Familiarity breeds respect in 115th renewal of Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry

ATHENS – Can it really be “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” when you’re genuinely fond of some of the coaches and players? The Georgia Bulldogs will find out this week when they travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech.

There will be much more familiarity than usual -- and a healthy dose of respect -- when the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (11-0, 8-0 SEC) face their annual end-of-season opponent for the 115th time Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium (7:30 p.m. ABC). Immediately after Georgia closed out its 28th consecutive victory against No. 18 Tennessee Saturday night in Knoxville, coach Kirby Smart spoke about how much respect he has for Brent Key, who’s in his first full season as coach of the Yellow Jackets.

Like Smart, Key heads a football program for which he also played. Like Smart, Key also coached at Alabama under Nick Saban. And since the two teams met a year ago in Athens, Key has made number of additions to his roster and staff with which Smart and the Bulldogs are quite familiar.

Buster Faulkner, Georgia’s primary offensive analyst for the last three years, joined Tech’s staff as offensive coordinator in February. A month earlier, Key brought in Kevin Sherrer as the Jackets’ linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. Sherrer coached outside linebackers for the Bulldogs during Smart’s first two seasons in Athens and they also coached together at Alabama.

On the field, Key has added wide receiver Dominick Blaylock and tight end Brett Seither. Between them, they own four national championship rings from their time with the Bulldogs. Each of them will play major roles Saturday for Tech offense that has been vastly improved since they last met Georgia in Sanford Stadium last year.

It also means that several individuals inside Tech’s football complex will have more than vague familiarity with what, how and with whom Georgia does things. As a quality control analyst for the Bulldogs the last three seasons, Faulkner’s primary responsibility was working with the quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis. Accordingly, he could recite Georgia’s offensive playbook word-for-word. He also knows the signals the Bulldogs used to send in plays and the checks they use to change calls at the line of scrimmage.

All that will have to be changed before Saturday’s game, of course, as they do regularly anyway. But there is nothing the Bulldogs can do about Faulkner’s intimate and extensive knowledge of personnel and concepts.

“No issues,” Smart said curtly Monday.

That’s a decidedly different tone than Smart had in the immediate aftermath of the Tennessee win Saturday night. Then, Smart said he was concerned about getting prepared for Tech because it is “a physical, hard-nosed team that knows everything about us.”

That’s definitely the case for Faulkner, who served as Todd Monken’s right-hand man his three seasons in Athens and alongside Bobo in the offensive quality-control room for an entire year.

“He was right beside Coach Monken every practice with the offense,” Georgia tight end Oscar Delp said. “He was always giving all the receivers, all the tight ends, everybody on the offense, input and how to get better in practice. I know what kind of coach he is. He’s a great coach and has a great offensive mind and I know he’ll have (Tech) ready.”

The truth is, every team knows pretty much everything there is to know about an opponent this time of year. In addition to “All 22″ video being circulated weekly of every play of every game, Power 5 programs also subscribe to advanced-analytic companies that dig even deeper into statistical trends and tendencies. Full staffs of analysts consume that information every week and break it down into a useful form.

Then, again, blocking, tackling and the overall execution of any given play it was dictates its success or failure. The great Vince Lombardi said if his players were winning their individual battles, you should be able to tell an opponent what a play you’re running and still execute it.

“There’s no secrets out there,” Smart scoffed Monday. “We’re not going to go out there and trick them and say, ‘oh man, Buster knows when that double-reverse throwback to Brock Bowers is coming.’ He doesn’t know when that’s coming. I think you waste a lot of time and energy thinking about that.”

The real intrigue on Saturday is the genuine camaraderie that exists between the players on opposite sidelines. Blaylock and Seither each spent four years in Athens sweating and toiling through offseason workouts and enduring countless “Bloody Tuesdays” on Woodruff Practice Fields.

Each had a different experience at UGA. Blaylock, a former 5-star prospect out of Marietta’s Walton High, started as a true freshman and was integral part of the Bulldogs’ receiver and punt-return rotation before back-to-back knee injuries compromised his effectiveness.

“Selflessness is probably the No. 1 thing that stands out,” Smart said of Blaylock, who is starting and returning punts for the Jackets. “Toughness. He’s such a great competitor. Dom’s one of those that never says anything. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t moan. He goes to work every day. He made some really, really big critical plays for us over the years.”

Blaylock had a huge third-down catch in the fourth quarter against Ohio State last year that helped the Bulldogs execute a come-from-behind win in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

The 6-foot-1, 203-pound slot-receiver has 21 receptions for 337 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Tech, which earned bowl eligibility this season for the first time since 2018.

Playing behind likes of Charlie Woerner, Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers, Seither and former Georgia teammate Ryland Goede (now at Mississippi State) never could earn a regular role on offense, though they played extensively on special teams. Seither hasn’t caught a lot of passes for the Jackets this season (6 for 73) but when he does it’s usually for a touchdown.

“He was always with me, kind of brought me under his wing when I first got here,” Georgia’s Delp said of Seither. “He’s still one of my good friends to this day. We talk all the time. He’s really showed me how to manage school and football and workouts and becoming a college student.”

The Bulldogs are quick to let folks know not to mistake mutual respect for passivity when it comes to wanting to beat Georgia Tech. There is much at stake for Georgia especially, seeking to become the first SEC team in history to win 29 consecutive games and trying to get back to the playoffs to make a run at an unprecedented threepeat as national champion.

Conversely, even those Yellow Jackets who own national championship jewelry with a diamond-crusted ‘G’ in the middle revel in the thought of being on the team that broke the streak.

It’s still Tech-Georgia no matter who’s on what sideline. One team or the other is walking off the field hoisting the Governor’s Trophy.

“They’re in our state,” Smart said of the Jackets. “You’re playing for something every time you play them because you’re playing for a state championship. I think that’s always important. They do a good job. It’s the next opponent. You know, I don’t rank them any higher than anybody else because I look at all the games as rivalries, and I let everybody else debate what’s the highest. I don’t get into those comparisons. A lot of respect for Brent and the job they do.”

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