It was a good day to be Kirby Smart. It was a good day for the man who would oversee the future of Georgia football (barring an unlikely unraveling of contract negotiations or Mark Richt fans tearing off the head of a Greg McGarity voodoo doll).
Granted, Alabama’s opponent in Saturday’s SEC Championship game was Florida, which is to offense what the corkscrew on the Swiss army knife is to army weaponry. But the level of dominance of the Crimson Tide’s defense, which Smart coordinates, was nonetheless staggering.
Florida’s offense did not manage a point until 5:02 remained in the game. It did not break 100 yards until just before that. The Gators’ first 11 possessions resulted in nine punts (eight three-and-outs), an interception and a blocked field-goal attempt. There was a series of eight consecutive Gators’ possessions from the second quarter to the fourth that netted — are you ready for this? — minus-17 yards.
Florida finished with one scoring drive, seven first downs and a lot of heartache.
Alabama won 29-15. So that’s that bad news for Georgia fans. The Bulldogs may have to wait a while for Smart because this team is going to the College Football Playoff, and it didn’t have the look of a semifinal loser Saturday.
Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones was among the Alabama players who confirmed Smart is headed for Georgia — but not quite yet.
“He told us he’s going to stay with us through the playoffs,” Jones said.
“I’m happy for him. With his passion for the game, you can’t help but gravitate toward him. He loves the game. Whatever we’re doing, meetings, practices, he lives and breathes football. He’s definitely an animated coach but that’s what you love about him. He deserves this.”
If Georgia had its way, Smart wouldn’t leave the state, except to recruit. He and his family would stay in town, get wined and dined by school officials, have the whole crew get fitted for new Bulldogs swag and then get introduced as Georgia’s new coach at a news conference Sunday or Monday. The only reason to go back to Tuscaloosa would be to throw strength-and-conditioning coach Scott Cochran into a trunk, along with maybe another one or two other Alabama assistants, and bring them back to Athens.
But if the Dogs announce the hiring soon, Smart will be dividing his loyalties, just as Mark Richt did when he was hired by Georgia before serving as Florida State’s offensive coordinator.
Smart would not respond on the field when asked if he was going to be Georgia’s next coach. He and his wife, Mary Beth, later ducked out a back entrance to the locker room while media members waited at a different entrance. Smart’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, smiled at several questions, but said, “Sorry, I just can’t comment.”
Regardless, Smart looked like he was living the dream Saturday, while on the verge of his dream job. He walked through a tunnel at the Georgia Dome and then straight to the stands adjacent to the field to kiss his wife and their three children.
Then the game started, Smart waved his arms and sent in plays with hand signals from the sideline and watched as his defense proceeded to stuff Florida into a locker.
Alabama coach Nick Saban actually got choked up talking about Smart on the eve of the game. He said his long-time assistant is “really enthusiastic, bright, a good teacher, relates well with players” and added, “He understands offensive football very, very well, because I think being a defensive coach that’s what you have to do.”
One more: “He’s as good an assistant coach and as loyal an assistant coach as I’ve ever had on my staff.”
McGarity would like to know if Saban can type the news release.
Closure would be nice. Georgia football has been like a series of brush fires for the past several months. Saban just wants everybody to stop asking questions. When queries about Smart persisted the other day, he amusingly picked up a Coke bottle that was sitting on the podium and said, “Get this bottle to respond to it because I don’t know anything more than that. You can ask the bottle, but don’t ask me.”
The Coke bottle, like Saban’s assistants, did not respond to interview requests. It is the Alabama way.
But Georgia fans had to like what they saw from Alabama’s defense and hope Smart can bring that kind of intensity and sense of urgency the Bulldogs have too often lacked. The Tide’s defensive front dominated, and the defense registered four sacks, a turnover and held the Gators to 19 yards rushing (on 20 attempts) and 180 yards overall.
It didn’t matter that Alabama’s offense sputtered for half the game because Alabama’s defense kept Florida out of the end zone — save a long punt return — until a 46-yard touchdown pass from Treon Harris to C.J. Worton with 5:02 left. But by then, the outcome had been packaged, gift-wrapped and shipped to the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Saban’s former assistants are everywhere. Georgia had three full-time assistant coaches this season, including defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and other aides who learned under Saban. Florida’s head coach Jim McElwain and his two coordinators both learned from the master.
Smart is the next one to get his shot. If Alabama’s defense Saturday was any indication Saturday, he’s ready.