ATLANTA — It is almost an insult to put the words “Nick Saban” anywhere near the top of this column. Comparisons can and will be made, especially after Georgia’s 28-7 SEC and College Football Playoff-clinching win over Auburn was so clinical the Alabama coach could have claimed plagiarism.
But Nick was sitting at home somewhere else Saturday night … hoping for a College Football Playoff berth. Kirby Smart — his former defensive coordinator — was on top of the world.
Or at least the SEC version of it — in newly built Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a newly crowned SEC champion in his second year as a head coach.
So, step aside, Nick. This is Kirby’s time, Kirby’s doing, Kirby’s team, Kirby’s alma mater.
It’s true Smart emerged from Saban’s shadow just two years ago despite turning down many job offers over the years. He could have filled a scrapbook with a printout of his cell phone calls.
This is why athletic directors all over the country are falling over themselves trying to hire someone like Kirby Smart.
The turnaround has to be … yesterday.
This is why Kirby came home, and this is why Mark Richt isn’t here. You come to compare the feeling of winning four national championships as an assistant at Bama feels to his first SEC ring coaching his alma mater.
“All of those I won at Alabama … they felt awesome, too,” Smart said, “because it’s hard to do. This one feels the same way.”
And the feeling isn’t over. The Dawgs can sleep in tomorrow secure that they’re only the eighth different team in the CFP’s four-year history.
It’s an exclusive club, title contenders, one that Georgia hasn’t been able to break into for decades.
Saturday marked 12 years between SEC championships for Georgia. The end of a longing that was reflected by Smart himself. The usually stoic coach — another Saban reflection — ran a truncated lap near a corner of the stadium where Dawg fans had congregated.
“Bulldog Nation,” Smart said, “is certainly starved.”
That was the colorful Kirby we never saw at Alabama because Saban doesn’t let his assistants speak.
Winning an SEC title will bring that out, though. Bo Jackson sidled up to Smart before the game.
“He’s my childhood idol. I worshipped Bo Jackson,” Smart said. “He comes up to me before the game and said, ‘A lot of pressure in this job, isnt’ it?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah, it is.’
“But that’s why we do it — for moments like this.”
Decades ago, this was the same man who ran a different kind of lap in the hot Georgia sun, same as his players today.
Smart played as a defensive back for Ray Goff and Jim Donnan from 1995-98. That helps credibility. That helped Saturday.
“He shows one side,” linebacker Davin Bellamy said.
“Rippin’ your butt.”
Yet another similarity to Saban, who hired Smart as a defensive backs coach at LSU in 2004. Smart returned at Alabama in 2007 and stayed nine seasons while becoming Saban’s top coaching lieutenant.
“He gets it. He understands,” tight end Isaac Nauta said. “You’re going to rally behind a guy like that. He knows what it’s like to not make it.”
Not making it would be defined as going 8-5 in Smart’s first Georgia season. Not making it would be losing his starting quarterback (Jacob Eason) in the season opener. But for only the second time (in seven tries) in the game’s 26-year history, a championship rematch didn’t end up in a sweep.
That made the 40-17 pasting at Auburn on Nov. 11 merely a hiccup. Georgia combined equal parts revenge, quarterback Jake Fromm and linebacker Roquan Smith into a 44-point turnaround that could be heard all the way from here to Athens.
The Dawgs adjusted. The Auburn defensive line that harassed Fromm three weeks ago was kept off him. This was the Fromm who was so efficient as a true freshman after Eason went down — 16 of 22, 183 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers.
Smith was the “tackling machine” that Smart calls him — 13 tackles, tying a career high with two fumble recoveries, a sack and two tackles for loss. championship.
Yes, the first Auburn meeting was a hiccup.
“Walking off the field that day was a terrible feeling,” Nuata said. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“We knew we would see them again,” Bellamy said. “That was the plan in our head. The weight room had TVs with [replays of] them dancing. It got us fired up.”
So did Gus Malzahn’s “We beat the dog crap out of them,” comment coming off the field Nov. 11. Revenge in football is the most common motivator.
In a league that has had a problem recently finding the right leader — five new ones at least for 2018 — Smart was the perfect match at the perfect time.
“He always wanted Georgia,” said a member of Smart’s inner circle standing outside the locker room. “He never knew if he was going to get it.”
That changed after Alabama’s national championship in 2015. The planets aligned. Richt was fired, and the search extended all the way to one guy.
“The first day he came and spoke to us, he was busy with Alabama winning the championship,” tailback Nick Chubb said. “He just looked exhausted. We’re like, ‘Man, what’s this man been up to?'”
Like we told you, there are similarities. Smart believes in the tenets of SEC football. Run the ball, stop the run and don’t get too fancy.
This game turned when Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham was stripped and fumbled early in the second quarter. Georgia ended the half scoring 10 unanswered points and outgaining the Tigers 139-17. Momentum had been seized.
With 10:34 left in the game, the Mercedes-Benz scoreboard declared, “The SEC would like to congratulate the Georgia Bulldogs.”
It’s never too early to celebrate.
It’s hard to remember now, but Richt actually won an SEC title in his second year as a coach at Georgia in 2001.
That didn’t seem to matter Saturday night.
“God put it on everybody’s heart to get Coach Richt out,” Georgia tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “Then put it on Coach Smart’s heart to accept the job here.”
SEC pretenders for years, Georgia was a program with plenty of history but little follow-through since that 1980 national championship with Herschel Walker. Few teams in the country are covered more intensely. Saturday made that coverage deserved. The Dawgs will now chase their third national championship beginning New Year’s Day.
But first, they and their coach have to sleep in.
“What time’s that [selection] show on tomorrow?” the gutty former Bulldog defensive back said. “12:30 or something? A little over 12 hours. I tell you what, you’d better enjoy it. It’s well earned.”