Georgia head coach Kirby Smart joined the College GameDay crew live from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, site of Saturday’s SEC Championship, to discuss the big game. The discussion began by comparing having to face Alabama’s star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the likely Heisman Trophy winner this season, to another former Heisman in Florida’s Tim Tebow. Tebow took on an Alabama team that had Smart as defensive coordinator in the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship games.
In the first meeting, Tebow threw three touchdown passes without a turnover, helping the Gators to their second national title in three seasons. The following season, Smart’s defense was able to hold Tebow and Florida to one offensive touchdown.
“There are some similarities there,” Smart said. “The quarterback we were up against was the premier guy at the time in Tim Tebow. He had done some incredible things numbers-wise. You look at what Tua has been able to do. I think you can draw some relation to there.
“Past that, I think both teams are different. We are in different spots. I certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for Alabama has done and been able to do. They have a tremendous team. We have a big test for us today.”
Today’s conference title game pits No. 1 Alabama (12-0) against No. 4 Georgia (11-1), a rematch of the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, which saw the Crimson Tide win 26-23 in overtime. Smart says that game helped his players from the standpoint of learning they can play with anyone.
“I think the biggest thing you learn when you go toe-to-toe with a team as good as them, you realize that you have a really good team,” Smart said. “I think our kids probably acknowledged that. I felt really comfortable going into the game. I think at halftime, they realized, hey we can play with these guys, and that gave them some confidence.
“But these are two really different teams from that one. We have tried to draw on that. Four returning starters for us, a few for them, really two different defenses. So it is very different.”
Tagovailoa has thrown for 3,189 yards and a school-record 36 touchdowns with just two interceptions, leading the nation in collegiate pass efficiency (212.5) and NFL passer rating (145.6). In just one season as the starter, Tagovailoa is already second on the Alabama career touchdown pass list with 47 and has thrown for 300 or more yards an Alabama-record five times this season.
“I think it helped prepare him to get all those games before this one,” Smart said. “He has certainly gotten tremendously better. He has grown as a player, he sees the field really well. For us, we get to see a body of work, but that body of work is really explosive. When you turn the tape on, the first thing you see is his ability to make throws, make plays with his feet, decision making, really good wideouts, tight ends, backs. They really don’t have a weakness on offense. They score a lot of points because of that.
“Knowing that, you have to have a good defense plan, you have to be able to change it up on them and you have to play well.”
Smart indicated that for Georgia to have a chance to win against Alabama, he needs a pair of seniors to have big games.
“Two guys who have to play well for us up front and they usually do, D’Andre Walker and Jonathan Ledbetter,” Smart said. “They are guys that play really hard. They play with high motors. They have to disrupt the passing game. They have to do a good job affecting Tua and they have to play with good effort. We need a lot of guys to play well, but those two especially.”
As far as the key to which team comes out on top in the SEC Championship and punches its ticket to return to the CFP, Smart said it is all about reacting to success and adversity.
“You always say turnovers and explosive plays,” Smart said. “Those things indicate winners. But really the team that handles momentum swings the best. There are going to be plays made in this game on both sides of the ball. How do you handle that and how do you respond to that is what we are selling to our guys.”
Kickoff for the SEC Championship is 4 p.m. ET, with CBS set to televise the game.