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Alabama, Conquered: How Kirby Smart, Georgia Finally Broke Through to Win It All

The Bulldogs snapped a 41-year championship drought, beating the best coach of all time, and that ‘outside noise,’ to get it done.

INDIANAPOLIS—When the Georgia Bulldogs filtered back into their locker room after their only loss of the 2021 season, there were tears, there was anger and there was resolve.

The Alabama 41, Georgia 24 scoreline in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 4 wasn’t supposed to happen. Not again. Not this year, of all years, when the Dogs finally had a better team than their nemesis. Right then and there, they set about making sure it didn’t happen a second time this season.

“Want the honest to God truth? I cried,” linebacker Nolan Smith said. “I’m 20 now. I’ve been playing football since I was 4—16 years, haven’t won anything, haven’t won a championship. I won a couple of bowl games, but anything big, any championship, I never won yet.”

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For a ringless bunch of Bulldogs, that hunger to win something immediately turned the sting of unexpected defeat into an even higher level of motivation. Their season didn’t end that day in Atlanta. In one respect, it was just beginning.

“The outside noise begins now,” coach Kirby Smart said that Saturday in Atlanta. “We’ve heard it before.”

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Oh boy, had they. And now it would be deafening, 41 years of frustration echoing around this team. Alabama and coach Nick Saban had tortured Georgia and Smart, serving as their championship impediment over and over. The 2017 national championship game. The 2018 SEC championship game. A top-five showdown in Tuscaloosa last year that helped decide who would win that national title. Now this.

Before Smart could even begin the postgame address to his team, several of his veteran players performed a miniature intervention. Favored by a touchdown and beaten by 17, they knew two important things: They were better than they played that day, and they would have to face the Crimson Tide again on the way to a championship.

Ultimately, Alabama had to be conquered. And now the Bulldogs knew what it would take to do it.

“We’re burning the boats,” Smart said of the all-or-nothing quest his team had undertaken. “The only way is through.”

Kelee Ringo was running—to daylight, to deliverance, to the end zone. He chased down 41 years of ghosts and five years of Alabama torture. He broke free and took Georgia fans with him on a cathartic 79-yard sprint with an interception of Bryce Young.

The Bulldogs’ first touchdown of this tour-de-force defensive season was a pick-six—the only touchdown of their season-opening win against Clemson. And now their last touchdown of the season would be a pick-six—the capper and Bama backbreaker in a 33–18 triumph in the College Football Playoff national title game Monday.

Ringo personifies the recruiting reach that has turned Georgia into a powerhouse under Smart. He was a five-star prospect from Arizona who was pursued by everyone, taking visits to Ohio State, Oregon and Texas before deciding to go with the Dogs. He was a significant reason why Georgia’s 2020 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the nation, along with the '18 and '19 classes.

Georgia's defense put more pressure on Young and Alabama, producing four sacks and two interceptions.

Georgia's defense put more pressure on Young and Alabama, producing four sacks and two interceptions.

Smart was running, too. Along the sideline, chasing Ringo, knowing what that play could mean as the Bulldogs wrapped their paws around this game. But Smart was also yelling as he ran—urging Ringo to go down, to avoid being stripped, figuring his team could run out the clock. “That was the wrong call,” Smart acknowledged afterward, since Alabama still had three timeouts. Ringo did the right thing by taking that interception to the house and making it a two-score game.

Smart’s overpowering defense had been shockingly shredded in December’s SEC title game, producing zero sacks and zero turnovers while giving up its most points of the season by far. The tweak from that game to this: more man-to-man coverage, less zone, more blitzers going after Young. And the Georgia defense got its revenge, producing four sacks and two interceptions of Young, hitting him repeatedly and forcing 22 incompletions. The Dogs’ D kept the Crimson Tide out of the end zone for nearly 50 minutes, rising up repeatedly in the red zone and surrendering just one touchdown. Alabama’s 18 points were its fewest in 40 games, since the 2018 CFP championship game loss to Clemson.

“It’s the defense that kept us in this game while we were stumbling over our own feet,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “The defense won this game.”

And defense is Smart’s calling card. As the first FBS coach to win a national title at his alma mater since Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee in 1998, Smart has acute knowledge of what this decades-long wait has been like for the Georgia fan base. “They’ve become legendary,” he said of his players.

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“How great are the dangers I face to win a good name in Athens.”  —Alexander the Great

Different Athens, of course. Different time, by two millennia and change. Different leader, too. But Kirby Smart certainly can relate to Alexander the Great.

Smart’s quest to forever win a good name in his home state had to go through the most difficult trial in college football. He had to defeat Saban—the greatest coach in the history of the sport and Smart’s mentor—for the first time.

Many other coaches have failed to beat the GOAT, of course. But Smart was hired off Saban’s Alabama staff for that precise purpose—to awaken the sleeping giant that is Georgia and to elevate it to the exalted plane occupied by the Crimson Tide. The imbalance had gone on for too long.

At a place like Alabama, where the championships just keep coming, it can be hard to distinguish them. Who was the quarterback in 2015? Jake Coker? I’d almost forgotten him. At Georgia, the one undisputed, undefeated title stands out in bittersweet bold type. The 1980 team will forever hold its own place in program lore, when Vince Dooley finally won it all behind an almost mythical freshman running back named Herschel Walker. “A complete team,” Dooley says. “In every phase of the game, we were good. It was a special team.”