Pretty much the entirety of Smart’s career has been spent not only pursuing championships, but playing for them and winning them at Alabama and Georgia.
None of that will matter Monday night at SoFi Stadium. The winner will be decided by plays on the field, not championships on the résumé.
“This is obviously our first time to be on a stage like this,” said Dykes, in his first season with the Horned Frogs. “Our players have really responded well to the challenge of taking all this in, because it’s new for us. It’s unchartered territory for most of our players. We have four players on our team that had ever participated in a bowl game before this year’s Fiesta Bowl. I’m proud of how they’ve handled everything.”
On the other side is Smart. This is his third national championship-game appearance in his last five seasons at Georgia. The Bulldogs seek to become the first program in the playoff era to win a national championship in back-to-back years.
Smart was a member of the coaching staff at Alabama when it became college football’s last repeat national champion in 2011-12. He coached in the first two playoffs as defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide before coming to Georgia. In only his second season with the Bulldogs, they faced Alabama in the title game, losing in overtime.
The fact that Georgia is favored to repeat as national champion a year removed from losing 15 players to the NFL draft – including eight off its vaunted defense – is what makes the Bulldogs’ story special. Las Vegas has posted Georgia as a 12.5-point favorite in Monday night’s contest.
Win or not, the sustained success UGA has established under Smart has been matched only by his previous employer in recent college football history.
“A lot of hard work, a standard, a belief in the culture within it,” said Smart, in his seventh season with the Bulldogs. “It doesn’t start when the season starts. It starts Tuesday when the season ends, and it just continues. I don’t know that you can relax and just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be fine.’ You have to make it happen. And I think each and every year you have a different team.
“Obviously, recruiting plays a part of that. If you don’t have good players, you’ve got no chance.”
On paper, Georgia definitely has the better players. Over the last six years that comprise the careers of the players on the respective rosters, the average national ranking of the Bulldogs’ recruiting classes has been 2.3, according to 247Sports.com’s Composite Ratings. TCU’s has been 30th.
But the Horned Frogs have proved to have all the elements needed to win at the highest level. They’re led by senior quarterback Max Duggan, who finished runner-up to USC’s Caleb Williams in Heisman Trophy voting. They have a 1,000-yard-plus receiver in 6-foot-4 speedster Quentin Johnston. They have a defense that makes up for a lack of overall domination with a knack for making explosive plays. TCU had two interception returns for touchdowns in its 51-45 upset of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal.
Color Smart impressed.
“Hearing the story of TCU’s season, getting to see coach Dykes at the Heisman, Max, you start looking across the board and it’s a hell of a story for these two teams to be playing each other,” Smart said. “And it’s an honor for us to be here.”
At this point, Smart is almost a victim of his own success. Both he and Dykes were finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award. Presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), it goes annually to the coach the year in college football.
It was presented to Dykes on Saturday night on the 18th floor of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. It was on the bottom floor in the ballroom of the same hotel where Sunday’s news conference was conducted.
At the end of it, the coaches stood on either side of the iconic CFP championship trophy as dozens of cameramen scrambled about to get the best angle of the same shot. They were equidistant from the shiny, gold cylinder, a fitting metaphor for how close both programs are to winning it.
Both men seek to make history but for different reasons.
“Our group has had a little bit of a magical ride,” Dykes said with a grin. “… It’s been a journey to get here. But we’re excited about not only Monday night, but where do we go from here and how can we continue to build our brand from a national standpoint.”
For Smart and the Bulldogs, it’s about building on an already well-established brand.
“At the end of the day, you better have buy-in with your players,” Smart said. “I think the older I’ve gotten, the more I acknowledge the relationship with the players matters much more than maybe the play you call, than maybe the practice habit you create, or anything else. It’s, ‘Will those players play hard for each other and do they believe in their coaching staff, that their coaching staff cares for them?’ And that allows you to sustain.”