Non-committal, at best.
Dumas-Johnson, the junior inside linebacker and defensive captain, was at least more opinionated. His answer, though, might surprise younger fans.
“I know for sure Kirby (Smart) would be mad if I don’t put Georgia Tech first,” Dumas-Johnson said before Monday’s practice. “So, Georgia Tech’s definitely first. I think Auburn, probably second. But Georgia Tech has to be first.”
Dumas-Johnson will get no argument from the old guard about the Yellow Jackets. That, of course, includes Georgia’s 46-year-old head coach and many of his assistants, such as Will Muschamp, Mike Bobo and Bryan McClendon. That all played for the Bulldogs when that rivalry was a fiercely competitive.
Others might’ve gone with Florida, Tennessee or even Alabama. It largely depends on where one resides, what one’s experience might’ve been during their UGA matriculation or where the rivalry was during their fervent streak of fandom.
The truth is, Georgia has a lot of rivals. More than most schools. South Carolina, Clemson and Ole Miss have all held a special place during some incarnations.
For a long time, it was simply Florida, Auburn and Tech. For decades, the Bulldogs closed out every regular season against those three, usually in that order. SEC expansion and the implementation of divisional play brought Tennessee to forefront in the 1990s. Before that, those programs met so sporadically that there wasn’t much hatred to be cultivated.
Auburn, like Tech, may be less reviled today because they have been less competitive recently. For generations, the respective football programs were famous for breaking the Bulldogs’ hearts at the end of regular seasons – and vice-versa. Of late, though, Georgia has dominated both series, the two oldest in school history.
Even after 100 games, the Georgia-Auburn series stayed almost dead even. But the Bulldogs have dominated the rivalry of late. They’ve won six in a row and 15 of the past 18 and now own a 63-56-8 advantage.
Tech-Georgia is even more lopsided in favor of the Bulldogs. Georgia has won five consecutive, seven of eight under Smart and 18 of 21 since Mark Richt first took over as head coach in 2001. But that has made it only more devastating when the Jackets are able to pull off the upset. They did it to Smart in 2016 in Athens, 28-27.
Georgia’s youngest fans might point to Alabama since it has been the Crimson Tide and coach Nick Saban who so regularly blocked the Bulldogs’ path to glory. That’s why the celebration was so intense – and why there was so much grown-man crying – when Georgia finally broke through against Bama to win the 2021 national championship.
Publicly, Smart will say his biggest rival is whoever the Bulldogs are playing in any given week. But as Dumas-Johnson’s comments indicate, behind the closed doors of the Butts-Mehre complex he is emphatic about keeping the Tech atop that list. He hinted at that last year when talking about the coming game against the Jackets.
“It was a really big rivalry for many years, and I think educating our players on that so they understand it is really important,” Smart said in the week leading up to Georgia’s 37-14 win in November. “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.”
Brinson making a mark
Defensive lineman Warren Brinson quietly got the first start of his career Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham. A 6-foot-4, 305-pound senior from Savannah, Brinson got the nod at defensive tackle ahead of fellow senior Zion Logue, while sixth-year senior Trammel Walthour stood in for Mykel Williams at defensive end.
Smart was especially excited for Brinson, who has toiled in the shadows of some great down linemen at Georgia, though contributing regularly as a key backup. Smart sought out Brinson in pregame warmups Saturday.
“I told him that he had earned it and that he should go out and play with confidence because he’s been in this program a long time, and he works really hard,” Smart said. “I’ve been really proud of his work ethic, which has gotten so much better. I just told him, ‘Hey man, you earned this. Go enjoy it.’”
Brinson seemed to. He finished with three tackles and an 8-yard sack.
Williams, a Columbus resident, is expected to return to play end at Auburn. Adding Brinson to an interior rotation that includes Nazir Stackhouse, Christen Miller, Jonathan Jefferson, Jordan Hall, Jamaal Jarrett and Logue bodes well for the Bulldogs against a Tigers’ offensive line that has allowed 12 sacks.
How ‘bout them Dawgs
Auburn’s first-year coach Hugh Freeze was out of the SEC while Georgia was executing its rise to power under Smart. His last look at the Bulldogs was when his Ole Miss team beat them 45-14 in 2016.
At his Monday press conference, it was abundantly clear that Freeze had no idea the Bulldogs played in the national championship game the very next year.
“What’d it take him? Three years or so to get there?” Freeze asked reporters.
Informed it was in Year 2, Freeze was incredulous.
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” Freeze said, doubting the reporter who chimed in. When others validated it as fact, Freeze wasn’t sure what to say.
“Anyway, he did it pretty fast then. It’s even more impressive,” he said.
This won’t be Auburn’s first rodeo against the nation’s No. 1 team. The Tigers actually have played the AP’s No. 1 team a lot. They’ll enter Saturday’s game with a 5-12 all-time record against No. 1-ranked opponents.
Smart’s Bulldogs don’t count in that ledger. Georgia was No. 1 in the CFP rankings when the Tigers knocked them off 40-17 on Nov. 11, 2017. Georgia would avenge the loss two weeks later in the SEC Championship game, defeating Auburn 28-7. In between, then-No. 6 Auburn also downed Alabama, then-No. 1 in the AP poll, in the Iron Bowl game at Auburn. That continued a three-game, home win streak that the Tigers will carry into Saturday’s game against Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium.