Georgia coach Kirby Smart couldn’t avoid the question.
For all Georgia has done in his six seasons, especially the last five when he’s led the Bulldogs to a 56-9 record, four Southeastern Conference East division titles, an SEC title and a national championship game appearance, he’s being asked about the one thing his team hasn’t done in three tries.
And that’s beat the third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1), who the top-ranked Bulldogs (12-0) meet in the SEC title game on Saturday in Atlanta.
Smart’s Bulldogs have played Alabama, where Smart served primarily as defensive coordinator under coach Nick Saban from 2007-2015, three times.
He hasn’t beaten his former boss, despite the Bulldogs outplaying the Crimson Tide for the majority of the three games collectively.
Alabama defeated Georgia to win the 2017 national championship game and followed that with a victory in the 2018 SEC title game before a 41-24 win in the regular season in 2020.
“This year is this year, and every year is independent of the previous,” Smart said. “I don’t think there’s any overlap between the two. I know people want to make it that, make it some kind of overlap.”
In the first two games, Alabama never had the ball with the lead, yet won both. DeVonta Smith caught a walk-off, game-winning touchdown pass in overtime on Jan. 8, 2018. Jalen Hurts ran for the game-winning touchdown a year later, with the Crimson Tide’s defense securing the win as time expired.
Last season, Georgia led Alabama 24-20 at halftime in Tuscaloosa before the Crimson Tide outscored Georgia 21-0 in the second half to roll to a 41-24 win. It was the only time Alabama trailed at the half in any of their 13 games during their undefeated title run.
Alabama, with current New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throwing for 417 yards, outgained Georgia 564-414. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who is expected to start on Saturday, went 18-for-40 passing for 269 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Alabama has won six straight over Georgia dating to 2008, with half the wins coming in championship games.
Smart, of course, downplayed the past, choosing to focus on the present, where Georgia opened as a six-point favorite over the SEC West Division champion and third-ranked Crimson Tide.
“Our job is to go play the best possible game we can,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to build towards this year. We haven’t played our best yet, and we think our best is still out there. That’s the goal.”
Saban agreed. But he’s also looking at the game as an underdog for just the second time in more than a dozen years. Then-No. 13 Alabama was a one-point underdog when it rolled into Athens to face then-No. 8 Georgia on Oct. 15, 2015.
Alabama won, 38-10, and two months later, Smart was hired to replace the fired Mark Richt. Alabama went on to win the national title that season to begin a run of three championships in six seasons.
“What’s happened in the past in games really doesn’t have a lot of impact on what happens in the future. You’ve got to line up and play well in this game,” said Saban, who is 24-1 against former assistants after losing to coach Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M Aggies in October. “What happened last year doesn’t matter. What happened the year before that doesn’t matter. You’ve got to play well in this game.”
No team has played well enough this season to beat Georgia, which remained the unanimous top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll for the eighth straight week. The Bulldogs are a week shy of tying Alabama’s record of nine straight weeks during the 2018 season, which ended with the Crimson Tide losing to Clemson in the national title game.
But Smart is concerned with Saturday.
“The years I spent at Alabama you could say that winning the SEC championship was just as hard as trying to win a national championship, and it’s one of our goals,” he said. “We want to put it on the wall here, and to do that, you’ve got to win the SEC. That’s what we’re focused on.”