ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart was all about maintaining the team “rhythm” on his then-No.1-ranked, seemingly unbeatable Bulldogs just a few short weeks ago.

The biggest hurdle then was how to maintain intensity in practices with creampuffs Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech up next on the schedule.

Suddenly, it’s Georgia facing an uphill climb with the Orange Bowl CFP Semifinal coming up at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

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Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning has accepted the Oregon head coaching job, and Smart has a team of players hearing the same whispers and wondering the same things as UGA fans in the wake of last Saturday’s loss to Alabama.

Brutal truths

“Eye-opening,” Smart said, with “brutal truths” revealed in that 41-24 loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game.

Georgia fans took over Mercedes-Benz Stadium by a 4-to-1 ratio over Tide fans, who were still smarting from the public scolding Nick Saban had recently given them after they dared complain about inconsistent performances.

Alabama had struggled to beat Auburn, held scoreless for three quarters, and limped into the SEC title game.

But 3 hours, 36 minutes after the Smart-Saban IV showdown kicked off, it was the Bulldogs fans filing out, heads down, the start of a Georgia football dynasty on hold once again.

It was the same score as last year’s Georgia loss to Alabama.

The same Georgia coaching staff.

The same Georgia quarterback.

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This, against a reloaded and bruised-up Alabama team missing six first-round NFL picks from a year ago, and with an offensive line that had given up 36 sacks this season.

Alabama stole the Bulldogs’ momentum. UGA had won a nation-long string of 16 games entering that contest.

The Orange Bowl CFP Seminfinal announcement did not spark the sort of enthusiasm and conversation amid fans that typically accompanies a Final Four seed.

In fact, one charter group recently pulled the plug on the flight portion of a donor trip to the Orange Bowl on account of not enough fans signing up.

The message: We’ll see you in Indianapolis, site of the CFP Championship Game, if you get there.

Pre-flight commands

It’s up to Smart to fire up the engines and get his big, red football machine off the ground and into flight. “Ascending” Smart often said this season, the goal for his team rise above the performance of the previous week and improve.

The “togetherness” Smart has talked about all season long will be tested as human nature takes its course.

Individual awards, all-star game invites, agents talking about draft stock and relatives buzzing in the ears of soon-to-be NFL millionaires provide the sort of “outside noise” Smart referenced in his post-game last Saturday.

It’s not Smart’s first rodeo, but that doesn’t make his job any easier.

Changes? You can bet Smart has a list of things ready to evaluate and work on in each position group, alphabetized, with a designated amount of time delegated in each practice.

Smart doesn’t have the time or energy to waste sulking in the disappointment of losing to Saban a fourth-straight time despite having a better, more accomplished football team in two of those matchups.

The only “W.I.N.” Smart has had time to think about is his favorite acronym: “What’s Important Now.”

Moving forward

Smart has said there’s no choice but to move on quickly.

“You can’t let that game beat you twice,” Smart said three years ago, explaining the importance for him and his staff to collect themselves and go out and recruit the day after a 26-23 overtime loss in the CFP Championship Game back on Jan. 8, 2018.

That was the case again this year, only this time it was even more urgent to recruit with early signing day rapidly closing in.

Meanwhile, Lanning was rushing between the living rooms of Georgia recruits and, one imagines, Oregon Zoom calls, interviewing for the opportunity of his lifetime.

The Oregon job is perfect for a young rising star in the coaching profession, which the 35-year-old Lanning is, contrary to what Ducks’ fans who have their feathers ruffled over his lack of head coaching experience might think.

Lanning had to be aggressive to become a part of college football’s Team Nike, with its fantastic facilities and cutting edge uniforms providing a powerful pull to the Pacific Northwest.

Most all of the top recruits in California look forward to a recruiting trip to Eugene, where they can take in Autzen Stadium and the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a fascinating architectural wonder with a striking black glass facade.

Lanning will occupy the corner office, the head Duck, with a 2022 schedule that features an opening game against Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It’s too early to know or speculate how many members of the current Georgia coaching staff -- or players from the team -- Lanning might have suited up for Oregon.

Business is business.

Smart does have an impressive coaching tree branching out since taking over the Georgia program before the 2016 season

Former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has found great success at Michigan State, and former assistants Sam Pittman (Arkansas) and Shane Beamer (South Carolina) are exceeding expectations.

Success leads to opportunities, so Lanning’s pending departure brings no animosity to the Georgia football staff.

But there is a great sense of urgency.

Big Blue

Michigan is coming off a 42-3 win over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Big Blue will aim to run over Georgia.

The game in Miami Gardens, Fla., will not be won or lost on Xs and Os.

Georgia has the brainpower: Smart is a four-time national championship defensive coordinator, veteran Will Muschamp and rising star Glenn Schumann are poised to become co-defensive coordinators.

Second-year coordinator Todd Monken has been the offensive MVP at Georgia.

Injuries forced Monken to adjust from a Pro-Style Spread attack with Air Raid principles to a ground-and-pound, play-action approach that relies on a former walk-on at quarterback and a true freshman tight end as the main target.

Team chemistry will be the key. Smart must make his players believe things will be different the next time they take the field, and that the proper players and plans will be in place.

The Bulldogs are favored but the Wolverines have all the momentum and intangibles.

Georgia fans who remember the magic of the Rose Bowl run four years ago can appreciate how the Wolverines and their players and fans are feeling.

Michigan finally took down rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011 en route to winning the program’s first Big Ten title since 2004.

Seventh-year coach Jim Harbaugh, like sixth-year UGA coach Smart, desperately needs a national championship trophy.

Harbaugh has finally put it all together in Ann Arbor.

Now it’s up to Kirby Smart.