Kirby Smart will lead his No. 1 and undefeated Georgia team into the SEC Championship Game on Saturday afternoon to battle No. 3 Alabama. When Smart leads the top-ranked Bulldogs onto the field to square off with the defending SEC champions, he will not only be focusing on capping an undefeated season for his team heading into the College Football Playoff but also putting a stamp on his legacy as coach of the Georgia program in this era.
Mercedes Benz-Stadium in Atlanta, site of the SEC Championship Game, has served as Smart's personal house of horrors when it comes to pivotal showdowns with Alabama. In January 2018, Smart was one Tua Tagovailoa heave down the left sideline away from winning the College Football Playoff National Championship against the Crimson Tide. Eleven months later in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, Jalen Hurts came off the bench like Jonathon Moxon in "Varsity Blues" to break Bulldogs' hearts again.
Despite the heartbreak, however, the confidence in Smart within the Georgia program and the majority of the fanbase hasn't waned. If anything, being on the brink of the national title twice and carrying the No. 1 ranking for the majority of the season has increased the confidence in the Dawgs' sixth-year coach.
Skepticism has been building outside of Athens, though, due, in part, to those two losses to Alabama and, more specifically, his decision-making in big games. The most notable, of course, is the ill-fated fake punt to Justin Fields at midfield of a tie game with 3:11 remaining on the clock in that 2018 SEC title game defeat.
This version of Georgia vs. Alabama inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium will either change the narrative or permanently attach it to his resume.
If Smart can't slay the dragon with this team that includes a generational defense and the demonstrable ability to dismantle the opposition with surgical precision, "not winning the big one" will stick to him no matter where he goes from here.
There's another team in the state of Georgia that was in a similar situation just one month ago -- the Atlanta Braves. They won the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros on Nov. 2, which capped off a four-year stretch of division titles and postseason heartbreak. The same thing happened between 1991-2005, when they won just one World Series despite 14 straight division titles. The stench of failure will always be part of their legacy, even if they go on to win 15 titles in the next 20 years. In reality, that's what makes the story great.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is at the tail-end of his career, even if he coaches through the end of his contract in 2028. If Smart isn't able to get the best of Saban on the big stage again, that same stench will stick with him and the program forever. That's OK, though. If the Dawgs become a juggernaut after Saban retires, or even if he's still there, this era of Georgia football will be etched in stone in its storied history as the precursor to something much sweeter.
Smart has done his best to downplay the significance of the this game as opposed to the other two at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"I don't think there's any overlap between the two," he said. "I know people want to make it that, make it some kind of overlap. Every year is independent of the previous. Our job is to go play the best possible game we can. That's what we've been trying to build towards this year."
He's right. Every team has a unique DNA with its own personality, and this one is extremely unique.
The Bulldogs quickly became 6.5-point favorites after the line opened at four, which shows just how much the roles have reversed. If Alabama is again playing the dragon role, Georgia is a bigger dragon that breathes white-hot fire as scorching as surface of the sun. Because of that, anything short of an SEC championship will -- and should -- be a viewed as a disappointment and the confirmation that this era of Georgia football is that of a program that can't break through the glass ceiling.
It's on Smart to prevent that from happening on Saturday inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If he does, the long-awaited win will simply serve as the next step for a program on the brink of greatness.