NEW ORLEANS – In their final press conference prior to Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl kickoff, head coaches Kirby Smart and Tom Herman pronounced their teams ready to play while also continuing to dish out praise for the team they’ll be facing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Speaking Monday morning at the Downtown Marriott, the media hotel for this year’s game Smart, after lauding the city of New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl committee and Texas coach Herman and the Longhorns, had kind words for former UGA coach Mark Richt, who announced his coaching retirement at Miami this week, as well as former Bulldog Ben Watson, the New Orleans Saints tight end who is also ending a long and successful NFL career.
“I’d also like to take this opportunity to wish Coach Richt a happy retirement,” said Smart. “He’s meant a lot to me in my career, hired me, and has been very thorough and helpful in my career and has been a big beneficiary to the University of Georgia. Has given so much back to the University of Georgia and been such a good man and leader of this institution. We wish him well in his retirement.
“Also, Ben Watson, whose 15‑year career in the NFL is coming to an end,” said Smart. “And he’s such a great representative. He spoke to our team last year in one of the most compelling talks that we’ve ever had. And we hope to get him back a lot more now that he’s got some more free time coming up after this season. So I’m excited about those guys.”
Smart was asked by Bulldawg Illustrated if Georgia’s big and physical receivers, Jeremiah Holloman and Riley Ridley, have helped the Georgia secondary to prepare for Texas’ tall and talented wideouts, 6-4 Lil’ Jordan Humphrey and 6-6 Collin Johnson.
“I don’t know if you’ll actually know that until the game because those two receivers for Texas are as big and as physical as we’ve faced all year,” Smart replied. “They do a great job of mixing those guys up and moving them around and creating matchups for them.
“They’ve got a lot of secondaries in the Big 12 who have pressed them,” he said. “They’ve got guys who played off of them. Those wideouts are elite wideouts, and they’re not just elite because of their ability to catch. They’re physical. They block. They’re tough.
“We’ve faced some big wideouts a couple times at LSU. We’ve faced some wideouts of good size in our offense but none quite like these two. So this dynamic will be unique, and we tried to simulate that but not necessarily with just Riley and J.J. We’ve had Matt Landers and Tommy Bush who are good size‑wise, maybe not the bulk as those two, but we’ve been able to get some good matchups and some good contests out there with those guys.”
Although Georgia’s All-America and Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Deandre Baker has opted to sit out the Sugar Bowl to be ready for the upcoming NFL draft, Smart said Baker has helped immensely to help prepare the Bulldogs’ young defensive backs for the Longhorns’ passing attack.
“Deandre has done a great job from a leadership standpoint, confidence standpoint for those guys,” Smart said. “As far as the difficulty of preparing for it, the difficulty comes tomorrow because he’s not out there. The prep so far has not been difficult because he’s not there; it’s been concerning because you’ve got a little bit more unknown when he’s not out there. You feel really comfortable the last however many games, three years, that Deandre is going to control his side of the field. Now you’ve got not two new guys (Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes) ‑‑ two guys that have experience ‑‑ they don’t have the experience of Deandre Baker ‑‑ who get an opportunity to go out and play. And that’s probably the most exciting thing, seeing those guys play.”
Smart said senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker, who was sidelined for the final quarter of the SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama with a groin injury, and freshman nose tackle Jordan Davis, who missed much of the preseason bowl practice, will be “game-time” decisions, as far as their playing status goes for Tuesday night’s game.
“D’Andre Walker has struggled a little bit,” said Smart. “His groin has been bothering him, hasn’t been able to go full speed. He’ll be a game‑time decision, maybe situational, the route we’re using. And then Jordan Davis has kind of been the same. He may be a situational player that he can play in certain situations. But to be honest, both these guys have struggled to get back to 100 percent.”
Smart was again quizzed about the Bulldogs being disappointed at not crashing the four-team national playoff this season.
“First thing, I think disappointment is a part of life,” Smart replied. “I think everybody in this room can say they’ve been disappointed at some time or another, they’ve been let down. But it actually makes, when you do things well, that much grander because if you just won all the time or you just had success all the time, you’d never feel the agony of that disappointment. So we have to embrace that in order to really enjoy the other side of it, which is what we do this for. The comeback is what you do this for. So this is our opportunity to go out and finish it and do it the right way, and we want to do that.
Smart said Georgia’s present senior class can make a lasting impression on the program with a triumph over the 15th-ranked ‘Horns Tuesday night.
“I think the biggest thing is they can leave a lasting legacy and what is your legacy going to be?” he said. “They’ve got a chance to be the second or tied for the second‑winningest senior class to come out of this program, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. They’ve also got the beneficiary of playing more games than some of the past teams in the ’80s. But it’s pretty incredible what they’ve been able to do in a short time.
“And I want them to think about how do you want to be remembered? What do you want people to say about you? You want them to say that you went out and laid everything on the line and competed as hard as you could because a lot of these seniors, this will be their last football game. And I want them to have a positive taste in their mouth, and I want them to be able to come back to the University of Georgia and be proud of the fact that they were able to win a New Year’s Six bowl. And I think that’s really important.”
Texas’ 2nd-year coach Herman, taking the podium first Monday morning, was asked if the Bulldogs are the best team he’s seen on tape this season.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Our rival (Oklahoma) to our north is pretty danged good, too. We had two great games against them. And we respect the heck out of them. But they’re different,” he said. “It’s hard to say best when you’re talking about anything. And I would say certainly different. I think they (Georgia) pose some unique challenges with how big they are up front on both sides of the ball, which is something that is different for us. But ‘best’ is difficult. They’re certainly as good as any team that we’ve played in our two years here.”
One reporter followed that question up by asking Herman does he think the Longhorns will be able to compete with the Bulldogs when not many pundits are giving Texas much of a chance to win the football game?
“I do,” Herman replied, “because for the first time in a long time I think we understand that our best is good enough, that if we play our best, we can play with and/or beat any team in the country. And now we’re going to have to play our best though. We’re certainly not good enough to show up with our B game and expect to beat a team like Georgia. We’re going to need our A game.
“But I think our guys have proven to themselves that if we prepare the right way, we prepare the way that we know how to and then we put that preparation into action when the ball is kicked off, that we’re going have a chance to be in just about any game.”
And still another question asking Herman if the Bulldogs’ SEC-leading rushing game will be the best the Longhorns have faced this season?
“Again, different,” Herman answered. “I mean, when we played Oklahoma in the conference title game, they had gone six straight games of rushing for over 290 yards. So we’ve got a lot of respect for what they do in the run game.”
Replying to a question from Bulldawg Illustrated on the success of Texas’ special teams play this season and how they must perform against Georgia in order for the Longhorns to win the game, Herman said, “I think we’ve been just okay. I think we’ve certainly improved our field goal kicking and kickoffs, which was good. Our return game is just okay right now. And our punt team is kind of up and down.
“But I think to answer your question on what we need to do in that phase, we’ve got to flip the field. When we don’t score points on drives, we’ve got to make sure that we’re making that field as long as possible for their offense.”
Commenting on UGA’s Smart being able to recruit well in Texas now and the Longhorns likewise being able to go into Georgia and land star recruits, Herman said, “I think that you’re talking about two major national brands.
“You’re talking about both schools with the ability because of the tradition, because of the history, I think because of the academics, because of the location of both schools and the attractiveness of both cities, I think it allows us to go anywhere to recruit.
“Certainly, I would imagine having talked to Kirby a few times ‑‑ certainly don’t want to put words in his mouth — but he’s going to try to keep the best players in the state of Georgia in the state. And we’re going to do our best in the state of Texas as well. But if we need to go out of state to recruit, I think both programs from an historical standpoint have allowed us to do that because the attractiveness,” said Herman.