It became a little more real Thursday night. Georgia’s head football coach sat on a stage with three other coaches against the backdrop of a screen reading: College Football Playoff.
A championship trophy sat in the middle, on a table, likely with lasers locked on it, ready to vaporize the first coach who attempted to grab it on a read-option.
Getting to this isn’t point isn’t new for Kirby Smart, having coached on four championship teams as an assistant under Nick Saban. But it’s new for him as a head coach. It’s certainly a new experience for the Bulldogs. They haven’t been this close to glory since 1982.
A state of Bulldogs fans have agonized over failed expectations, or a tease, or abject failure for more than three decades since. Hey, no pressure.
“The pressure I put on myself as a defensive coordinator in trying to try to win championships at Alabama was very similar or the same,” Smart said Thursday night. “I want to be as prepared as we can be. That doesn’t change when you go to this seat. Certainly, the responsibility changes and the focus changes.”
The occasion was a pre-playoffs press conference Thursday night for the four participating coach. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who’ve won the last two championships and will meet in the Sugar Bowl, sat on the left. Smart and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, the relative newbies to this sort of thing as head coaches and whose teams will face each other in the Rose Bowl, sat on the right.
Smart just led the Dogs to their first SEC championship since 2005 and a playoff berth in only his second season. But Georgia’s last national came 37 years ago. The last time the program was in position to win anything more than a bowl game (post-SEC title) was 1982.
Smart coached in the playoffs two years ago. He also played and has coached in non-championship bowl games. There’s a difference.
“It’s not your typical bowl game,” he said. “We’re not going to ride rides and do that kind of thing. That’s not the purpose of this trip, and I don’t think you get that perspective if you haven’t been through it.”
In 1982, Georgia won its first 11 games and was ranked No. 1 going into the Sugar Bowl, but the season didn’t end well. The Bulldogs lost to No. 2 Penn State 27-23. They had rallied from a 20-3 deficit and made it close with a touchdown with 3:54 left. But Herschel Walker was stopped short for a two-point conversion that would’ve put Georgia in position to win it with a field goal and Penn State ran out the final few minutes, converting twice on third down.
Walker would say later, “When they made that last first down, I turned to the guy who was standing next to me and said, ‘We won’t be going out there again.’”
Georgia’s 35-year wait to get back to a relative title shot puts the program in the role of relative interloper among the four. Consider the other three:
-- Clemson is the defending national champion. It’s in the playoffs for the third straight year. It has been in the title game the last two seasons. Prior to last year, the Tigers previous national championship came in 1981, the year after Georgia last won it.
-- Alabama has made the playoff field in all four years of its existence. The Crimson Tide has won four of the last seven national titles (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015). We can debate whether Alabama actually had the resume to get in this season over Ohio State, given it didn’t even play for the SEC championship and had an unimpressive slate of wins. But now that the Tide is here, would you feel comfortable betting against them? (Note: Alabama is the slight betting favorite to win it all at 9/5, followed by Clemson (5/2), Oklahoma (11/4) and Georgia (10/3).
--Oklahoma was in the playoff two years ago, losing a semifinal to Clemson, won a national championship in 2000 and also lost BCS title games in 2003 (to LSU and Saban), 2004 (to USC) and 2008 (to Florida).
There was an amusing exchange between Saban and Swinney when the Clemson coach was asked about voting Ohio State fourth on his last coach’s ballot ahead of Alabama.
Swinney: “You want the honest answer? It was a moment of insanity. Three o’clock in the morning, on a bus coming back from (the ACC title game) im Charlotte, and I said, ‘Oh, I have to do this bowl thing.’ I looked at it and saw Ohio State had 11 wins, Alabama had 11 wins, Ohio State had just won the Big Ten.”
Saban: “He was just disrepecting his alma mater.”
Swinney: “I tried to get rid of them.”
They’ve coached in the last two championship games. They can afford to be funny.
Smart and Riley found each other by accident earlier in the day, recruiting at the same high school.
“I walked into a local hjigh school and the first guy I saw was him,” Smart said. “He was going solo and I was going solo. We talked for a while.”
Both want what Saban and Swinney have won as head coaches. Georgia is happy to finally be back at the table.
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