ATHENS, Ga. — Rivalry game outcomes have run the gamut in Kirby Smart’s first season as Georgia’s head coach.
The defense shut down Auburn without a second-half first down in a win over a top 10 Tigers team on Nov. 12. The offense produced just 164 yards in a loss to Florida on Oct.29. Tennessee needed a Hail Mary to beat the Bulldogs on Oct. 1.
Now here comes Georgia Tech.
“It’s a lot of people split down the line when it comes to this game, a lot of passion and energy goes into this game on both sides of it,” Smart said Monday.
“We tell our kids all the time: You’re remembered by what your senior class does and what your record is against Georgia Tech. So I think the same case as any rivalry. You’ve got to keep it within the grasp of your emotions. You play with emotion, but you’ve got to play with controlled emotion. You’ve got to make good decisions on the field. You’ve got to prepare well.”
Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt, tormented Tech.
He left a high standard when it came to beating the in-state rival.
While he went 5-10 against Florida, he finished 13-2 against the Yellow Jackets and even added another win against them with a 35-21 victory this season as Miami coach.
Sophomore cornerback Deandre Baker was asked who he viewed as Georgia’s biggest rival.
“Georgia Tech by far,” he said. “All the seniors tell us about it, the coaches tell us about it. As a young player, they tell us Georgia Tech is our biggest rival.”
And if he was asked the week of the Florida game, would he say the Gators were the biggest rival? “Most definitely,” he said.
Smart played for two coaches who had different experiences against Tech.
Ray Goff went 46-34-1 as Georgia coach, but as is noted on the school’s official athletic site on the occasion of him being inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2011 “his most distinguished coaching statistic for Bulldog partisans is that in the series against the big rival, Georgia Tech, his record is a sparkling 5-2.”
Jim Donnan went 2-3 and was fired after a third-straight loss in 2000.
ESPN Classic re-aired the 1997 and 1999 games on Monday morning.
Smart went 4-1 against Georgia Tech as a player including a redshirt season, with a 21-19 loss his senior season in 1998 on a 35-yard Brad Chambers field goal with two seconds left to end a seven-game Georgia win streak.
“It has been a great rivalry, and when I’ve played in it and coached in it, it’s always been heated and there’s been a lot of close games,” Smart said.
After Smart’s college playing career ended, he was an administrative assistant in 1999 when Georgia lost in Atlanta in overtime 51-48 in a game that had a controversial fumble by Jasper Sanks when the Bulldogs were driving for the winning score.
The SEC suspended the officiating crew for blowing the call on the 1-yard line in the final seconds.
“I don’t really remember the fumble much,” said Smart, who was upstairs in the coaches’ box with defensive coaches watching the opposing offense. “I remember it being in the paper a lot afterwards and years afterwards.”
Senior offensive tackle Greg Pyke, a Maryland guy, has learned enough about this rivalry to know one thing.
“Being a fifth-year guy here, you don’t want to lose to Tech,” Pyke said. “You don’t want to give them the satisfaction for the next 365 days that they run this state or whatever they say. I want to go out on top with a win in Sanford this weekend.”
“To me, it’s the next game,” Smart said. “It’s a large rivalry game. A lot of — especially our older fan base and the history of this rivalry is really important to a lot of people. It’s really important to me. It’s really important to this team. You could see it in the buzz they have for it.”