ATHENS — Turns out, Kirby Smart was thinking about turning around the Georgia program 19 years ago.
“I’d like to think that this is the turning point for the Georgia program,” said Smart, then a junior safety for the Bulldogs. “Hopefully we can build on this win and not let it go to our heads.”
That was one of Smart’s comments after Georgia defeated No. 6 Florida 37-17 in 1997. And Smart played a very large role in the Bulldogs pulling off the upset. He had two interceptions in the game. He also had two interceptions the previous week against Kentucky and in another game earlier in the season.
Yes, Smart was a pretty decent football player.
Right now, everybody is trying to figure out how good of a head coach is. The jury is still out seven games into his first campaign as at the helm of the Georgia program. The Bulldogs are 4-3 (2-3 SEC) and are 7.5-point underdogs to No. 14 Florida as Smart makes a return to Jacksonville on Saturday.
But that’s nothing compared to the outlook for the Bulldogs on Nov. 1, 1997. Florida was favored by 20 points that Saturday.
Smart remembers it well, though he was reluctant to talk a lot about it as he readies his team to play this year’s game.
“Nobody expected or gave us a chance in that game,” said Smart, who was redshirted while attending UGA on a football scholarship from 1994-98. “I don’t know what we were underdog wise, but we were able to run the ball, control the line of scrimmage and they had some turnovers and it opened some things up. I think they also had some injuries that day. They had some guys beat up, and Robert (Edwards) and those guys ran the ball well.”
Indeed, Edwards tied his own school record with four touchdowns on 26-for-124 yards rushing. In addition to the two picks, Smart had four tackles and two pass breakups. Also recording interceptions in the game were Champ Bailey and Larry Mann. The pass-oriented Gators didn’t have a TD pass that day.
Said the 20-year-old Smart: “We made up our minds early in the week that we were going to slow them down. … I don’t think we will let it go to our heads though because we’ve got great senior leadership.”
Alas, that did not come to pass. The Bulldogs rose to No. 7 in the rankings, then lost to 16th-ranked Auburn 45-34 two weeks later in Sanford Stadium. And Florida, which had won seven in a row in the series coming into the ’97 game, picked up where it left off the next year with a 38-7 win, the first of six in a row.
But that was then and this is now. And Smart knows as the Bulldogs’ new head coach he’s charged with getting Georgia back in charge of this series. UGA has lost the last two after reeling off three in a row from 2011-13.
“This game’s a lot more important to me now than it was back then,” Smart said with a chuckle. “… I think this year is a little different scenario. I think these two teams are a little closer in comparison probably than those were. I think we’ve gotta play our best football, and we have yet to do that all year.
“And I think the rivalry has just grown, especially as there’s been a little more parity and a little more back and forth. It was definitely one-sided, like you mentioned. I guess it was seven in a row. So it was a lot bigger deal to beat them that year, but the rivalry has been a little more balanced, and that’s what rivalries are supposed to be.”
Georgia players have said this week Smart has not changed his demeanor for the Florida game.
“He treats every game the same,” senior tackle Greg Pyke said. “He comes in there for meetings and treats every opponent the same. They’re another team we have this week and an SEC opponent, but it is Florida. So it is different. You don’t try to make things personal out there, but I definitely want to beat them and get a win in Jacksonville.”