Skip to main content

Georgia's Kirby Smart on Facing Alabama, Rivalry With Nick Saban

We're less than a week away from the national championship, and the Georgia Bulldogs find themselves as favorites in round two against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

After soundly defeating Michigan in the first round of the College Football Playoffs, the Georgia Bulldogs are in familiar territory when it comes to facing the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national title game. 

In 2017, Georgia took Alabama into overtime before freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa connected with receiver DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 for the game-winning score.

Now, the Bulldogs have a chance to etch their own name in the history of the College Football Playoffs on Monday, Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium against their familiar foe. 

On Monday, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart spoke with reporters about a wide array of topics. Here's a transcript of his teleconference, provided by the College Football Playoffs:

Kirby Smart Speaks

Opening statements: Indianapolis has been the spot of a lot of national championships I've been able to watch growing up, and excited to play in such a great venue. And sounds like we're fortunate we're not playing outside based on the weather that I'm hearing about.

Our guys are excited and being excited to work and really take another shot and go play these guys. And got 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.

Q. What is it about the leadership skills of great linebackers, I'm talking about Nakobe (Dean) in your case, but are you aware of Will Anderson Jr., and they play similar roles for these two teams. Could you expand on that topic?

COACH SMART: I think that position is a position that ties the front to the back. And when you're in the middle kind of it takes extreme toughness to play at that position. And you've got to have some coverage skills. You've got to understand the defense inside and out.

You certainly can become a very good leader. If you had a quarterback on defense, I think it would be at the linebacker position because they make so many calls.

And Will, certainly, does that. He's an exceptional rusher, twitchy, plays so hard, high motor, physical toughness. A lot of the same things you can say about Nakobe, although they play different positions.

Q. Could you talk about the dynamics of playing an opponent two times in close proximity? I think you were part of that with Alabama and LSU and certainly in a game of this magnitude. And second part, if you could touch on this, you alluded after the game, talking about Alabama had a five- or six-hour start getting ready for this game. I think you've been on both ends of that as well. Is that a true advantage, even those few hours can make a difference?

COACH SMART: I don't know that it makes a huge difference when there's a normal space between the game. We played in a unique situation the last time we played them with the Rose Bowl turnaround, the national championship was extremely short. And with the Rose Bowl not changing their date it made for a West Coast flight that was a really, really, really quick turnaround.

We actually played the earlier game in that scenario. And they played the later game. But the turnaround was quicker. This turnaround is a little different because of the amount of time in between them. I was just referencing that we finished a little bit later and didn't get home until the next day.

But when you're playing a rematch game, I think a lot can go into it in terms of you've got to be careful because you've got things and games in your breakdown that might change this game in terms of we didn't have the SEC Championship game, obviously, in our breakdown, then the playoff game. And what tendencies changed, what matchups we're looking for, who is in, who is out.

There's a lot of things that go into it. But at the end of the day, you're really not as worried about what they're doing; you're worried about what you're doing and how well you can do that is the most important part.

Q. Your guys responded well to the tough loss against Alabama. Is it harder to have the same edge coming off a game where everything went right, or is given that everything is on the line, is that an issue at all?

COACH SMART: You're saying coming off of playing well? How does that affect this game?

Q. Because they were coming off a loss that they had maybe more of an edge wanting to prove something that they were as good as they showed earlier in the year.

COACH SMART: We're focused on playing them and this game is irrelevant of the game we just played. And it's really separate from the SEC Championship, other than obviously will be using that tape to look at matchups and look at tendencies and things.

But we're certainly -- we've worked really hard the last, whatever, 30 days at getting better at us. And it was never about Michigan or Alabama or Cincinnati. It was about us. It doesn't change on who your opponent is. You try to scheme to find matchups. But at the end of the day we've been trying to get our players better regardless of who we were going to play.

Q. Just double-check on Brock Bowers, you touched on him. He dinged his shoulder a little bit a couple of weeks ago. Any further word on him?

COACH SMART: He's good. He was good in the game. That same shoulder has bothered him all year, to be honest. It's not like it's something new that just came up. It bothers him from time to time at practice.

It happens to a lot of our players, to be honest with you. I had it when I played. It's something you have to just deal with and in the offseason we'll get a look at it, see if it needs to be repaired surgically or whether or not it's something that he can rehab and continue to strengthen the muscles around it.

