ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart didn’t need the validation any more than his Bulldogs had anything to prove in the CFP Orange Bowl at the end of last season.

But Smart and his program showed up in force, anyway, opting in to the opportunity to represent the University of Georgia and compete as a team one final time in the Dec. 30 New Year’s Six Bowl in what should be celebrated and remembered as a win for college football.

It’s a story that should be told over and over in this era of players’ putting their earnings potential ahead of brotherhood and team goals.

RELATED: Kirby Smart shows Florida State the way, Mike Norvall follows UGA way

“I was proud of our guys, proud of the way our season finished because of our response against Florida State,” Smart recently told ESPN, speaking on the 13-1 finish that enabled Georgia to maintain its streak as the only program in the country to finish ranked in the Top 7 the past seven years.

RELATED: How Georgia will give Florida State something else to cry about

“It made me realize this huge investment we put into the culture of our team, the love we had for each other,” said Smart, who has designated time for so-called ‘skull sessions’ the past four years.

“The loss to Alabama, as bad as it was, gave us an opportunity to shine this light, ‘That you know what, these bowl games matter, winning matters, finishing matters.’ "

Smart was recently the unanimous choice among ESPN college football writers as the top coach in the nation.

The fact Georgia hasn’t lost a regular season game since 2020 and is 42-2 the past three seasons didn’t leave much room for any other choice.

Florida State coach Mike Norvell finished fifth in the voting, even though his Seminoles famously had a handful of key players opt-out of the Orange Bowl after their undefeated regular season and ACC Championship Game win.

GRIFFITH column: Norvell misses mark with ‘forever champions’ suggestion

The Seminoles, who were a different team playing without injured quarterback Jordan Travis the final two games (24-15 win over Florida, 16-6 over Louisville), suggested their disappointing of missing the CFP was too much for the psyche of their players.

Smart suggested it was challenging for his players to deal with the disappointment, too, after being left out despite being the two-time national champs, winning an SEC-record 29 straight games, and being ranked No. 1 before losing a single game by 3 points in a league title game.

Georgia made the case it belong in the CFP because it was one of the four best teams.

Florida State made the case it “deserved” to be there by being undefeated.

The Seminoles’ storyline continues to get more attention than the feel-good Bulldogs and their camaraderie.

“Beginning anew requires turning a proverbial page, a refresh and reset,” penned ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, writing on how Florida State is moving on. “Turning that page, though, has not necessarily meant leaving last year in the past.

“We had a great story,” Norvell said in the recent ESPN story. “I still believe to this day if we were given an opportunity, it could have been really special to compete for a championship. I just felt grief. It was immediate heartbreak for that team.”

Norvell shared with ESPN how he sent the team a text after they learned they were left out of the four-team CFP field, challenging them to “CLIMB” over the adversity.

Nine Florida State starters were missing — two of them would tell DawgNation at the NFL Combine that injuries played a role.

Georgia, meanwhile, was missing five starters — injured first-round prospects Brock Bowers and Amarius Mims, along with former starters Smael Mondon, Rara Thomas and Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who had suffered injuries earlier in the season.

Still, it was the Florida State injuries and opt-outs that were played-up in the media — much more so than the feel-good story of Georgia players opting in.

And now it is the story of Norvell emphasizing leadership within his program this offseason making more headlines.

It’s interesting and underscores the culture Smart had already put in place

“Our kids showed the kind of competitive character we pride ourselves on,” Smart told ESPN. “They stuck around and finished the job.”