Georgia coaches make sure Bulldogs are schooled on Georgia Tech rivalry

ATHENS – Kirby Smart is well-known for having the pulse of his team. But he might’ve missed the mark when it comes to the Bulldogs buying into what the coaches are selling about Georgia Tech.

Smart’s coaching staff at Georgia goes deep with coaches and support staff who have participated in the rivalry known as “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate.” And most of them were involved when it was at its peak intensity in the 1990s.

Count Smart among that group. He was 3-1 as a player against the Yellow Jackets. But he also was among the seniors who had their hearts broken Nov. 28, 1998, when No. 17 Tech upset the 12th-ranked Bulldogs 21-19 on Senior Day in Athens.

Jonas Jennings, Georgia’s director of player of development, was on that team. As a starting offensive tackle for the Bulldogs, his senior class would lose the next two to the Jackets to finish 1-3. A proud native Georgian from College Park, Jennings never has gotten over that.

Bryant Gantt (1987-90), a longtime player-programs director and former outside linebacker, was 2-2 versus Tech. The Bulldogs went 1-2 when Mike Cavan, UGA football’s chief administrator, was Georgia’s quarterback.

“They see us, and they’re, like, ‘Oh, they’re dinosaurs,’” Smart cracked this week. “They don’t look at it as relevant.”

Yet, they do.

At least according to senior Christopher Smith. The Bulldogs are 4-0 against Tech while Smith has been a member of the team. As Georgia’s starting free safety in this game the past three years, Smith doesn’t want to start losing to them now.

“It is important to me because it is important to the people that back me while I am out there on the field,” Smith said this week. “I want to be able to win for myself, the seniors, the rest of my teammates and the coaches, but especially Coach Smart. I know what this means to him.”

In addition to Smart, Smith hears a lot about Tech from his position coach, Will Muschamp, who played safety for the Bulldogs from 1991-94. In fact, Georgia could send a complete unit onto Dooley Field on Saturday with staffers who participated in this game while they were attending UGA. That group would include receivers coach Bryan McClendon, tight ends coach Todd Hartley and offensive analyst Mike Bobo.

Again, Georgia has dominated the series against Tech of late. But even the occasional losses have left a lasting mark. When the Jackets (5-6) visit Sanford Stadium on Saturday (noon, ESPN), it will be for only the second time since 2016. That year, Tech scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 28-27 victory.

Smith and several other Georgia seniors were attending the game as recruits that day. So, they know. And the ones that don’t, the Bulldogs’ coaches make sure they hear about it.

They gave the team a detailed history lesson early in the week, going all the way to the time that Tech also was an SEC member.

“Our kids don’t know the history of this rivalry and what goes into it,” Smart said. “… So, making sure they understand that is really important, and teaching the history of that is important because it’ll mean something to the Georgia Tech players and the Georgia players 20, 30 years from now.”

There’s a lot on the line besides. The Bulldogs (11-0) are trying to complete consecutive undefeated regular seasons for the first time in school history. Next week, a date with No. 5 LSU awaits in the SEC Championship game. That’s the one box that remained unchecked for Georgia during its run to the national championship next season.

Solidly No. 1 in the past few College Football Playoff rankings, there remains great incentive for the Bulldogs to stay there to assure themselves the best opportunity to repeat.

But Georgia’s coaches, as always, are keeping the challenge at hand simple and streamlined. “Just beat Tech,” they implore. A little history lesson underscores the importance.

“I know it was back-and-forth in the ‘90s,” said Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a sophomore linebacker from Maryland. “I know when coach Smart first came here we lost. That’s all I know about it. ... The coaches bring it up, but people know where we’re trying to get to, and the team knows where we’re trying to go. Ultimately it’s just to win.”

Said Smith: “I just want to finish out the regular season undefeated.”

Seniors such as Smith will be especially vigilant Saturday. He will be among 22 who will be honored in pregame ceremonies on the field along with their families.

Others scheduled to be recognized are quarterback Stetson Bennett, outside linebackers Nolan Smith and Robert Beal, running back Kenny McIntosh, receivers Dominick Blaylock, Kearis Jackson, Nathan Priestley and Randon Jernigan, defensive linemen Bill Norton and Tramel Walthour, defensive backs Payton Bowles and Joseph Daniels, snappers Payne Walker and William Mote, offensive lineman Warren Ericson, Warren McClendon and Xavier Truss, tight ends Ryland Goede and Brett Seither and kickers Jack Podlesny and Matthew Sumlin.

The senior class has an opportunity to set the UGA record for the most career wins. It tied the mark set by the 2021 national champions with its 45th on Saturday against Kentucky. The 2021 class finished 45-8 while the 2022 seniors are 45-5.

Those guys were especially attentive when Smart told them about losing to Tech his senior season.

“These guys have been really special,” Smart said. “These guys really care about UGA and have sacrificed a lot for this program. A lot of credit goes to the character of that group.”