Smart on UGA’s COVID year: It was tough to ‘stay sane’

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart talks about the toll playing during the coronavirus pandemic has put on college football.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia’s 2020 season was scheduled to begin against Virginia on Labor Day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is now scheduled to end against Cincinnati in the same building on the first day of 2021. The UVA game never happened. As we know, COVID reset everything.

The annual convocation with Georgia Tech was quashed. So were dates with East Tennessee State and Louisiana-Monroe. The SEC moved to a conference-only slate, rendering the long-awaited Alabama game of Sept. 19 even longer-awaited. (It was played Oct. 17.) Arkansas and Mississippi State were added to the list of opponents. Both games came off as rescheduled, though there was doubt about the latter until kickoff. The Kentucky game was pushed back a week. The Missouri game of Nov. 14 was played Dec. 12. The Vanderbilt game was postponed and then canceled.

A 12-game regular season became highly irregular 10-game season that, with absence of Vandy, wound up spanning nine games. For their bowl reward, the Bulldogs get to grace the big building off Northside Drive they were supposed to grace on Sept. 7. How is it that four months seem to have lasted four years?

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart addresses his defense during the second half against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart addresses his defense during the second half against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia will play in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Friday. That game, too, has undergone a tweak. It was set to kick off at 12:30 p.m. With the uprooting of the Rose Bowl semifinal from Pasadena, Calif., to Arlington, Texas, Bulldogs-Bearcats will start at noon.

In a normal — how quaint that word has come to sound — bowl week, both teams would be ensconced in the host city by now, doing fun things and seeing the sights. Not this time. The Bulldogs are hunkered down at the Butts-Mehre building in Athens, waiting to see how the Christmas break might alter their roster for New Year’s Day.

Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, speaking Monday via Zoom: “It’s a thrill-a-minute. We’ve had good information, bad information, information that changed.” Here he laughed. “It’s been a struggle. I can say that. That’s really all I can say about it. I’m not going to get into details. We’ve had our issues.”

He was asked if those issues include positive tests, something the Bulldogs insist they haven’t had all season. His response: “Take it for what it’s worth. I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m just saying we’ve dealt with a lot of things, a lot more things here recently.”

Before Alabama played Florida for the league title, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he hoped that, 10 or 20 years from now, the teams that slogged through 2020 will be brought back to campus and honored for their perseverance in the face of the unprecedented. Smart was asked Monday if he has been able to reflect on the journey he and his men have made.

ExploreCOVID concerns complicate Georgia’s Peach Bowl preparations
Georgia defensive back Christopher Smith (29) during the Bulldogs’ practice session for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)
Georgia defensive back Christopher Smith (29) during the Bulldogs’ practice session for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

“I have not had the ability to step back and look at that, but I will,” he said, and again he laughed. “If you could write a book on this season, it would be hard for me to imagine people being able to handle another year like this year back-to-back … It’s like you don’t really know what your pain threshold is until you have pain. I’m not comparing this to pain, but I’d like to say that I don’t know what the threshold is for what you can deal with in a season and stay sane. We’ve stretched that rubber band about as far as you can. The elasticity is ready to break in terms of what you can withstand to have a season and go through.”

What if some Bulldogs, having spent the holiday outside the Butts-Mehre semi-bubble, are forced to miss the bowl? “Certainly we’d be disappointed if we lost guys who’ve been able to play all year. That stinks. It’s kind of like the last go-round. Where does the merry-go-round stop? We missed this game; this game got moved; this got adjusted. But none of it was ever on behalf of us; it was on behalf of our opponents. If it ends up being the case with us — which I don’t think it will be — but if a guy misses a game because of it, you certainly hate it for that guy. It’s tough, because he was successful all year, and one time out of 11 you get a situation where somebody has an outbreak and it can affect the whole team.”

Through force of will and diligence, the SEC managed to play 68 of the 70 games in its reconfigured regular season. It came at a cost. Players, who are technically college students, were forced to conduct themselves unlike college students. The 2020 season will be forever remembered for its digressions and its rigors; it will never be recalled as anyone’s idea of fun.

Said Smart, speaking of his players: “You tell them, ‘You can’t go public places,’ and what are they going to do — play kickball, play whiffle ball in the indoor (facility)? They’re over here a lot already … Say you got four or six (players). You can go to the bowling alley. But if you go to the bowling alley you’ve got to wear your mask the whole time; you’ve got to stay in your lanes. You got all kinds of stipulations. At the end of the day, our guys feel most comfortable being in their own environment, which is here (Butts-Mehre) or at home.”

On the field, Georgia’s season was a slight disappointment, though we note that they’re ranked No. 9 with their losses coming against teams rated Nos. 1 and 7. In the grand scheme, they made it through a regular season that, only five months ago, many among us figured could not be played. When Smart does find time for reflection, he said, “I definitely think this group will be looked on as a special group to endure what they’ve endured.”

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