ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart talks a good game, but he’ll be the first to tell you, it doesn’t matter if the players aren’t listening.
“When you’re a competitor and you go on the field, your intention is to win the game,” Smart said, explaining why he doesn’t expect the No. 9-ranked Bulldogs to take the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup with No. 9 Cincinnati lightly when the teams meet at noon on Jan. 1.
“At the end of the day it takes the leaders on the team to buy into that and import it to those guys,” Smart said. “Coaches, it’s always important to us, it’s our livelihood. But is it going to be important to the players? That’s the key ingredient.”
Smart — who worked himself from last-minute Georgia signing day prospect to starting All-SEC safety and team captain more than two decades ago — is a throwback who has naturally transitioned into leadership.
“You play football to play the game,” Smart said, asked amid teams and players opting out of the regular season. “Everybody loses sight of that.”
The Bulldogs were one of the few teams to go from the start of the regular season to the end without any players opting out.
But the bowl matchup has been a different story.
It’s arguably the biggest game in the Bearcats’ history, as they’ll likely stake claim to a piece of the national title with a win and undefeated record.
But for some Bulldogs the decision to train for the NFL is more attractive.
Smart has said in the past he understands first-round picks opting out of bowl games.
The fifth-year head coach also said he’s ready to move forward with the players who want the opportunity to play for the “G” one more time and leave the others behind.
“I think we learned a valuable lesson as a staff, that it’s not necessarily who you go play with, but what their mindset is when you go play a game in a bowl game,” Smart said. “We’ve had success in bowls, and we’ve had failures in bowls.
“We lost a Sugar Bowl, and we won a Sugar Bowl and the things that stick out in my mind is it’s the approach each team took to those games.”
The 2018 Georgia football team was downtrodden, having felt a College Football Playoff spot was wrongly taken from them by a CFP committee that including the sitting athletic directors at Georgia Tech and Florida, along with the Oklahoma AD whose team eventually got in over the Bulldogs.
Smart brought quarterback Justin Fields and tight end Luke Ford to the bowl game, even though both had informed him of their plans to transfer, and team captain Deandre Baker tagged along for the bowl gifts and outings even though he opted out of playing.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, one foot out the door to Tennessee, needed a half to adjust to the Texas defense and there was spotty effort throughout the lineup in the first half.
By the time Georgia adjusted the game plan and settled in, it was too late, and the Longhorns scored a 28-21 upset.
Last season’s Bulldogs’ team wasn’t as good as the 2018 version, as it was filled with injuries on offense at the receiver position and at running back, and then two offensive linemen opted out and a handful of starters missed the game for undisclosed reasons.
But with junior team captain Jake Fromm leading the way, and young talents like Lewis Cine and George Pickens stepping up, Georgia beat a Top 10 Baylor team 26-14.
“It was so important to so many in terms of the Baylor Sugar Bowl and the way the kids approached it, and the Texas Sugar Bowl it wasn’t that way,” Smart said. “Everybody didn’t approach the game the same way.”
A revitalized Georgia pass game, led by USC transfer JT Daniels, is expected to show up ready to challenge Cincinnati. This, even without offensive line team captain Ben Cleveland and Florida State tight end transfer Tre’ McKitty.
The defense, while missing team captain Monty Rice, outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson, and cornerback Eric Stokes, has young players waiting in the wings to step up.
“Any time you’ve got seniors involved in a bowl game, it’s always a concern for you, but our guys have handled it well to this point,” Smart said in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl zoom press conference.
“I’m excited to see them go play, and this is the last opportunity this team will have to be together.”