smart and Muschamp it’s genuine.

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) have a noon kickoff against the Gamecocks (2-3, 1-2) at Sanford Stadium (TV: ESPN).

Muschamp, known as a defensive wizard, has had his issues solving Georgia the past eight years of his coaching career.

Muschamp is 1-7 against the Bulldogs as Florida’s head coach (2011-14), Auburn’s D-Coordinator (2015) and now Carolina’s head coach (2016-present).

The twist, of course, is that Muschamp is a Georgia graduate and former Bulldogs’ team captain (1991-94) who remains close friends with Smart and former UGA roommate and QB legend Eric Zeier.

“We’ve been good friends since we played together at Georgia and obviously coached together at Valdosta State and LSU,” Muschamp said on his weekly teleconference.

“Remained close regardless of the circumstances, whether it was the time I was the DC at LSU or he was the DC at Alabama, regardless of the roles we had, or have.

“There’s just a lot of respect on both ends as far as number one as a person, and number two as a football coach.”

Smart said his relationship with Muschamp grew when his former team captain provided an opportunity for him as a defensive backs coach at Valdosta State in 2000.

“It was not like a close relationship when we were here, because he was a fifth-year senior captain and I was a redshirt freshman, we were really in two different places,” said Smart, who went from DB coach to coordinator at Valdosta State in 2001 when Muschamp was hired away to join Nick Saban’s initial LSU staff.

“I mean, he was good to me, but it wasn’t like we had a friendship. We were at two different spots in our career.”

The two were reunited after Valdosta State when Saban hired Smart to become his secondary coach at LSU, where Muschamp was serving his third season as defensive coordinator.

“Where we became closer was the opportunity he gave me to come to Valdosta State, and we worked together there, and then we worked together at LSU,” Smart said. “And those two years we spent in the same staff, we probably bonded more than we did while we were here.”

Muschamp praises the job Smart has done at Georgia, pointing out that he has put the time and energy in to recruit the team he has now, and it’s not just a case of inheriting a good program four years ago.

“(Kirby) has done a fantastic job at Georgia, he’s recruited, they’ve got a deep team, and very talented and well-coached,” Muschamp said. “Regardless of our roles, we’ve got a lot of respect for each other and the job they do.”

Smart noted Muschamp’s attributes as well, and the two go so far as to compare notes when there’s no potential for conflict.

“(Muschamp) has always been a very intense coach, good football coach, (and) I think he does a good job running the program,” Smart said. “That has allowed us to share information when possible, when it’s not about scheme and it’s more about philosophy, but he has been a good friend. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”

Muschamp also remains close to Zeier, once the SEC’s all-time leading passer during his playing days with Muschamp a Georgia.

“Yeah, Eric and I were roommates together all four years at Georgia,” Muschamp said. “So, love Eric and his family, we try to see each other the best we can, it’s hard in the job I have.

“He’s a great friend and a great person, outstanding quarterback.”

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