ATLANTA ‑ Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn both talked preparation in their final press conference prior to Saturday’s SEC Championship in Mercedes-Benz Stadium here.
Smart said his serving as defensive coordinator at Alabama when the Crimson Tide played in the title game many times has been beneficial to him in his first visit to the championship as a head coach, as far as planning and logistics go.
“I sort of think it helps having played in Atlanta in this kind of environment, this kind of game,” he said. “Obviously, a different building, right across the street. I think the experience is invaluable, just being able to control the emotions and have the kids understand it’s another game, and they can’t look at it as much more than that because a lot of times guys lose composure and don’t make good decisions.
“Obviously, it’s a really important game” Smart said. “I wouldn’t diminish the importance of it. I just think that you’ve got to have a process. You’ve got to have a routine that you go through, and we certainly have a routine that we go through, and the kids are able to follow that and count on that.
The Bulldogs, said Smart, have bought into the coaching staff’s tough practices the season long and the prep for the championship game hasn’t been any different as the team has worked diligently to make amends for the 40-17 loss the Bulldogs suffered in the regular-season meeting at Auburn.
“I’d probably start with the practice habits going from last year to this year. I think there’s a certain standard and a certain — I don’t know if the right word is pain threshold, but endurance threshold where you can handle a certain amount of practices throughout the season. I think the kids embraced that more this year, and they understood the importance of the way we practiced, and they bought into that.
“It really helped as far as stamina, the conditioning of the off-season program, and doing it the right way throughout the year and doing it more consistent without the highs and the lows and giving a good approach to each week during the season,” Smart said. “I thought our seniors did a great job carrying that message forward.”
Smart said the fact the Bulldogs opened with North Carolina in the Georgia Dome last season has given Georgia some benefit when it comes to playing in a domed atmosphere … but only to an extent.
“It’s really easy for me, but it’s not my concern. I’m not worried about myself. It’s the players. It’s the young men who haven’t been in a venue like this. I think playing in the Georgia Dome certainly helped last year to open in that place, but this obviously is a step above that.
“But, yeah, this is my first time,” he said. “I mean, actually walking in here, I just missed a call from Dan Quinn (Falcons coach). I was hoping he was going to give me some pointers on how to play well in here. But this is our first time being in it.
“I know it will be the same way really with Auburn. Even a lot of our high school kids a lot of times, they played in the Georgia Dome. So it wasn’t as much of a wow factor in the really good programs. But that’s not the case in this scenario.
“So it’s going to be beneficial to get to walk through and get to go out there and get all of that out of the way,” he continued. “I can remember the experience at Alabama going to Jerry Jones stadium. It’s one of the only times we ever went to the stadium before to get the TV screen, to get the large screen, to get the wow factor out of the way, and I think that’s important for us to get that out of the way tomorrow so we can — I mean, get it out of the way today so we can get down to business tomorrow.
Smart was asked what the thought at the end of the Alabama-Auburn game, when the Tigers punched their ticket to the SEC title game with a 26-14 win over the Crimson TIde. “My immediate thought was how are we going to play better against Auburn? That’s my first statement that went through my head. Now that you say that, I can only imagine sitting here today, if we were playing them (Alabama and his old coach Nick Saban), what the questions would be like.”
Smart emphasized, after the earlier loss to Auburn, that the Bulldogs must become much more physical in their approach to the upcoming games.
“I think that our job is to improve physicality,” he said. “I don’t think that you just snap your fingers and have that happen overnight. I think some people have said, oh, you played Kentucky. You were more physical. You played Georgia Tech. You were more physical. Well, they weren’t Auburn, you know what I mean?
“So the opportunity to present itself to do a better job getting physical against a team you just played, there’s no better chance than to go back out against a team you played against and have an opportunity — not many people get that second opportunity. I think we’re going to find out a lot about our team and how physical we are when we play a team the size and as physical as Auburn is. And we’re going to find out a lot more about it tomorrow.”
Smart said it can’t concern the Georgia defense whether or not Auburn star tailback Kerryon Johnson starts the game, after sustaining a shoulder injury in the win over Alabama.
“I don’t think you let it. I’ve made a big effort to not let that be the focal point because they have a physical offensive line. They’ve got a really good quarterback. They’ve got speed at wideout. They’ve got other running backs, and they have receivers they use like running backs. So they’re going to find a way. Gus has always found a way to run the ball some kind of way.
“That stuff with Kerryon is beyond our control,” Smart emphasized. “It’s not something we can control, and we really focus on the things that we can control — like what is our mindset? What is our demeanor? What is our execution level? How are we going to play certain formations? How are we going to play on special teams? Those are things we can control. So I don’t think we can let Kerryon’s situation dictate to us how we prepare. I expect to see Kerryon back there, to be honest with you. That’s what we’ve prepared for. They’ve got other guys that block. Gus has had this situation in the years I’ve gone against him multiple times where they might not have had a feature back. They use other players. They’ve got Chandler Cox. They’ve got good football players. They’ll have somebody back there that can protect if it’s not Kerryon, but I fully expect it to be him.”
Smart said he’s not sure of the playing status of senior fullback Christian Payne, who was injured in the 38-7 win at Georgia Tech last weekend. “It will be a game-time decision,” he said.
Auburn’s Malzahn, following Smart to the podium, said the Tigers are also excited to be in the title game and he again said, “We’re playing a great Georgia team, one of the most talented teams in college football. I’m just excited for both our players and coaches.”
Concerning tailback Johnson, Malzahn said he’s been able to practice this week but whether the SEC’s leading rusher will start the game on Saturday “remains a game-time decision.” Saying he’s not going to get into specific details as to the extent of Johnson’s shoulder injury, Malzahn said the staff will watch him closely in the pre-game warm-ups and then make a decision. “Kerryon’s a competitor and he wants to play so we’ll see,” said Malzahn