Flashing a smile and embracing defensive players like Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Jonathan Allen were two of the last three things Kirby Smart did in his final game at the University of Alabama.
He also received an opportunity to hoist the College Football Playoff Trophy and don a national title ring, signifying his success as a defensive assistant in 2015.
While he originally joined forces with Nick Saban at LSU in 2004, Smart’s career in the coaching profession drew attention during his nine years with the Crimson Tide (2007-15).
A man of many hats, Smart served at assistant head coach, defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator – helping Alabama to four Southeastern Conference championships (2009, 2012, 2014-15), four national titles (2009, 2011-12, 2015) and quite a few top-ranked signing classes.
Despite hailing from Montgomery, Ala., the 2009 Broyles Award and 2012 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year winner grew up in Georgia. Smart played defensive back at the University of Georgia from 1995-98 and spent three seasons with the Bulldogs (1999) and Valdosta State (2000-01) as a defensive assistant. He returned as UGA’s running backs coach in 2005 following time at LSU, but Smart desired the head coaching job at Sanford Stadium.
After letting go of Mark Richt, Smart got his chance in 2016.
He coached the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record, which included a 31-23 win over Texas Christian University in the Liberty Bowl.
Upon finding gold in a freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm), getting a pair of talented rushers to return as seniors (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) and with having Mel Tucker on his staff for a second season, Georgia ripped off 13 victories this year.
It has been a fun ride for Smart, as the 2017 campaign delivered a SEC championship, College Football Playoff appearance, a victory in the Rose Bowl and for him individually, the SEC’s Coach of the Year honor.
Facing old students is nothing new for Nick Saban – 11-0 versus former assistants – but the intensity Smart wields makes this reunion a bigger challenge. Alabama’s blueprint of ball control, exceptional defense and smart decision-making from the quarterback position are all things Smart took with him to establish Georgia.
Seeing how efficient Jake Fromm is (23 touchdowns, five interceptions) and noting the 1,000-yard accomplishment from both Chubb (1,320) and Michel (1,129), illuminates a matchup that features two sides of the same spectrum.
Defensively, the Bulldogs allow 15.7 points a game and are led by Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith – the team’s leader in tackles (124).
Part of Saban’s influence on Smart is finding the right coaches for a staff. The 42-year-old initially wanted to pull strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran from Alabama; however, the five-time national champ and one of few elder statesmen refused to let that slide.
In its thrilling 54-48 overtime win over Oklahoma, Georgia’s defense held Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners to 14 points in the second half. A blocked kick and Michel’s touchdown of 27 yards was everything needed to punch the first SEC ticket to Atlanta.
With its rushing attack and Fromm’s accuracy on certain throws, the Bulldogs anticipate frustrating Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt with balance on offense.
Whether it chooses to play Jalen Hurts the entire game, or feature Tua Tagovailoa at some point, Alabama’s pass protection will be tested as Georgia boasts a couple of guys that can disrupt plays. Next Monday will be the finale of college football, and for it to be a Saban-Smart reunion with a national title on the line for the SEC, all eyes shall be on Mercedes-Benz Stadium.