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Kirby Smart and Georgia Determined to Close the Gap on Alabama

Kirby Smart has implemented a new motto entering this season, giving the Bulldogs added motivation to knock Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide off the SEC mountaintop.

HOOVER, Ala. – Georgia and Kirby Smart can’t shake Alabama. Two years ago, Alabama prevented them from winning a national championship. Last year, Alabama stood in their way of an SEC title and playoff appearance. On Tuesday, Alabama hung over their experience at SEC media days, the annual unofficial kickoff event held at the Hyatt Regency in a Birmingham suburb, which is, of course, located in the state of Alabama. They’re already nauseous of Alabama talk, whether they admit it or not. Many of the questions here during the Bulldogs’ spin through this media circus were about their cross-division rival. They were prepared for them. “I knew it was going to come,” senior defensive back J.R. Reed says, a dozen media members encircling him. “They give us zero motivation,” he answered to another question about the Crimson Tide. “What motivates me is the ‘G’ on our shirt.” But it’s the red, script ‘A’ on Georgia’s 2017 and 2018 tombstones that resonate for many others.

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Smart has an idea for beating the Crimson Tide. “Get rid of the backup quarterback,” the fourth-year coach jested here Tuesday. “That’s part of the plan.” Mac Jones, Alabama’s presumed No. 2 quarterback entering camp, need not arm himself. Smart has more real and legal plans to beat his old boss Nick Saban. For one, he’s developed this year a new, two-word motto for his squad: Do More, which one Georgia player says was somewhat inspired by the two close losses to the Tide. More sprints, more lifts, more film study. More of everything. The way to beat Alabama is to “work, work, work,” says Reed. It is also to recruit, recruit and recruit again. No SEC coach has matched, if not exceeded, Saban on the recruiting trail than his former defensive coordinator. It was Georgia in 2018 that ended the Tide’s seven-year streak of signing the No. 1 recruiting class in 247Sports’ composite rankings. It is Georgia that’s actually signed more five-star products since Smart’s first class in 2016 (18) than Alabama (14). UGA is the only conference member within an arm's length of the Tide.

Outsiders often refer to the SEC as a one-team league, but Smart and Co. have truly made it a two-team conference. The two programs have combined to sign 32 five-star rated products over the last four classes. The other 12 teams in the league have signed 24. Alabama and Georgia, excluding their own games, have won 48 of the last 51 SEC games they’ve played. Auburn took a game from each and LSU beat UGA last season. It is, like, 1A and 1B, Alabama and Georgia, two juggernauts and bordering state schools, for the most part clobbering their league competition and bruising one another in two titanic postseason games. 1A won them both, albeit barely. Smart wisely addressed the Alabama elephant during his introductory statement on the main pulpit of media days. “We understand how close we’ve been to taking the next step,” he said. “Our mission is to bridge the gap.”

It seems closer than it’s ever been. Heck, it seems closer than anybody’s ever been since Urban Meyer's run at Florida ended in 2010. “What we’ve shown is we can match their physicality,” Smart says. “We’ve got to finish.” In 443 minutes of Alabama-verses-Georgia football the last two years, the Bulldogs trailed for less than 90 seconds of them. They’ve out-gained Alabama in yards (819-774) and first downs (45-41), too, and have two Ls to show for it. There is a burning desire for Game 3. The Bulldogs want to play a best-of-five. “Hopefully we see those guys soon,” Reed says. The belief is there. “We have the talent to get back,” says junior offensive tackle Andrew Thomas. Look no further than those star-studded signing classes for proof. So how small is the gap between these two SEC giants? Maybe you can measure it in inches, when everyone else in the league—even Auburn and LSU—is using yardsticks. LSU has lost eight straight to the Tide, the last four by double digits, and Auburn has lost four of five by margins of 11, 16, 18 and 31 points.

The task is tall. Smart has to overcome a couple of skids. The Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Tide since 2007, a five-game losing streak, and Saban has never lost to a former assistant. He’s beaten eight ex-staff members a total of 16 times. Amid a flurry of questions asked to Smart on Tuesday, one touched on that fact. The fraternity in which he resides is 0-and-16, a reporter said to him, against the old boss. “I am,” Smart shot back, “well aware.”