“So, I am a Jedi.”
“Not yet. One thing remains. Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.”
Kirby Smart doesn’t watch a lot of movies. He doesn’t have time for that. Certainly not from August through spring, when every precious free moment of potential screen time wouldn’t dare be wasted on the cinema because it would be much better utilized watching film.
But even the most casual of cinephiles are familiar with the most unavoidable plot point of them all. From Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader and Harry Potter vs. Voldemort to Pacino vs. De Niro at the airport and the Titans vs. the hillbillies in the Virginia state title game.
The third act. The final conflict. The climax. Call it whatever you want, but like Thanos standing over Tony Stark, the cathartic final showdown with one’s mortal enemy to finally achieve that over-the-hump life-changing victory is inevitable. Unless, of course, it turns out that this isn’t “Endgame.” It’s “Infinity War.” Our hero totally gets his butt kicked, and this wasn’t the final showdown after all.
Kirby Smart has seen that movie too many times before. He has starred in it — stuck inside an endless loop of pain until he can figure out how to wrestle the Time Stone from Nick Saban, the Mad Titan of college football. The chance to do that will come for Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs once again this Saturday in the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Fittingly, it comes on the same field where Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide have ripped the hearts right out of the Dawgs so many times before.
“We don’t focus on history,” Smart said Monday as he addressed the media prior to this weekend’s showdown. “I think every team is independent of the previous, so it is what it is, and our guys have got to go out and play well. What happened in those games will be of no relevance to this game. I think anybody with good coaching sense would tell you that.”
Yes, they would. Certainly, right now, here in the moment, seeking to sidestep such talk of curses and slumps and former apprentices seeking to topple their masters, and all the psychology that comes with all the above. But outside of the crucible of in-season context, Smart has always acknowledged the significance of it all. He smiles but also flinches a little when someone mentions how close he has come to the Hollywood ending.
Especially that one night. You remember it. The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. Overtime. Leading 23-20. After taking a sack, Alabama faced second-and-26 with its backup quarterback, freshman Tua Tagovailoa, in the game. One pass later, the season was over. Georgia had lost. In Atlanta. On the same field and against the same team where the Bulldogs will be playing Saturday.
“We have definitely been involved in some amazing finishes, but too many times it’s been as the other guys,” Smart said in July 2018, barely six months after the most staggering of those losses. “I could sit here and tell you that I was able to just immediately erase that and move on, but that would be a lie. The hope is that you take those moments when you had your heart broken and remember them as steps that got you there when you do finally reach that goal you were so close to. What you have overcome will make that moment even more special than it was already going to be.”
Since leaving the side of former boss and mentor Nick Saban in 2016, Kirby Smart has led his alma mater to an unprecedented level of success, even for a place as rich in college football tradition as Georgia. In six seasons, Smart’s Dawgs have won 64 games, four SEC East division titles, an SEC championship and a 4-2 postseason record that includes wins in the Rose and Sugar bowls. His team is currently ranked No. 1 in the land and is riding a 16-game winning streak, one shy of a program record set from 1945 to 1947. They enter Saturday’s SEC title game as 6.5-point favorites over Alabama, the first time the Tide has been officially listed as an underdog in more than six years.
Smart once patrolled the defensive backfield for Georgia as a player. Now, as UGA’s head coach, he is leading one of the greatest defenses in college football history, despite plying their trade during the sport’s most explosive offensive era. The Dawgs have allowed 6.9 points per game, the fewest of any team since 1986. They have not allowed more than 17 points in any of their 12 games, the first defense to do that in 42 years.
Now come the buts. And they are all written in crimson.
BUT … Georgia is 0-6 against Alabama since 2008. Smart was coach in the last three, including a 2020 regular-season loss that went from a 24-20 halftime lead to a spirit-crushing 41-24 loss.
BUT … Georgia has lost two of its three SEC championship game appearances under Smart, including a 2018 heartbreaker that saw the Tide roll back from a two-touchdown second-half deficit.
BUT … the last time Alabama was an underdog was also against Georgia, which was favored by one point on Oct. 3, 2015 in Athens — and Bama won 38-10. Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator that day, and at season’s end, took over at his alma mater.
BUT … even after Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M team beat Bama earlier this season, former Saban assistants are still 1-24 against their old boss.
BUT … every single time Georgia and Alabama play, especially in Atlanta for any sort of championship trophy, everywhere the Dawgs and Kirby Smart go, they will be forced to watch second-and-26 over and over again.
There is only one way to stop that cycle, and Smart knows it. Georgia must give the world that third-act moment, that final conflict, that climax, where the once-cursed finally become the heroes that they were born to be.
Smart said it himself back in July: “Listen, the goals are obvious. They are right in front of us. We know what we have to do, one goal at a time until only the ultimate goal remains.”
Like the little green guy said. For the Georgia Bulldogs, one thing remains. They must confront their Vader. It is their destiny.