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We all took a deep look at this Georgia team this season and wondered whether they would be able to finish off a 12-0 regular season in which they dominated opposing SEC teams with ease. Everyone watching or covering the team wondered what would happen if Georgia let it slip away one more time. Well, the thoughts of a collapse finally escaped the air on Monday night, as Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs won their inner battle and finished what they started by defeating Alabama 33-18 and breaking a 41-year national title drought.
Towards the end of this season, many wondered where the offense would come from if they got into a battle with an opponent that could hang with them for four quarters. We witnessed the first sign of a crack in the armor in December, when Georgia fought Alabama for an SEC Championship and lost. The Bulldogs knew who they wanted to play for a National Championship, if they had the opportunity. The season would’ve felt incomplete if Georgia had faced any other opponent. Kirby Smart shared this sentiment while meeting with the media on Tuesday morning.
“The fact that we got a rematch. It would have left a pretty poor taste in our mouth if we had to go through somebody else.
“If we’d beaten them the first time, I wouldn’t have felt as bad,” Kirby added. “And we would have had an SEC Championship, which I always argue is as hard to get is a national championship. I promise you, it is because our league is so tough.”
There was just too much at stake for these two teams not to meet again. Georgia needed one more opportunity to prove to themselves that they could beat Alabama and do it with a defense that dominated all season, except for that first meeting. So when the opportunity presented itself, the Bulldogs did what was needed against Michigan to get a shot at redemption.
After the championship game, Kirby told Nick Saban that it was the best job he’d done with a team because of how young they were at multiple positions. This could seem like some kind of shade from Kirby, but it’s not. The respect he has for his former boss and the way he handles his business every season is unparalleled. Respect is not something that Nick Saban has to earn from Kirby Smart. He’s already earned it.
“I mean, he doesn’t lose many national championship games when he has that time to prepare. And he does a really good job. So to do it and beat them, that’s special. But also I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, the way he runs his program. And really probably one of the best jobs he’s ever done with his team, because they were really young at some positions.
“But to do what he did this year, with that team, I told him after the game, I said, ‘I really believe that this was probably the best job you’ve ever done,'” Kirby added.
The pain of the “2nd and 26” national title game of 2018 will never go away for Kirby because of the players that were involved and the heartbreak they felt afterwards. But he doesn’t describe this win as some kind of vindication for all those times they had lost to Alabama. They aren’t getting those opportunities back. Those losses will still bother him until the day he hits the grave because of the players involved and the effort they gave.
“I don’t know if that pain will ever be numb because you put so much into those years. It passes and you hate it for the people that were in that locker room and part of it. Certainly I don’t know that ‘vindication’ is the word. It’s not about that when it’s about Alabama. I just have so much respect for their program and the way they do things, that it’s great competitors.”
During his champions press conference on Tuesday, Kirby Smart summed up the matchups against Alabama and had nothing but respect for the way both teams play the game of football. But he was also happy to prove some of the doubters wrong, especially with the way they finished in the fourth quarter.
“It’s like when Michael Jordan is going against the best there is, when LeBron is going against Kobe. I enjoy that moment and I respect teams and coaches that do it the right way. And those two teams last night were titans clashing, going at it. The physical nature of that game in the fourth quarter, so proud of our team because there were people that doubted our conditioning level. They doubted that we could finish in the fourth quarter.
“The Alabama games in the past didn’t help with that. And they did that. They overcame that,” Kirby added. “They really were more physical and dominant in the fourth quarter. And that was the difference in the game and probably what made me the most proud of the group.”
Looking back on how this season played out and the way in which Alabama defeated Georgia in Atlanta, Monday provided the perfect ending for the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs. They wanted Alabama one more time, and came up big in the fourth quarter. Now, they head home with a championship and the respect.
That’s all they wanted to begin with.