ATLANTA – When Kirby Smart and Gus Malzahn met after Auburn routed Georgia on Nov. 11, Malzahn said something like this: “We’ll see you in Atlanta.”
Smart responded by smiling and saying, “I’ll tell Nick [Saban] you said that.”
The two coaches ran into each other again on Friday at the luncheon to preview the SEC Championship Game. They were reminded of that conversation that happened nearly three weeks ago, when Alabama was the favorite to win the SEC West, but Auburn kept its chances alive with a 40-17 thumping of Smart’s team. Two weeks later Auburn upset Alabama and stamped its ticket to Atlanta.
“You held up your end of the bargain,” Smart recalled telling Malzahn on Friday.
Malzahn asked Smart if he had told Saban about the “see you in Atlanta” comment.
“I never did,” Smart said, grinning.
Smart recalled that as he spoke to the press Friday afternoon in perhaps his most-attended news conference in nearly two years, that one when he was introduced as the coach at Georgia. Smart was hired in order to get UGA back to this point: on the brink of an SEC championship with a chance at the College Football Playoff.
This will be Smart’s seventh time being part of the SEC Championship Game: five times as an Alabama assistant and once as a Georgia assistant (in 2005). It’s his first time here as a head coach, leading sixth-ranked Georgia (11-1) against second-ranked Auburn (10-2).
The situations aren’t exactly parallel. But Smart granted that the experience with the big game helps.
“The experience in those is invaluable,” Smart said. “Just being able to control the emotions. Having the kids understand it’s just another game, because if they don’t that’s when they make more mistakes.
“I wouldn’t diminish the importance of it. I just think you’d better have a process, a routine that you go through. And the kids have been able to follow that.”
The venue has changed: It’s now at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, rather than the Georgia Dome. Smart said he got to the stadium and realized he missed a call from Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.
“I was hoping he’d give me some pointers on how to play well in here,” Smart said.
The Falcons are 4-2 in their new building this season, for what it’s worth.
A few other quick notes from Smart’s press conference. He said he expects Auburn star tailback Kerryon Johnson will play, despite an injured right shoulder. He also said Bulldogs fullback Christian Payne remains a game-time decision with an undisclosed injury.