INDIANAPOLIS — When Georgia coach Kirby Smart refused to take a Gatorade bath following a resounding Orange Bowl win against Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinals, it sent a message to players and coaches of unfinished business.
Georgia has not won a national title in football since 1980. The latest obstacle to those dreams has been an all-too-familiar foe.
The Bulldogs will face Alabama in the CFP title game today (8 p.m., ESPN) at Lucas Oil Stadium in a rematch of last month’s Southeastern Conference title game, a lopsided 41-24 Alabama win. The higher stakes game gives Georgia a chance to adjust and erase the disappointment of falling short in the country’s most competitive football conference.
“It means nothing if we don’t get the job done,” Georgia All-American linebacker Nakobe Dean said of the Orange Bowl win. “I feel the same way.”
Chilly Indiana doesn’t quite have the feel of SEC country, but fanbases of both teams accustomed to playing deep into January have come here in droves, willing to fight the elements. Georgia and Alabama also squared off in the 2017 CFP title game, a game the Crimson Tide won 26-23 in overtime behind a stellar quarterback effort from Tua Tagovailoa.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has won his last seven meetings against Georgia and has guided the Crimson Tide to six national titles in 14 years.
“Beating Alabama would be an accomplishment, not only for me but for Coach Smart and everything,” Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis said. “I’ve had three shots at Alabama, and I haven’t beaten them yet. So that’s speaking for myself. As a team, winning the national championship, that’s what we’re grinding for, what we’re working for all season.”
Smart learned under Saban from 2008-15 as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, bringing a disciplined, detailed approach to Georgia, his alma mater. But Smart has been unable to beat his mentor, going 0-4 against Saban. Two of those losses have come in SEC title games and one for the national title.
“It’s been games of momentum,” Smart said. “They’ve done a good job at momentum in the second half. Each game has been different. And it will never be about he and I. I know he won’t make it that, and I won’t make it that because that’s for you guys to do that.
“It’s about the players. It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that, the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions -- the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games.”
Smart has won Georgia players over with his firm but fair approach. He’s gone 65-15 in six seasons, with one SEC championship (2017).
“He can get you going,” Dean said. “If you ask me, at this point, a lot of guys, if you just kind of see them and you weren’t around him all the time in practice, you would think when he’s coaching he gets all riled up. You’ll think he’s kind of, like, chipping a little bit.
“But he comes from, I feel like, every time -- I don’t feel like he’s bad at all. I feel like he comes from a great place. He wants you to be great, and he wants to be great.”
Georgia’s defense, ranked second in the FBS at 258.6 yards allowed per game, was shredded by Alabama quarterback Bryce Young in last December’s SEC title game. Young passed for 421 yards and three TDs, a performance that cemented his Heisman Trophy win.
“We don’t start with any more points because of anything that’s happened with the past,” Young said. “Anything in the past is exactly that, in the past. You don’t get any carry over. So it’s going to be a new game, and we have to earn the outcome that we want.”
Georgia players are confident they can make the corrections needed to slow Alabama’s offense down.
“We’re looking at every little thing,” Dean said. “From the scheme that we use, the scheme that they used, to how we can possibly take advantage of some things that we did -- how we can play better, finish better, and from the back end to the front seven.”