Pressure is on Georgia’s Kirby Smart to not blow it in title game

AJC's Sarah K. Spencer reports on Media Day at the College Football Playoff Championship in L.A. between UGA and TCU. Video by Ryon Horne

LOS ANGELES - It’s championship or choke job for Kirby Smart. Either Georgia’s coach wins back-to-back national titles, or Smart blows it by losing as the biggest favorite since they started deciding the champion with a final game. There’s no middle ground outcome for Smart in the College Football Playoff championship game against TCU on Monday night.

That assessment may seem too harsh. Winning back-to-back national championships is hard. Winning titles at Georgia is rare. The Bulldogs claim just three titles since 1895. Smart owns one of them and he’s built a program that’s set up to compete for many others.

Those are all good reasons why a Georgia loss on Monday should not be viewed as a complete failure. I’m here to tell you that none of them will matter if Georgia does lose on Monday. TCU is playing with house money. Georgia is the house. The odds are stacked in its favor and, as they say, the house always wins.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes noted Sunday that his team had a “magical ride” to make it this far. For Smart’s Georgia machine, it’s been a methodical march to the CFP. It’s been an impressive run. Now that the Bulldogs are here, they’ve got to win it all or that journey just won’t mean as much.

Smart, as usual, downplayed the pressure to win.

“I promise you there’s no greater pressure on any sport than there is on college athletics, especially for major football programs. And I don’t think Coach Dykes or myself would be in this business if we weren’t used to pressure. I look at it in a vacuum. I don’t get to watch much TV or social media. I just worry about our team and don’t get caught up in anything outside of that.

“And we’ve had a saying around our place for a long time that ‘Probability is not reality.’ So, we don’t control what people say and probability. Reality is what happens on the field in between those lines.”

Really, NFL coaches face more pressure than their college counterparts. They play games that they can lose every week. There are enough playoff spots for nearly half the league’s teams so not getting one means a bad season. Failing to do it two years in a row can lead to shaky job security for coaches who work for billionaire franchise owners willing to sacrifice them to the high expectations of customers.

But Smart is right about perceptions being shaped by outsiders. Just because the Bulldogs were favored by 13 points over TCU as of Sunday afternoon doesn’t mean they really are that much better. The point spread is set by oddsmakers and influenced by the betting public. Sometimes the crowd isn’t wise.

In this case, though, I think the point spread reflects reality. By every objective measure, Georgia really is that much better than TCU. Smart has every advantage over Dykes.

Smart signs multiple recruits that don’t usually consider programs like TCU. Relatedly, Smart enjoys virtually unlimited financial resources to spend on assistant coaches and everything else needed to support his unsalaried players.

“If you don’t have good players, you’ve got no chance,” Smart said Sunday. “But a big part of that is the organization that I’ve been given the ability to hire at University of Georgia. They are second to none, my administration, of supporting us, bringing in analysts, bringing in coaches, having the nice facilities.

“You need those things to be successful and sustain. But at the end of the day, you better have buy-in with your players.”

Smart and his players are in position to win consecutive titles. That’s not a shock. During the preseason, the Bulldogs had the third-shortest odds to win the championship behind Alabama and Ohio State. Alabama didn’t make the CFP. The Bulldogs edged Ohio State in the Peach Bowl to make it to Southern California and now they’re heavily favored to pull off a rare feat.

There have been only 13 repeat champions in the entire history of college football, and that’s with some shared titles included. There has been just one back-to-back champion, Alabama in 2011-12, since Nebraska won two straight championships from 1994-95. Since 1998, the first season of the Bowl Championship Series, just eight defending champions even made it back to the title game.

Saban’s Alabama teams won one of those repeat bids and lost three others, including vs. Georgia last season. The four other defending champions all lost the championship the following season: Florida State (2000), Miami (2002), USC (2005) and Clemson (2019).

Smart said he had an easier time motivating his team than other defending champions because so many players from last season departed. The way I see it, Smart had a harder time even making it this far because so many of those players were top NFL prospects. Credit to Smart and his players for winning big again.

It’s not as if Georgia was used to that before Smart arrived. Its championship drought was at 35 years when former athletics director Greg McGarity hired Smart after the 2015 season. Vince Dooley won one national championship in 25 years as Georgia coach. Smart’s Bulldogs played for a national title in his second season, won it in his sixth and is expected to win it all again on Monday at SoFi Stadium.

No team has ever been favored by as many as 13 points in the national title game since 1998. Miami lost the 2002 championship to Oklahoma as a 12-point favorite. Florida State lost the 2000 title game to Oklahoma when favored by 11½. Otherwise, big favorites in the championship game have won it.

If Georgia does it again, Smart will become an instant legend. He’ll leapfrog Saban, his former boss, at the top of the current pecking order in college football.

If Smart loses, critics will note than Saban never lost a national championship game everyone expected him to win. Smart would get no credit for making it this far, no understanding about any circumstances outside of his control and no acknowledgement that he’s built a program that should get many more chances to win national titles.

That may not be fair. It’s probably no reasonable. But the circumstances mean it’s championship or choke job for Kirby Smart on Monday night.

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