Georgia’s Kirby Smart needs to coach better vs. Alabama

Justin Fields is pulled down for a two-yard gain on fourth-and-11 on the fake punt heard ’round the world Saturday against Alabama. The Bulldogs lost 35-28, in part because of that call by coach Kirby Smart. (USA Today Network)

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Justin Fields is pulled down for a two-yard gain on fourth-and-11 on the fake punt heard ’round the world Saturday against Alabama. The Bulldogs lost 35-28, in part because of that call by coach Kirby Smart. (USA Today Network)

ATHENS – Kirby Smart said this week that what has happened against Alabama in the past has no bearing on what happens in this year’s game. But, for the sake of the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, Smart better have learned some lessons from those previous meetings.

Critical decisions made by Smart in his three matchups against the Crimson Tide contributed to Georgia losing all three. Of course, that’s always the case with a head coach, win or lose.

And Smart has won significantly more games than he’s lost as the Bulldogs’ head coach. He’s 64-14 overall (.821) and has the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship game for the fourth time in the past five years. For the second time during that span, Alabama will be Georgia’s foil in the game. The other two meetings came in the national championship game and a regular-season road game in Tuscaloosa.

“We focus on execution; we don’t focus on history,” Smart said this week.

However, a few of the moves that Smart made in those matchups need not be repeated. Some loom a little larger than others and left him open to criticism.

The most egregious was in the 2018 SEC Championship game. That was the ill-fated fake punt from midfield with the score tied 28-28 with 3½ minutes to play. Alabama won 35-28.

The other two losses didn’t include any single blunders that could be similarly highlighted. But there were significant missteps.

In the end, it’s always the players on the field who either make plays or don’t. Even the roundly anointed “greatest coach of all time” Nick Saban ultimately can’t control that. However, invested Georgia fans have taken issue with some of the philosophies that Smart employs in contests of significant magnitude.

All three matchups with Alabama qualified as that. One of the commonalities between the three games is the Bulldogs led at halftime of each one and had double-figure, second-half leads in two of the contests. So Smart has long dispatched any notion that Georgia can’t play with Bama.

“He done a great job,” Saban said this week. “They have a mature team that plays with a lot of competitive character. They’re the No. 1 defense in the country. They’ve got the No. 1 defense in the country. They’ve got a lot of good players on defense. They’ve created a lot of negative plays, sacks, pressuring the quarterback, tackles for loss. And their offense has been very, very efficient. They’re scoring 40 points a game.”

Smart’s greatest value to the Bulldogs at this stage of his career is in continuously supplying Georgia’s program with elite players who can compete at the highest level. It’s only in the area of on-field, in-game decisions where Smart still needs to prove himself.

That hasn’t been an issue this season. Winning their 12 games by the average score of 40.7 to 6.9, there simply haven’t been any moments where outcomes ended up in Smart’s hand. But that’s likely to change entering the postseason.

Now deep into his sixth season as the Bulldogs’ head man, Smart certainly is a different -- if not more refined coach -- than he was when he arrived as Saban’s right-hand man from Alabama in January 2016.

That said, here’s a quick revisit to those previous Bama-Georgia meetings and how they transpired:

JAN. 8, 2018

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

No. 4 Alabama 26, No. 3 Georgia 23 (OT)

  • What: 2017 CFP National Championship game
  • Known for: “Second-and-26″ and “Tyler Simmons Was Onside”
  • Halftime score: Georgia 13, Alabama 0
  • Key moments: A blocked punt and recovery by Tyler Simmons was overruled by offside penalty, which video replay showed was in error. Georgia would have taken possession inside the Alabama 20 two minutes into the third quarter. Instead, Alabama scored on its next possession to make it 13-7. … Calvin Ridley’s 4-yard TD catch on fourth-and-goal tied the score at 20-20 with 3:49 to play. After Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal put the Bulldogs ahead in the first overtime, freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hit freshman wideout DeVonta Smith with a 41-yard touchdown pass on second down with 26 yards to go.
  • Criticism: Georgia played too conservative with the lead. The Bulldogs punted from the Alabama 39 facing fourth-and-6 with 2:00 remaining in the third quarter. Georgia ran the ball on every play of its next possession until facing third-and-4 at midfield and Jake Fromm was sacked. The Bulldogs had a three-and-out, all-run possession on their next series as well.
  • Smart comments: “In the end, we were able to run the ball some. But when it mattered the most and counted the most, we couldn’t close it out and run the ball for first downs. That probably hurt us most.”

DEC. 1, 2018

Mercedes Benz, Stadium

No. 1 Alabama 35, No. 4 Georgia 28

  • What: 2018 SEC Championship game
  • Known for: “Ill-fated Fake”
  • Halftime score: Georgia 21, Alabama 14
  • Key moments: The Bulldogs led 28-14 at the 8:20 mark of the third quarter when Blankenship, a Lou Groza Award finalist, missed a 30-yard field-goal try wide left. … Georgia still led 28-21 in the fourth quarter when Saban switched to quarterback Jalen Hurts after a banged-up Tagovailoa continued to struggle under the Bulldogs’ relentless pass pressure. … Georgia lost outside linebacker D’Andre Walker to a groin injury in the second half. Brenton Cox and Walter Grant proved ineffective at containing the more mobile Hurts, who made several first-down runs. Hurts connected with Jerry Jeudy on third-and-goal to tie the score at 28-28 with 5:19 to play.
  • Criticism: No time to run a fake a punt. Facing fourth-and-11 at the 50 with 3:30 to play, Smart sent in quarterback Justin Fields as the up-back on punt team. The snap went to Fields, who was supposed to throw the ball downfield to an uncovered D’Andre Swift. Bama sniffed it out, and Fields was forced to run for a 2-yard gain. Hurts scored the game-winning touchdown five plays later. Conventional wisdom says to punt them deep, defend and try get the game into overtime.
  • Smart’s comments: “I felt like (the fake punt) was a really good play. It was there. It got taken away at the last second, and we didn’t make the play.” Also, “We (had) lost some momentum in the game. Certainly, maybe we could have stopped them. … But I wanted to be aggressive. Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game. We wanted to win the game. These kids deserve to win the game, and we weren’t able to do it.”

OCT. 17, 2020

Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

No. 2 Alabama 41, No. 3. Georgia 24

  • What: SEC regular-season matchup
  • Known for: “Mac Jones Goes Deep Again!”
  • Halftime score: Georgia 24, Alabama 20
  • Key moments: The Bulldogs went ahead 24-17 on Stetson Bennett’s 5-yard TD pass to freshman Jermaine Burton with just 23 seconds remaining in the half. But that was enough time for quarterback Mac Jones to lead Alabama on a four-play, 41-yard field-goal drive. … Bennett, who’d been intercepted on a fluke, line-of-scrimmage pass play in the first half, was intercepted twice more in the second. On one he was trying to force the action on third-and-long. The other should have been caught by Burton but deflected off his hands.
  • Criticism: Georgia insisted on using man coverage to defend Bama wideouts. The Tide would take its first lead, 27-24, on a 90-yard TD pass to Jaylen Waddle. On the play, junior cornerback Tyson Campbell fell down trying to cover Waddle man-to-man. Georgia safeties Lewis Cine and Richard LeCounte also got beat for long touchdowns in single coverage against John Metchie and DeVonta Smith.
  • Smart’s comments: “They have great skill players, and I thought we contained them early. The second half we couldn’t do it. Give their coaches credit. They outcoached us. … We didn’t want to give up a big shot to Waddle. That is on me.”