Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith isn’t afraid to say what he did after Alabama handed the Bulldogs their first loss of the season, a 41-24 defeat in the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 4.
“Want the honest-to-God truth? I cried,” Smith said Wednesday. “I’m 20 now. I’ve been playing football since I was 4 — 16 years, haven’t won anything. Haven’t won a championship. I won a couple of bowl games but anything big, any championship, I never won yet. And that’s one thing that keeps me going.”
All of Georgia’s players and a handful of their coaches weren’t alive the last time the Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They’ll try to end that 41-year drought when they play No. 1 Alabama in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in Indianapolis.
“That’s just something in the back of my head that I know that keeps me driving and I just want to win,” Smith said. “I could care less how it gets done, how pretty it looks. I just want to win.”
The No. 3 Bulldogs rebounded well from their only loss, defeating No. 2 Michigan 34-11 in a CFP semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl to earn a rematch against the Crimson Tide. Georgia has lost seven games in a row against Alabama, including a 26-23 defeat in overtime in the CFP National Championship after the 2017 season.
“I said it when I was a freshman: Every man wakes up and puts his pants on one leg at a time,” Smith said. “There’s no such thing as a mental block. The key word is in your head. That’s mental. You’ve got to go out and do it, get it out of your head. I don’t think it’s a mental block — I think the first time we played them we gave up a couple big plays.”
In the loss last month, the Crimson Tide piled up 536 yards, including 421 passing, against a Georgia defense that led the FBS in scoring defense this season. If the Bulldogs are going to have success in the rematch, they’re going to have to put pressure on Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. He completed 26 of 44 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting and wasn’t sacked. Tide receiver Jameson Williams had seven catches for 184 yards and two scores. This time, Alabama won’t have receiver John Metchie III, who tore the ACL in his left knee in the first meeting.
“Ultimately, we want to create pressure,” Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “We want to be able to get after Bryce. As far as how to do it, I don’t want to give away our secrets yet, but wait until the game to figure that out. We want to generate pressure. And certainly there’s a lot of different ways you can do that. He’s really good at avoiding the rush and they did unique things to protect him. We have to attack it a little bit differently.”
Georgia’s defense had four sacks against the Wolverines, giving them 45 this season, which is fourth most in the FBS. Smith had one sack and seven quarterback hurries against Michigan.
“We say all the time here the best rush is the best coverage, and we’ve got to get to the quarterback,” Smith said. “There’s nothing else about it. Last game, we did not do that and I know a lot of people felt hurt after that one. I hold myself and my room accountable and also the [defensive] line. It’s our job as pass-rushers to get after the quarterback and we didn’t do that. The difference between this game and that game is we just have to do it. We have to find a way.”
If Georgia finds a way to do it, it might end a drought that has been hanging over its program for more than four decades.
“You can only judge a man by what he does next and how hard he gets hit and gets back up,” Smith said. “I think we got hit pretty hard, and I thought we got up pretty well because guys didn’t sweat it from day one. Guys said we know we need to work, we know we have an opportunity of a lifetime. And now that we’re here in the national championship, I think we bounced back pretty well. Now it’s time to go finish the job. That’s all it is that needs to be said and be done, go finish the job and finish what we started.”