But he's a football player. It's not going to go away in season. A lot of our guys are dealing with that.

Q. Question about the dynamic that Alabama occupies, the mental space it occupies in the heads of either you, your coaching staff, your players, the Crimson Tide has taken on a bogeyman quality for Georgia in that they're the benchmark to which often this program is compared but also one that seems to always get the best of your team. How do you handle that mental dynamic whether you're preparing your athletes to play them for a second time in such a short time span?

COACH SMART: First off, what is the bogeyman? What did you reference it as?

Q. I said Alabama is a bogeyman to Georgia football.

COACH SMART: I don't know exactly what that is, so it's hard for me to answer that question, other than they've 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.

They have a really good football team, really good coach, really good program. It starts with really good football players. And they've done a good job recruiting those. And I think when you look at the skill set of some of the guys they've had come through there, and I know myself, just looking at the last two or three times we've played them, I think somebody said either six or seven first-round wideouts have all played.

And that skill set is pretty unique. I don't think there's any team in the country that's had, however many it's been, the run they've had on those. And you've got to play well. You've got to play well in the red area. You've got to play well situational football. You can't turn the ball over and expect to beat good football teams. Those are things that we have done when we played them. We turned it over.

And we can't do that. But as far as the mental capacity, mental mindset of our guys, they're excited. They earned another opportunity to go play a really good football team. Now we've got a really good football team. Our guys are physical, excited and looking forward to this opportunity on the biggest stage there is.

Q. You guys didn't get much pressure on Bryce Young in the first meeting. What can you do to change that and how important a dynamic is that in this game?

COACH SMART: It's really important. They did a good job -- No. 1, he did a good job of moving around in the pocket, of creating time. He's really way more illusive than people give him credit for. Extremely good athlete. Has elite spatial awareness. He knows where people are, where his people are, where he's protected, where he's going with the ball beforehand.

And it wasn't for a lack of trying. And we brought a lot of different pressures. They did a good job picking those pressures up. And at the end of the day, there's four or five guys that are one-on-one up there. Somebody's got to win one-on-one. And a lot of times you're better at pressure when you're not on the field as long and you're winning some third downs.

We had some really critical third-down losses that, hey, they didn't beat us. We busted. And you can't do that, not and beat a good football team. You're giving them extra snaps every time that happens, and you can't do that.

Q. Wanted to ask you, I think one of the remarkable things about these two programs is that obviously you recruit a lot of good players, but so many to the point where I think people will ask, wow, if you want to play early, wouldn't it be better to go someplace else because there are so many good players on these rosters. How do you sell in recruiting even if you don't play right away, this is still the best place for you to be surrounded by these other great players?

COACH SMART: Because the truly great players understand that no NFL scout or general manager or head coach has called me and said how much time did Roquan Smith, how much did Nakobe Dean play as a freshman. That's not what they care about. They care about the intangibles, size-speed criteria, leadership skills, how good a football player are they in Year 3. That's what they want. They start evaluating those guys really hard in Year 3.

You want to be the best player you can be in three years. Where do you go to do that? You go where you can compete against really good people in practice. You get millions more snaps in practice than you do in a game. So you want to go against the best; where does the best pass rusher want to go? Against the best tackles. Where does the best tackle want to go? Against the best pass rushers. Where am I going to develop the best? Where have they proven that they can take me from a really talented player to a disciplined team-buy-in, NFL-type offense and defense and special teams and they can grow?

The kids looking for that they can find that at these programs. So it's an easier decision than you think, because it's not just about playing early. I've seen a lot of guys play early and not get better and not grow, not have the same nutrition, the same strength staff. And they might not leave as good as they would have, but they played early.

I've seen some guys get impatient here and there and leave and have regret over leaving because if they had stayed they would have been a better football player for staying.

Q. Obvious storyline is Kirby Smart versus Nick Saban. I know the players on the field decide it, but this is your sixth year building this program. I guess this would be your fifth straight top-10 finish. Do you embrace that, or is it something that you prefer to downplay? And in terms of just how fluid is it in game -- I think we've seen you lead at halftime in three out of these previous four matchups. It looks like a chess match from the outside. How true would that be?

COACH SMART: It's been games of momentum. They've done a good job at momentum in the second half. Each game has been different. 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.

It's about the players. It's about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that, the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions -- the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games, not he and I.