Kirby Smart did his best to get ahead of the questions about Nick Saban while acknowledging the topic was inevitable.
It seems the Georgia coach can’t avoid Saban, when championships — and Smart’s big-game legacy — are on the line.
Smart is 0-4 against Saban, his former boss at Alabama. That includes Georgia’s 41-24 loss to Saban’s Crimson Tide in the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 4.
Smart fielded questions about Saban prior to that game before earning a rematch when the Bulldogs beat Michigan 34-11 on Friday night in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
The Georgia coach insisted on Monday the Georgia-Alabama rematch for the national title is not about Smart vs. Saban.
“Each game has been different,” Smart said. “And it will never be about he and I. I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that, because that’s for you guys to do that.”
Smart’s Georgia legacy is on the line. That’s about more than how he compares with Saban, already assured of being remembered as one of the greatest coaches in college football history.
As Smart wraps up his sixth season at his alma mater, the national championship game will help determine his place in Georgia history. That includes how he will be judged in comparison with his predecessor, Mark Richt, as well as Vince Dooley, who won Georgia’s last national championship in 1980.
Smart was hired to give Georgia the push it lacked to win the biggest games. He was hired to bring championships to the Bulldogs.
So far, Smart trails Richt. Thanks to the humbling loss to the Crimson Tide last month, Smart remains stuck on one SEC title, in 2017. Richt won two SEC championships in his first five seasons in Athens.
Smart’s big-game history also includes an overtime loss to the Crimson Tide in the 2017 national championship game.
By bringing the Bulldogs to another national title game, Smart has made Georgia a regular part of the championship picture. He has brought Georgia to the biggest games.
Saban has blocked Smart’s path to big-game success. Smart can change that script by winning the biggest game of all in his second national title appearance against Alabama.
Saban has won seven national championships, including six in the last 12 years at Alabama. He is looking for back-to-back titles with the Crimson Tide.
Smart was the defensive coordinator on Saban’s Alabama staff before he was hired to lead Georgia’s program.
Smart’s Bulldogs were 12-0 following their first undefeated regular season since 1982 and on track for their first national championship in 41 years before the SEC title game loss to Alabama.
Sure, Smart doesn’t deny that Saban and Alabama are a hurdle the Bulldogs have not yet cleared. Smart says he’s not alone.
Smart said the Crimson Tide “have also been a problem and a thorn for any team they’ve played besides ours. We have that in common with a lot of teams.”
Smart knew better than to celebrate Friday’s runaway rout of Michigan in the Orange Bowl. He called a timeout and put a firm roadblock on plans by running backs Zamir White and James Cook to empty a watercooler on his head at the end of the game.
Playoff semifinal wins don’t merit watercooler baths. Only minutes after the game, Smart already was looking ahead to Alabama.
“I was wanting to get a real shower, not a Gatorade bath, because I want to get focused on Alabama,” Smart said after Friday’s win, before adding, “To be honest with you guys, I’m not interested in celebrating that.”
Players got the message. They know what’s at stake.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett said Monday a heavy burden accompanies Georgia’s national championship drought.
“Maybe I’m not capable of holding that weight on my shoulders, but, no, I’m just treating it as a football game,” Bennett said. “Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people? Yes. Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No. I don’t think that’s my job.”
Indeed, that is Smart’s job.
If Bennett feels that weight as a former walk-on, then Smart surely must carry a much greater load. Smart is coaching for championship-starved fans and for his lifetime commitment to the Bulldogs as a player, assistant and coach.
Smart showed no sign of that burden one week before another big-game test.
“Our guys are excited and being excited to work and really take another shot and go play these guys,” Smart said, adding he has “a lot of respect for Alabama and coach Saban and everything they’ve been able to do. And we know that we’ve got to play one of our best games and our guys are excited for the opportunity.”