KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It was probably the same table. A small folding table in the cramped room that on gamedays is used for the visiting team’s news conference. Ten years ago at that table, the Georgia coach, after barely winning a game in which two of his players tore ACLs, drew blood via a splinter on the table. Two years later, the coach sat at that table and talked about losing the game as well as his star player to another knee injury.
It wasn’t just injuries. For years, the Georgia football program was the one where fans expected something to go wrong. When things were going right, fans wondered what was around the corner. And just when it seemed all would finally stay right … the bad thing happened.
The mojo has changed. You could tell on Saturday night by looking at that table.
Carson Beck, the unbeaten starting quarterback, took questions from a horde of reporters as he sat at the table. Georgia teammate Tykee Smith walked by, leaning over the shoulder of a reporter.
“Make sure you tell Carson I’m a big fan,” Smith said, then walked off.
Minutes later, Kirby Smart sat at the table. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, who facilitated Smart’s hire at his alma mater eight years ago, watched a few feet away. Smart’s wife, Mary Beth, and one of their sons sat against the wall as the coach with a team riding a 28-game winning streak with two national championships theorized about what makes this program chug along, now 11-0 after a 38-10 rout of Tennessee.
“I really believe our culture’s the difference,” Smart said. “Everyone will say it’s our players. I really don’t think that it’s just players. We’ve got good players. We’ve got really good players. But I think there’s a lot about our culture that kids buy into, and they stay level-headed. They’re not worried about the streak. Like I said, it’s going to end, and we’re going to start a new one. But for right now, they just keep getting better.”
Let’s get this part straight: It is the players, to a large extent. The recruiting, development and coaching of them has put Georgia at the elite level. But Smart’s right that it’s not just about the players. Confirmation of that came from the other locker room, via Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley.
“As far as talent goes, I feel like they’ve had a little more talent in the past,” Beasley said. “But what you see out of them is they’re a very sound team, very fundamentally sound, they play well as a team.”
That speaks to the culture Smart and his staff have built and the systems they’ve installed. It’s also a product of winning, which tends to build on itself, especially at a program with Georgia’s resources and history, the good and bad.
Georgia finally getting the brass ring two years ago hasn’t ended up being the culmination of 41 years of angst. It ended up being a moment that allowed the program to collectively exhale and play free and loose.
And maybe it was when the college football universe corrected itself.
In the old days — a few years ago — fans always waited for the next shoe to drop with Georgia’s. When things were going well fans always waited for the thing that would unravel them. Maybe it was off the field: Todd Gurley getting busted for signing autographs. Or it could be on the field: a batted ball being caught to end the 2012 SEC championship, the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, Tennessee’s Hail Mary to win in 2016, second-and-26 in the national championship game.
Everything has changed. And it wasn’t just Smart’s arrival. See the above mention of second-and-26 and the Tennessee Hail Mary. See also Jalen Hurts coming off the bench to beat Georgia the next season and Jamie Newman opting out to disrupt the best-laid plans of the 2020 season. Smart was changing the culture, but weird things still happened.
Now Georgia keeps dodging hurdles of varying degrees of seriousness. A tragic car crash and the aftermath disrupted the offseason, but the program pulled through. Todd Monken leaves? Mike Bobo steps in, and the offense may be better. Brock Bowers needs ankle surgery and only misses two weeks. And on the field, the mojo is changed. Ohio State misses a field goal that would have derailed the second championship hopes. The games that seem to be trap games prove not to be.
Tennessee, playing in its 101,195-seat stadium, bringing in Dolly Parton for good luck and getting a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play? Thanks for playing, you can join Ole Miss, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Auburn and others over here in the Georgia trap game graveyard. (Missouri doesn’t get thrown in that category. The Tigers were expected to give a fight, they did, and Georgia still pulled it out.)
“It’s way, way, way more indicative of who you are, is your ability to take a punch than it is to get one,” Smart said. “The knockout fighters, they get knocked out if they can’t take a punch. This group has proven, again and again, that they can take jabs and punches with the best of them, then hang around until they can throw one.”
Georgia beats its third straight ranked opponent, rolling over Tennessee
There was one time in the last three years Georgia didn’t take a punch well: the 2021 SEC championship. Georgia hasn’t lost since then. It may be that was the culture-clinching moment for this program, coming back and beating Alabama a month later for the national title.
But the critical moment may have been a year earlier, during the 2020 season: the one when Newman opted out, Monken was installing his offense and Smart’s defense was being humbled. It was also during the COVID-19 pandemic when people within the program realized they needed to do more to build chemistry and began the skull sessions and team-wide meetings that have instilled a connection that has stayed, even as the roster has turned over.
“Coming in my first year, we weren’t connected as a group, really,” senior receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint said. “There was a lot of individuals. After that first year, going into the second year, we made an effort to be more connected. Learn each other’s name. That was step one, learn each other’s name, be in touch, everyone high-five. Just being connected as a group and playing for each other was really what was the biggest step for us to making that next step, you know, playing the way we are right now.”
The way they’re playing: dominant and balanced. Georgia’s offense hasn’t scored fewer than 27 points this season. Georgia’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 21.
Hence the calm after the Tennessee opening-play touchdown. The defense knew the offense would respond. The defense also knew it would recover, as it has all season.
“The offense does a good job of answering back, and letting us know they’ve got our back,” Smith said. “We do a good job of feeding off each other.”
Georgia will lose a game again. It could happen soon. It could take a while. But it’s no longer about expecting the bad to happen. It’s about being in awe of how long this has kept going. And how when the streak does end, Smart is right: Georgia will just start a new one.
(Top photo of Kirby Smart: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)