ATLANTA — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has spent a lot of time this week preaching to his troops to “not let this moment be larger than life.” That probably should go for the fans, too.
The No. 6-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) face No. 2 Auburn (10-2) on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a game that will determine the SEC champion and which team advances into the College Football Playoff. It just doesn’t get any bigger than that.
But as we prepare for kickoff at 4 p.m. ET, don’t forget to enjoy this.
Bulldogs fans want to win in the worst way. Auburn folks feel the same way. But people don’t need to be hanging coaches in effigy if their team comes up on the short end on Saturday. Just getting into this game is a glowing accomplishment in itself.
In the 26 years that the SEC has been conducting this game, Georgia and Auburn have managed to play in it only five times each. Remarkably, two teams that have played each other 121 times elsewhere have never played each other here. All of the Bulldogs’ previous appearances came in one 10-year span under former coach Mark Richt that has proven to be the most successful period of that length in program history.
So just getting to Atlanta is intensely challenging.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is,” said Tim Tebow, who played in the game three times with the Florida Gators from 2006-09. “Our goal every year at Florida was we wanted to be SEC champs. We always felt if we were SEC champs, we were the best team in the country, and we were going to be playing for a national championship. I think there’s a reason [Alabama’s Nick] Saban has won as many national championships as he has SEC championships. Coaches in this league know how hard it is to get to Atlanta, much less win Atlanta.”
That’s what makes it such a landmark achievement that Smart has gotten Georgia here in just his second season. The Bulldogs had some incredible teams in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2014 that failed to make it. So getting to Atlanta is half the battle.
Even during this remarkable run that Saban has had at Alabama, he was unable to make it to the title game three times in a four-year span — until last year. That the Crimson Tide won the last three of these is almost other-worldly when you think about it. So is the fact that they’re not here this year.
Most of that Alabama success occurred with Smart at Saban’s side, so this accomplishment is not lost on him. The same probably can’t be said of the Tide’s following.
“I think a lot of fan bases — not a lot of them have been, but the ones who have been a lot — they are spoiled,” Smart said Friday. “They take it for granted. There was a time that the Bulldog Nation took it for granted when there was a run of however many years in a row they were able to come. I don’t think you appreciate that until you’ve lost it.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs made it to Atlanta three times in a four-year span early in Richt’s tenure. Fans then would have never guessed after winning their last SEC championship in 2005 that it’d take them another six years just to get back into the game. And then they left the Georgia Dome sorely disappointed.
Never has it hurt more than in 2012, when Georgia’s dreams ended on the Alabama 5-yard line. That was the Bulldogs’ last legitimate shot at a national title.
This time the Bulldogs’ SEC appearance comes in the playoff era, so there’s no denying where they would go from here. It might be Pasadena as a No. 3 seed in the Rose Bowl or to the Sugar Bowl as a No. 4, but win and they’re in.
That makes for a lot of pressure on these 18- to 22-year-old athletes. Whatever happens Saturday, you can bet they’ll be laying it all on the line.
But those of us who are paying to and getting paid to observe this contest Saturday at The Benz need to be reminded of what we’ll be witnessing. Be sure to scan the rosters and the sidelines and behold the athletic talent there. Just look at the pedigree of athlete it takes to get here.
Is there a better linebacker in the country than Georgia’s Roquan Smith? With 69 yards, Nick Chubb will leave the stadium as the second-leading rusher in SEC history. But if Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson is healthy enough to play, Chubb won’t even be considered the best back on the field.
Here’s the stat we should appreciate most: There have been 65 first-round selections come out of the SEC since 2010. That’s nearly twice the number of the ACC (34), the next closest conference. In the last 10 years, the SEC has averaged more than 50 selections a year in the NFL draft.
So get a good look at these young men now wearing your school colors, because you’ll next see them in the NFL. But for them, it will be all about what happens today.
“This didn’t just come overnight,” said Georgia linebacker Reggie Carter, a fifth-year senior. “It started in January, in the spring and into the fall. It didn’t just happen. You’ve got to work toward it every day.”
That’s why we all need to just soak this in. Have a good time, enjoy the moment, behold these elite athletes engaging in the highest level of competition.
“As coaches, we know the challenge it presents to make it here, because it’s a tough road in our conference to go through it and be able to come out of it on top,” Smart said. “It’s always a challenge. That’s kind of where your goal starts each year. You know if you have an opportunity to come play in this event, that you’re headed in the right direction.”
And if you’re just watching, you know you’re about to see the best of the best go at it. Enjoy y’all!