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ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia coach Kirby Smart, on the cusp of playing Alabama for the SEC title on Saturday, delivers a sheepish grin when asked if he has any childhood memories of the last time Georgia went undefeated in the regular season (1982) or won the national title (1980).
Smart grew up the middle child of Sonny and Sharon Smart, a coach-teacher husband-wife tandem who hopscotched through the South to follow Sonny’s coaching jobs. That meant Kirby grew up outside Montgomery, Alabama, and wasn’t in tune during his early childhood years when the Bulldogs last won the sport’s biggest prize.
“I'm embarrassed to say it,” Smart said, “but I don't remember really anything because I was living in Alabama.”
Smart, 45, has Georgia on the brink of the type of delirium that has been missing in this football-crazed state for four decades. And what’s grown as Georgia has pushed toward the school’s first national title since 1980 is the palpable longing of a school, town and state that has been starved for success at the highest level.
Georgia enters the SEC title game against Alabama on Saturday as a near-touchdown favorite. Even with a loss in that game, the Bulldogs would enter the College Football Playoff as the betting favorite. The inevitability of Georgia’s playoff bid has only amplified the lusty anguish of the fan base. “They're hungry,” Smart told Yahoo Sports this week. “I mean, they're starving for that success.”
Georgia’s run has been hallmarked by a historically good defense under coordinator Dan Lanning, as the Bulldogs are allowing just 6.9 points per game. That’s the most dominant defense the sport has seen since Oklahoma in 1986, when the sport was a shadow of the spread and pass-based offenses that dominate today.
That dominance comes in a year of relative offensive impotence in the sport, as there’s no sure-fire Top 15 quarterback and an increasing chance that a defensive player — including Georgia’s Jordan Davis — could win the Heisman Trophy. Georgia has the most talented roster in the sport, and could see a record 17 players picked in the NFL draft next year.
Georgia has been close, as the Bulldogs played Alabama to overtime in the 2017 season's national title game, which they led 13-0 at halftime. Smart has won 82 percent of his games at Georgia and recruited at such an elite level where a title feels imminent in upcoming years.
“You get enough at-bats, you usually get a hit,” Smart said. “And that's what we're trying to do, is not have arches and highs and lows. We're trying to be very consistent.”
That doesn’t calm the longing of the fan base, which Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett summed up with emotion and elegance. As a Georgia native, he understands the raw emotion that comes with the upcoming high-stakes games.
“It’s hard to try not to think about it, just once you think about it then it's easy to let it get overwhelming because it does mean so much,” Bennett told Yahoo Sports this week. “And my job right now is just to win football games and let what it means for other people mean what it does for them.”
Bennett is a senior quarterback who grew up in Blackshear, Georgia, going to games with his father. He remembers his dad listening to games on the radio in the stadium, clinging to the action described by Larry Munson as it unfolded in front of them. Bennett recalls crying after the SEC title game in 2012. “Just a feeling inside,” he said. “You don’t really know, just a feeling inside. You don't really know why you feel it, but you just do.”
Bennett went on to articulate the sociology of fandom at a Ph.D. level, an education by personal osmosis.
“It's hard to quantify how much it means to people and why it means so much to people,” he said. “Sports in general, but I think especially football, are a microcosm of life and when your team can win something, I guess it gives you hope. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but there's just an entire inflated sense of pride in your school, in your state. Even if you have no personal connections to Georgia, you can draw on them.”
Smart has never beaten Alabama coach Nick Saban, his mentor and former boss, in three attempts. But there’s a hope amid the Georgia fan base that this game could serve as a pivot point for SEC dominance. Alabama has won six of the past 10 SEC titles. Georgia has won one in that time, Smart’s lone title in 2017. Overall, Georgia has won just three SEC titles since the undefeated 1982 regular season.
Predicting any kind of hostile takeover or axis shift is dangerous as there’s infinite gigabytes of cloud space dedicated to Alabama dynasty obituaries. But Smart is 45 and Saban is 70, so it’s safe to say that Georgia is the leader in the clubhouse to be the next SEC school to follow Alabama’s run of dominance. The variable would be when that potential transition would take place.
In a way, Saban has helped enable this UGA run. Smart’s blueprint — especially in recruiting — comes straight from Tuscaloosa. Georgia had never spent, built and invested in a staff like a high-end SEC school until Smart came to town and $175 million in football upgrades soon followed. A former UGA staffer described the overhaul perfectly: “Kirby took it from a Mustang and turned it into a Ferrari.”
Smart has Georgia in the fast lane, hammer dropped down and ahead of most everyone in the sport. Part of that is exhilarating to the fan base, which sees a No. 1 recruiting class for 2022, a former star player on the sideline and a facility boom collide with the passion and talent base for the results they always felt they deserved. There were six high school players from the state of Georgia selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, another reminder that local talent hasn’t been an issue. (Two went to UGA, DB Eric Stokes and QB Justin Fields spent a year there before transferring.)
Smart’s exacting style and tunnel vision has brought everything together.
“It starts from the head coach all the way down to the custodian and everyone in between,” Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks said. “The mindset of how everyone works and treats their job day in and day out. But you're seeing the combination of support and a plan and everything come together, and I think that's what the success to this point has been about.”
And that leaves the final step inches away and yet still daunting until it’s traversed. In the UGA athletic offices, longtime athletic employee Loran Smith, who first got hired there in 1964, perhaps understands the yearning for the final steps the best.
“It’s not like we’re being deprived,” said Smith, who has written more than 10 books on UGA football. “We just haven’t had the icing on the cake.”