LOS ANGELES – What Kirby Smart remembers most is the red sky. It was beautiful. The sun was setting that day in Pasadena, and Smart stood in the middle of the Rose Bowl field, looking up and soaking in his first national championship.
“It’s a memory I’ll have for the rest of my lifetime,” Smart said of the 2010 national championship, when he was the defensive coordinator for Alabama as it won the national title. “The first championship is the one you remember most.”
Smart painted the scene for reporters Wednesday afternoon as he sat in a director’s chair at Disneyland, against a picturesque Western backdrop meant to invoke the kids movie “Cars.” A few feet away from the head coach, star tailback Nick Chubb was gamely trying to escape his media session.
“I’m just tired, man,” Chubb said. “Ready to go ride some rides.”
The frivolity of Disneyland and the fond memories of past wins were mixed in with actual football questions: There’s the little matter of a game, the biggest Georgia has had in years, a victory over Oklahoma meaning a trip to the national championship game.
Oklahoma has been in this moment before, two years ago in a national semifinal. It’s used to playing in these top-tier bowls.
Nick Chubb was antsy to go ‘ride some rides’ at DisneyLand on Wednesday. (CURTIS COMPTON/AJC)
Georgia isn’t. But Smart isn’t isolating his team this week. He’s letting the team enjoy the moment, perhaps because it has already shown it can handle the moment.
The Rose Bowl is an iconic and new atmosphere, but so was Notre Dame. The national semifinal is huge, but so was the SEC Championship Game. The national stage is new to this team, but it’s also loaded with seniors and veterans.
“This moment won’t be too big for this team. All this team needs is to be prepared,” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “Once this team is prepared it’ll be ready to play.”
That doesn’t mean Smart doesn’t have worries about this week.
The four-week layoff between games has felled teams before in this circumstance.
“At times teams can lose momentum, make mistakes, a la the Auburn situation,” Smart said of his team’s lone loss this season. “The first time we played Auburn we made some dumb mistakes. And I don’t think the moment was too big or the crowd was too loud. It was just that we made some mistakes.”
So he’s guarding against that. And he’s also worried about non-football distractions – and not the ones associated with typical bowl week festivities.
“I’d be foolish to sit here and say there’s no distractions. When you’re here in L.A., downtown, kids from primarily the state of Georgia, you’re going to have some distractions,” Smart said. “So we’ve got to manage those distractions better than the opponent, because it’s tough. When you talk about taking kids out of their normal atmosphere, their normal game routine, throwing them in this, that’s not easy on anybody. That’s one of the challenges of playing in the playoff.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Georgia held its first on-site bowl practice, at StubHub Center, the home of the Los Angeles Chargers. Smart said the Bulldogs had a full game week preparing for Oklahoma back in Athens, then they’re going to repeat that week here in Los Angeles.
When Smart won his first national title in that Rose Bowl, his team knocked off a Big 12 team, Texas. This time Smart’s team will face another Big 12 team, Oklahoma. The referee in that 2010 national championship, John McDaid, was also the referee in the SEC Championship Game earlier this month.
But this game will stand alone. It will be its own moment.
“We’ve got an opportunity to play for something bigger,” Michel said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”