Atlanta—Six months and nine days ago Kirby Smart sat in the media room of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and tried to put the best face possible on just getting his heart ripped out.
Facing a second and 26 and a three-point deficit in overtime to Georgia, Alabama got a 41-yard touchdown pass for a stunning 26-23 victory. It was Alabama’s fifth national championship in nine years. It would have been Georgia’s first since 1980 and an incredible accomplishment for a second-year head coach in Smart.
Instead, Smart saw his mentor, Nick Saban, win his sixth national championship, tying him with the great Paul “Bear” Bryant.
It was, by any objective measure, a heartbreaking opportunity missed for Georgia. So after trying to comfort his players, many of whom came back to school for this very opportunity, Smart told the media what was in his heart.
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“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
"It was important for our team and our fans to know that this was not the end of anything," said Smart.
With that night serving as context, Smart made his appearance Tuesday at SEC Media Days. Fittingly, the venue was the College Football Hall of Fame, just a good drive and a wedge from where he spoke of bitter disappointment last January.
When these meetings end on Thursday the media in attendance will project the winners of the SEC East and SEC West. Georgia, the defending SEC champions, will be overwhelmingly picked to win the East again.
When Smart met with the media he did not downplay the expectations. He embraced them because he wants the whole world to know that Georgia is building something for the long haul.
“I went back and looked at my notes for this event (last year) and it was the same,” said Smart. “Georgia is expected to do this, to win the East and to win championships. These are the things we embrace at the University of Georgia. We can’t run from them.”
There are very tangible reasons why Georgia is expected to make another run at an SEC championship:
**--While Georgia has some serious rebuilding to do, especially on the back end of the defense, there is plenty of talent on campus and more on the way from the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
**--Jake Fromm had a magnificent first season at quarterback as a freshman and is only going to get better. Justin Fields, rated the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country, may figure into the mix which is a nice problem to have.
**--Georgia lost the No. 2 (Nick Chubb) and No. 3 (Sony Michel) rushers in school history but waiting their turns are sophomore De’Ande Swift (603 yards last season) and freshman Zamir White, rated among the top high school running backs in the country. White is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in high school but all indications are he’ll be ready to go for the first game with Austin Peay. The position will again be deep with proven backs like Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien.
**--Georgia is putting the finishing touches on a $63-million West End zone renovation to Sanford Stadium. It will provide some nice amenities to fans and new locker rooms for the current players. But it will only help recruiting.
The question is really pretty simple: Can Smart and Georgia eventually build what Nick Saban has built at Alabama? Alabama has won five of the last nine national championships and has been in the discussion every season but one (2010) since Saban’s second season in 2008.
Can Georgia pull all of the elements—recruiting, facilities, coaching, fan support—together to form a program that is in the national championship discussion every season? Can Georgia’s fans dare to dream that big?
If you listen to the Georgia players, the answer is yes.
“I think we have as much talent as we did a year ago,” said defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. “And losing in the national championship was, in some ways, a gift. Because now we know what the commitment has to be to get there. And now we know we have to give a little bit more.”
Ledbetter said that the loss to Alabama, while disappointing, did not linger with this football team.
“I watched it (the game) on my I-pad that night. I saw what we did right and what we did wrong,” said Ledbetter. “We moved on an went to work because now that we’ve had a taste, we want to do it again.”
That is music to the ears of the Bulldog Nation.