ATHENS – If Georgia doesn’t beat Auburn for the SEC championship Saturday, it won’t be because it was not properly prepared.
This is the area in which the Bulldogs have benefited the most by having Kirby Smart as their coach. You can say what you want about his in-game experience and clock-management skills or what have you, but it’s in the area of game prep that Smart excels most.
It’s what got him where he is. Preparation and attention to detail are what endeared him most to Nick Saban and shot him up through the ranks from the time they first joined forces at LSU in 2004 and reconvened with the Miami Dolphins in 2006. By the time they arrived at Alabama together in 2007, a 32-year-old Smart had gone from being the safeties coach to Saban’s assistant head coach. Smart was Saban’s right-hand man from then until he left his side in Phoenix in January 2016 and flew to Athens after Alabama’s most recent national championship.
That was because of Smart’s uncanny knack for attention to detail.
It was fascinating to hear Smart matter-of-factly break down where the Bulldogs were in terms of preparation for the SEC Championship Game while he was still standing in the Georgia Tech weight room a half hour after Georgia’s 38-7 season-ending victory. At the time, the Bulldogs still didn’t know whether they’d be facing Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game.
“We’ll be getting ready as the game goes on,” Smart said as Bama and Auburn were just kicking off in the Iron Bowl. “They’ve got everything broken down on Alabama and we’ve got everything broken down on Auburn, so we’re set to go. I’ve been through this several times before where you didn’t know, where you had to wait until the last week. That’s just the way you prepare.”
Last season was the first time Smart hadn’t participated in the SEC Championship Game since 2013. Five times he prepared for it as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and once as running backs coach at Georgia in 2005. Four times his team came out on the winning side.
So Smart enters this game with a tried-and-true method. Ultimately, it will come down to execution and blocking and tackling as football always does. But if the Bulldogs fail, it’s not likely because the coaching staff didn’t see something coming.
“You don’t make the moment any bigger than it is,” Smart said of getting ready for this game. “Our team will do a good job of preparing and do the best we can. That’s what it is. I’ve been in a lot of big games as a coach, and I don’t see this one being any different. I wanted to win as a defensive coordinator just as bad as I want to win this one.”
The problem with this one being a rematch against Auburn is that the line-of-scrimmage matchups went so poorly for Georgia in the first meeting on the road at Jordan-Hare Stadium. As much as everybody is talking about Kerryon Johnson and his availability for this game because of a right shoulder injury, those offensive linemen who blocked for him and protected quarterback Jarrett Stidham are all going to be present and accounted for. Same for the defensive linemen who had their way with the Bulldogs and the defensive backs who were pulling and tugging and shoving Georgia receivers out of bounds.
There is only so much Smart and his extensive support staff can do to plan and scheme around all that. But he said the most important thing his players can do is “believe and trust” in what they’re being asked to do.
Now 11-1 and having won those games by an average of 26 points apiece, in Smart the Bulldogs trust.
“He’s a great coach,” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “Every coach has the ability to make a player better. He challenges us every day, teaches us different things, helps us be a student of the game. I know defenses better now. He has credibility. … I’m just glad he’s coaching us.”
That the opponent is Auburn isn’t a bad break for Smart either. It would have been the case for Alabama, too, but there probably isn’t an opponent Smart knows better than the Tigers.
“We have a lot of information,” Smart acknowledged.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean he’s a cinch to beat the Tigers. It wasn’t smoke and mirrors that Auburn used when the Tigers throttled the Bulldogs by 23 points on Nov. 11 on The Plains. But the neutral venue is going to make a difference this time. That’s the point of these championship-game exercises, to put the teams on an even playing field so it will come down to the athleticism and poise of players and the acumen of coaches.
Georgia should be the equal of Auburn on all counts in that regard. And having been in this situation so many times before has to give Smart some kind of edge. The Bulldogs believe that whether it’s the truth or not.
Asked how all his postseason experience might help his team the most, Smart said, “Just making sure the kids understand, trust and believe in the process that we go through and knowing that it’s not larger than life. …
“I think leaning on the fact that [the staff] has played in a lot of these type game, you’ve got to lean on that. The kids have got to be confident with it.”
With Smart at the helm, they should be.