Kirby Smart and Georgia flip the page from national title. 'We will not be hunted at UGA'

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald

ATLANTA—Kirby Smart in a quiet moment before the hustle and bustle of making the rounds for hours Wednesday morning at SEC Media Days declared himself “caffeine activated.”

Smart is about the last one that would be considered needing a jolt of energy, but winning a national championship has the danger of making one fat and happy.

Especially since Smart just led Georgia to the promised land of a national title for the first time in 41 years.

“I’m not wired that way,” Smart said. “I’m wired to worry the day after the game about who we were going to sign. I kind of told our team when we came back, I said look guys I believe in these mind tricks where when people tell you something it triggers something. Every time someone tells me congrats on the national championship and there have been a gazillion of those, I tell myself each week, this week I’m going to call three more recruits. Next week, I’m going to think about what we can do on third down better.”

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Jul 20, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to the media during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

So he tells his players like a motivational speaker what have you done today to be better for tomorrow?

Now Smart is entering his seventh season as head coach looking for more.

“People ask the question, How does it feel to be hunted?” Smart said. “We will not be hunted at the University of Georgia. I can promise you that. The hunting we do will be from us going the other direction. We're not going to sit back and be passive.”

Smart spoke 190 days since Georgia won the national title on night of Jan. 10 by slaying Alabama.

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SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who had both the winning and losing team in the game in Indianapolis, was struck by Smart’s postgame moment.

“I've never seen a head coach running up and chest bumping people as much as Kirby did after the victory,” Sankey said. “He started to do the same with me. I looked at him and say, ‘If you do that to me, you'll probably knock me down and hurt me.’ We had a handshake moment.

Neither Smart nor any of the three Georgia player representatives sported their national championship rings on Wednesday at the College Football Hall of Fame.

“Absolutely not,” center Sedrick Van Pran-Granger said about if he had any thoughts of flashing the bling for the cameras Wednesday. “That’s something I feel personally I can look at when I’m done at the University of Georgia.”

In an area out of public view inside the Omni Hotel before they each took the stage Wednesday morning, Kirby Smart and former Bulldogs offensive line coach Sam Pittman gave each other big hugs. Smart told the third-year Arkansas head coach that it looks like he’s dropped weight and is closer to Smart’s size now.

The offseason banquet circuit Smart is on isn’t easy on anybody’s waistline and he’s now 46.

Outside linebacker Nolan Smith pranked him about aging a couple of days before Christmas as the team was preparing for Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

“I was up in front of the team, everybody was there, we had a little roll call check, checking the seats,” Smart said. “Nolan wasn't there. He comes running in. He had a box in his hand and said, Coach, Coach, the team bought you a Christmas present. Well, it was Just for Men hair coloring to help out with these grays that I got going on here.” 

Kirby Smart partakes in SEC Media Day

Smart was loose early on this day when he and Pittman were outside hotel elevators and Smart spotted Van Pran-Granger and cracked: “The last time you saw him you were in high school and he was getting ready to leave his ass.”

When Smart hit the big room of reporters, he shared that he told the team about reminding them of instances of how the mighty have fallen. He didn’t name names but the 2019 LSU team that slid back fast after winning the 2019 national title is one example.

Smart said he’s not too worried about complacency.

“To be complacent, you have to have done something and achieved something,” Smart said. “The men on this team for this season have not done that. They have not. We had 15 players that have now gone to NFL camps or draft picks. They're gone. We have some returning players, but they're hungry as ever.

A Georgia team coming off a national championship had never appeared at SEC Media Days because the event didn’t start until 1985, five years after the Bulldogs previous title.

It was Georgia day and at night the national title win was up for an ESPY Award on ABC for best team. Steph Curry and NBA champion Golden State ended up winning.

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There won’t be much mystery of how the SEC preseason picks will look Friday.

Alabama is expected to be the picked to win the league for a seventh straight season.

Georgia last was predicted to win the SEC in 2004. It won it in 2005 and 2017.

Georgia’s modern era record NFL record haul of 15 draft picks including a record five defensive players to go in the first round is a big reason why dropoff seems like a reasonable thought for this year.

Not that Georgia is buying into that notion.

“If I’m being honest, I think the biggest thing is not to focus on other guys,” Van Pran-Granger said. “I think this program is built off extreme hard work, grittiness and built off the connection to your brothers. I think for us it’s been about making sure we stick to our standard.”

“People say, Do you have the talent? Do you have enough talent within your program?,” Smart said. “We have plenty of talent. What we lack right now is experience. That's our job as coaches, to put those guys in a position to be successful and react in the calm manner.”

Smith, a former nation’s top-rated recruit, said Smart “develops players each and every year to get better and play in their role and get more comfortable. He builds confidence in us in practice. The hardest practice you will ever go through is at Georgia. I believe that. I’ve been here for four years and it just prepares us for the next stage, the next level.”

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The Bulldogs may be national champions, but oddsmakers have Alabama and Ohio State ahead of Georgia for favorites.

They have two of the game’s marquee quarterbacks in the Tide’s Bryce Young and Buckeyes’ CJ Stroud. Georgia has former walk-on Stetson Bennett who is back for a sixth year and his celebrity in these parts is off the charts.

He attracted a big throng of media members and when he went through the fan line quickly to get to the big room, someone asked him if he was a mustard or ketchup guy.

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Bennett rubbed elbows last month with Peyton and Eli Manning at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. Just a national championship QB talking to a couple of two-time Super Bowl winning QBs.

“Those are global icons,” Bennett said. “That may be a little bit less internet fed, but that’s like talking to Justin Bieber. Like they’re like a big deal.”

Talent is still plentiful in Athens. Perhaps Georgia’s two best players, Jalen Carter and Brock Bowers, weren’t here Wednesday.

Bowers is ranked the third best player in the SEC and Carter No. 4 behind Alabama linebacker Will Anderson and quarterback Bryce Young in voting by USA Today Sports SEC beat writers.

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“There’s a hunger among this group,” Smart said. “A lot of guys want to prove they can replace the other guy. They want to be the next guy.”

Georgia opens the season on Sept. 3 against Oregon in Mercedes-Benz Stadium which is in the shadow of where the Bulldogs contingent was Wednesday. Chcik-fil-A Kickoff officials announced before Smart hit the podium that the game is a sell out.

That will be the starting point for another run.

“You want to be at the highest level,” Van Pran-Granger said. “You tasted it once and you want it again.”