HOOVER — Kirby Smart couldn’t help but smile when he interrupted a reporter’s question on Tuesday.
The fourth-year head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs was at the podium during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Hotel when a reporter began his question saying, “Nick Saban’s assistants or former assistants are like 0-16 against them, or 0 and something.”
With a smile on his face, Smart leaned into the microphone and said “I’m well aware.”
The response from the former Saban disciple, and Alabama defensive coordinator, drew quite a bit of laughter from the crowd.
Smart has taken the defeats to his old boss-mentor in stride despite both of those losses preventing them from hoisting a championship trophy. The 2017 season saw Alabama rally to beat UGA 26-23 in overtime in the national championship game, and then last season the Crimson Tide once again rallied to beat the Bulldogs — this time 35-28 in the SEC Championship game.
So how does UGA get over the hump when it comes to knocking Alabama off the SEC mountaintop? Easy. Don’t focus on Alabama.
“Well, the next step for us, and I don’t mean this to be trite, but it’s Vanderbilt,” Smart said. “You have to get to that point because we don’t have Alabama on our schedule. We know Alabama has been very powerful in this conference for a long time. We respect the job they do. I got a lot of respect for Coach Saban and his program. I probably wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. I also understand we have a really good program too.”
Smart further added, “We have been able to recruit at a high level. I’m excited about this team coming back. The biggest thing is concerning ourselves with us and not concerning ourselves with somebody else.”
Kirby and his staff are looking to put how the team finished last season behind them. Despite suffering a lopsided loss at LSU during the regular season, Georgia remained in the hunt for another berth into the College Football Playoff.
The Bulldogs though lost to the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game which kept them out fo the playoff, and had to settle for playing in the AllState Sugar Bowl. UGA though would be outplayed in 28-21 loss to Texas — a game in which the Longhorns were the more physical team.
That means there is no shortage of motivation for the Bulldogs.
“It’s easy,” Smart said. “You turn it on and see. It’s more than the fourth quarter. It is the performance against Texas which we’re not proud of. We have to grow and get better. There’s learning experiences all across the board.”
Smart further added, “Going to Baton Rouge, tough experience. We didn’t play our best game. We have to go on the road in the SEC this year and play in some really tough environments. Biggest thing we take from those, we learn, but we also learn from our victories. We had quite a few of those last year too.”
Helping with that learning experience is the fact that UGA returns a veteran quarterback in Jake Fromm who is entering his third season as a starter. In his past two seasons, Fromm has thrown for 5,376 yards and 54 TD.
“First of all, I’m extremely excited he’s our quarterback,” Smart said. “He is the leader of our program, the face of our organization, a guy that has given so much to Georgia and Georgia means so much to.
“As far as where he stacks up in the NFL, I don’t think that’s for me to determine,” Smart added. “I think Jake’s got tremendous ability. He’s a leader. That’s the first quality you look for.”
Right now what Smart and his staff are looking for is taking that next step as a program — from nationally-ranked contender to a champion.
“We like it because we understand how close we’ve been to taking the next step,” Smart said. “And although 24 and 5 the last two seasons is good, it’s not good enough. It’s not where we expect to be at the University of Georgia.”