Georgia’s Kirby Smart seeks to vanquish the Alabama beast he helped create

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, left, speaks with Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the 2018 Southeastern Conference championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, left, speaks with Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the 2018 Southeastern Conference championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Not so long ago, Mary Beth Smart would have been hanging out with Terry Saban in Atlanta the night before the SEC Championship game.

While her famous husband worked for Nick Saban for 11 years at Alabama, it was a ritual for Saban’s wife – “Mrs. Terry,” as everybody on the team calls her – to take out the coaches’ wives for dinner and drinks the night before road games.

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It’s a ritual that Smart brought with her from Tuscaloosa when Kirby Smart became Georgia’s head coach six years ago. Whether the Bulldogs are playing against Vanderbilt in Nashville, as they were earlier this season, or getting ready to face Alabama as they will be tomorrow afternoon in the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS), Mary Beth Smart gathers up the other coaches’ wives and sneaks them off to a private haunt somewhere in town to relax as their husbands work into the night to intently prepare for the next day’s game.

So, close as they still are, there won’t be any hang-outs with “Mrs. Terry” before tomorrow’s game between the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and Kirby Smart’s No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0).

“I think the world of Mrs. Terry,” Mary Beth Smart said Friday, “but tonight I’m hanging with my Georgia football wives.”

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Likewise, Kirby Smart and Saban haven’t done a lot of hanging out the last six years. Sure, they run into each other a few times every summer. They’ll meet in golf tournaments down on Lake Oconee or might have a short dock visit up on Lake Burton, where the Sabans keep a summer home and near where Smart’s parents live.

“We don’t communicate daily or anything, but I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Smart said of Saban on Thursday. “He spent some time in the summer up around where my parents live (in Rabun County). But it’s not like we get to keep in touch a lot. We both have our own families and own things going on.

No, mostly these days, Smart and Saban each are busy trying to figure out win against the other. Whether it be on the football field as it will be Saturday or on the recruiting trail, as it is 365 days a year, that’s a full-time job.

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It’s a unique relationship. Saban is Smart’s mentor, and Smart brought Saban’s blueprint from Alabama to build Georgia into a perennial football power.

Then again, Saban is Smart’s greatest tormentor.

Smart can’t beat him, or at least he hasn’t. He’s 0-3 against Alabama since coming to Georgia, and two of those of losses were about as painful as defeats can get – 26-23 in overtime of the 2017 College Football Playoff championship game Jan. 8, 2018, and 35-28 in the 2018 SEC championship game Dec. 1, 2018.

It’s not something that’s unique to Smart, however. Saban was 24-0 against former assistant coaches until Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M broke the curse earlier this season with a 41-38 win over the Tide in College Station.

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Saban’s domination of former assistant coaches is not something he relishes, though. Now 70 years old, Saban made a point of mentioning this week how proud he is of what Smart has accomplished at Georgia.

“What guys did when they were with us, I understand that they do it well because they want opportunities themselves,” Saban said. “And it’s always good to appreciate what they did for us. But also there’s some pride in that they have gone on and done very well in building their own programs. Kirby has just done a fantastic job.”

Yes, but Saban clearly isn’t interested in losing to Smart, especially with the stakes that are attached to Saturday’s contest. A second Alabama loss will knock the defending national champions out of College Football Playoff consideration.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are “the hunted” this time around, entering the contest as a touchdown favorite by most sports books. And after eight consecutive weeks as the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in the opinion polls -- and all five CFP rankings -- the projection is that Georgia will be in the playoff regardless of Saturday’s outcome. That’s usually the scenario that the Tide brings into this contest.

Moreover, though, the Bulldogs have lost six consecutive games to Alabama. That dates to when Smart was still on Alabama’s sideline as Saban’s defensive coordinator. One of those matchups was in the 2012 SEC Championship game, when the Tide broke Georgia’s heart again, 32-28.

So, for Georgia, Saturday’s contest is about vanquishing the beast that Saban built in Tuscaloosa -- with Smart’s considerable assistance. The Smarts knows this better than anybody.

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Don’t buy any of the “next game” rhetoric that Smart has regurgitated in his public appearances all week and all year. Behind the scenes, beating Bama is a passion that burns deep within.

“You get enough at-bats, you usually get a hit,” Smart allowed to Yahoo’s Pete Thamel in a private setting this week. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, is not have arches and highs and lows. We’re trying to be very consistent.”

If nothing else, Smart has proved that his Georgia program can go toe-to-toe with Alabama, on the field as well as in the living rooms of recruits. One or the other has been No. 1 in the national recruiting rankings since Smart led the Bulldogs into that 2017 CFP final. Georgia’s No. 1 and Alabama is No. 2 on that scorecard at this very moment, in fact.

And, with the exception of last year’s 41-24 loss in Tuscaloosa – which Georgia led at halftime, as it has all three matchups under Smart – the Bulldogs’ games against Alabama all have been electrifying. The two most important ones played in the Benz were both decided in the final minutes and earned nicknames. On Jan. 8, 2018, Alabama won on “Second and 26.” Eleven months later, it was Smart’s “Ill-fated Fake” punt with 3:30 to play that ultimately cost the Bulldogs.

Concurrently, coaching moves by Saban in which he switched quarterbacks in the second half helped lead the Tide to come-from-behind wins. Perhaps it’s fate or maybe just coincidence, but Smart comes to Atlanta this time with that option in his pocket. Former walk-on Stetson Bennett is his starter, but former 5-star prospect JT Daniels is available should the Georgia offense stall.

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By all accounts, Georgia has the decidedly better team this year. The Bulldogs’ defense has given up just 83 points all season, or 6.9 per game. That’s the fewest since Oklahoma allowed 6.8 in 1986.

And while the Tide has the rep for fielding the more explosive offense of the two teams, their 42.7 points per game doesn’t exactly overshadow Georgia’s 40.7. Against like opponents, Georgia beat Arkansas, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee by the combined score of 146-34; Bama beat those same teams 149-110.

Hence, the Bulldogs are expected to win this time. And it won’t be soon enough for the long-suffering fan base, whose psyche was shaped by world-class worrier Larry Munson for decades.

It has been four of those since Georgia last won a national championship in 1980. Beating Alabama on Saturday won’t end that streak, but it definitely would be a huge step in the right direction.

What’s next for UGA?

After the Georgia Bulldogs’ first loss of the season to Alabama, what happens next?

The Bulldogs fell from No. 1 to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are set to face No. 2. Michigan (12-1) in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Journalists from the AJC are providing complete coverage of the SEC Championship and the decisions on Sunday about the College Football Playoffs.

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At the end of it, the Smarts and the Sabans will still be close. Mary Beth Smart spoke of Terry Saban being there for the birth of all three of her children, including Julia and Weston, who arrived as twins in February 2008.

Turns out, Smart’s career was about to launch at that point. The next year, Alabama won the first of four national championships with Smart running the defense.

“I got to grow as a coach there and raise a family, and all my kids were born there,” Smart said this week. “My wife still has a lots of friends there in the Tuscaloosa community. So, it’s been a big part of it. Coach and I are both very appreciative of our relationship.”

At least until kickoff Saturday.