EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Georgia coach Kirby Smart was part of college football’s greatest dynasty as an assistant for Nick Saban at Alabama and now is on the verge of launching his own.
After going through the Crimson Tide last season to win Georgia’s first national title in 41 years, Smart’s top-ranked Bulldogs are back in the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night against No. 3 TCU (13-1).
Georgia (14-0) could become the first school to repeat as champs in major college football since Alabama a decade ago, and the first to go back-to-back in the nine-year history of the four-team playoff.
With a blueprint similar to Saban’s but modified to fit Georgia, Smart has built a program that appears capable of accomplishing the ultimate goal: sustained excellence.
“A lot of hard work, standard, a belief in the culture within it,” Smart said Sunday during a joint news conference with TCU coach Sonny Dykes.
Heisman Trophy finalist Stetson Bennett and the Bulldogs have been the No. 1 team in the country in 21 of the last 23 AP Top 25 college football polls, dating back to Oct. 10, 2021.
“It doesn’t start when the season starts. It starts Tuesday when the season ends,” Smart said. “And it just continues. I don’t know that you can relax and just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be fine.’ You have to make it happen. And I think each and every year you have a different team.”
Smart and Dykes posed with the trophy Sunday that will go to the winner Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
Smart was going through this drill for the third time, but first without his mentor, Saban, as the opponent. Georgia lost the first of two all-Southeastern Conference CFP title games in overtime in 2018 to Alabama, one of the Tide’s six titles under Saban.
For Dykes, this is all new — and kind of hard to believe.
In Dykes’ first season as head coach of the Horned Frogs, TCU has gone from picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 to within a victory of school’s first national championship since 1938.
Facing Georgia marks the culmination of one of the most improbable seasons in college football history. The Frogs went 5-7 last season and saw the most successful coach in program history, Gary Patterson, fired before it even ended.
This season, Heisman runner-up Max Duggan and The Hypnotoads — a nickname borrowed from the animated TV show “Futurama” — have taken their fans on a heart-stopping ride that has included nine victories by 10 points or fewer.
The Frogs are the biggest underdogs in the history of the CFP title game, getting 12 1/2 points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and facing a far more talented team — at least by the recruiting rankings.
“Know it’s going to be a big challenge for us, but our guys have never backed down from challenges and they have a lot of confidence in themselves and our program and what we’re trying to do,” Dykes said. “And we’ll go out and play good football Monday night, see what happens.”
The Frogs don’t think of themselves as a Cinderella team, and Smart is not here for it either.
“And we’ve had a saying around our place for a long time that probability is not reality. So we don’t control what people say and probability. Reality is what happens on the field in between those lines,” he said.
Georgia has dominated differently this season than last. The Bulldogs fielded one of the best defenses in recent college football history in 2021, a unit that produced a record five first-round picks in the NFL draft.
The Bulldogs have not been quite as stingy this season, but they have picked it up offensively behind Bennett, who is 177 yards passing shy of 4,000 for the season.
Under Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley — both Air Raid offense proteges of the late Mike Leach — TCU has been one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Frogs have a nation-leading 21 plays of 50 yards or more, including two in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal upset of Michigan.
But Georgia, which outlasted Ohio State 42-41 in the Peach Bowl, is fourth in the country in yards per play (7.09). TCU is 11th at 6.85.
“Obviously have a great quarterback and he’s making things happen and the players are making things happen for him,” TCU cornerback Tre Hodges-Tomlinson said.
For Bennett, a second straight national championship would cap his own unlikely journey from walk-on at Georgia to junior college to a return to Athens and surprising rise to the top of the depth chart.
Since the Bulldogs won their first national title in 1980, led by freshman tailback Herschel Walker, only three teams have won consecutive national titles: Nebraska (1994-95), USC (2003-04) and Alabama (2011-12).
“It’s hard for people to go back and do what got them there, and that’s why it takes great leadership like Coach Smart and the coaching staff because we’re all college kids, and it’s easy for us to lose sight of what’s important or what we’re trying to go do,” Bennett said.