Smart: Auburn possibly 'hottest team in college football'

- University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart called Auburn “one of the hottest teams in college football, if not the hottest team in college football” as his Bulldogs prepare for their rematch against the Tigers Saturday.

The Deep South’s oldest rivalry in college football will resume for the first time at the S.E.C. Championship Game, being played for the first time at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Smart’s Georgia team will try to rebound three weeks after Auburn whipped the then top-ranked Bulldogs 40-17.

Here are comments from Smart and Bulldog players at Monday’s media briefing.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening comments…

“We will begin today on a little more of our mental and physical prep for Auburn. As you know, we are playing in the Dome so we hope to be able to go inside some this week. Maybe not every day, just a couple days to practice inside to prepare for it. I got a lot of respect for Gus and his team. I have a lot of respect for Coach Steele and the job he’s done defensively. They’re playing at a really high level, probably one of the hottest teams in college football, if not the hottest team in college football. They have good players on both sides of the ball. They have really good specialists, one that may be the best in the country.  They’re playing at a high level and they’re a good football team.  We’ll take on those challenges this week and prepare our team to play. We are going to get our guys ready to go out and be at our best when our best is needed. It’s certainly needed this week.”

On Auburn’s offensive front being able to dominate in the previous game played this season.

“Yeah, anytime you play an SEC game the line of scrimmage is straight warfare.  Warfare is what we call it. It’s big, physical guys going after it.  I think the line of scrimmage is really critical in this game for both sides.  You can say our offensive line being physical is just as important as our defensive line being physical.  We have to go a good job against the knockback. They have a really big, physical offensive line and they’re really patient in the way they block.  And the guy they have behind that offensive line is pretty good running the ball as well.  I don’t know that it’s our defensive line having to play better, honestly, it’s everybody as a team. We have to tackle better. We have to keep our edges better. We have to be able to run the ball better on offense.  At the end of the day it’s a lot of parts that have to be better than just our defensive line.”

On sending some potentially missed calls into the league…

“No comment.”

On how avenging a loss can be a motivating factor and his experiences with it at Alabama…

“You can watch the tape of the game, but I think it’s great.  It fires you up pre-game and gets you all excited, but when the toe meets leather it’s about striking people, it’s about speed, it’s about blocking, tackling, it’s about having composure.  It’s about having discipline. It really doesn’t revert back to who won the previous game. It matters a lot more about what you do in that game because the other game is past history. Now whether or not you say that it helps mentally with your preparation, that somebody is more focused than the other, I don’t know.  I certainly think Auburn was more focused down the stretch because their backs were against the wall.  They had two losses. Now everybody’s backs against the wall.  I think you should prepare the same, regardless of your record, regardless of a revenge factor and be real consistent in your approach so that the players are able to understand that it’s important to prepare right for every game. We don’t say that this game is more important than the other because it’s the next game. The next game is always the most important.

We didn’t use the game (at Alabama). There wasn’t a whole lot from the game.  It was, like, 9-6.  It was an extremely physical game so the next game was going to be extremely physical.  It was in the breakdown and we used it to make decisions, but this is completely different circumstances.  LSU’s offense was unique then to LSU. Auburn’s offense is not unique to just Auburn.  There are teams that run similar offenses to Auburn. They don’t run as efficiently, they don’t run them as good. That was a two-back run team at LSU then and that was the only team we played all year that did that.” 

On what Jake Fromm needs to do to play better in this game against Auburn…

"Just need to play the quarterback position, make good decisions, put us in the right plays. It's really important he plays with poise. He's under duress in every game that I've seen. The quarterback position in this league, you're going to be under duress. It's one of those that he has to execute the plan, not try to be superhuman, allow his playmakers around him to help make plays and play within the system. A big part of this game is not making turnovers, and we've got to try to force some on them and not turn it over ourselves."

On D'Andre Walker getting more playing time and the effect he could have in the game on Saturday…

"He's done a good job. A very athletic, hard-to-block guy, plays with great toughness, great effort. He played really well, looking back at the Tech game, he was able to help us. It was a situation where it fit what he does well too. So he's improving, and he's very conscientious about his special teams work and his defensive end work."

On motivations from Nick Chubb and Sony Michel entering this game and keys to preparation for the run game…

"Yeah, run game is all about movement. You've got to get movement. When they run the ball well at Auburn, they get movement. When we run the ball well at Georgia we usually get movement. When you don't get movement up front, it's tough. It's tough sledding, especially in our league. I think Sony and Nick, they understood going into that game it was going to be tough. Certainly didn't expect it to be that tough. But it's one of the things that we've moved on past that. We're focused on this opportunity, and those two guys will be at their best, I know that because they're competitors and they'll give us everything they've got.

On if this is when he thought Georgia would be playing for a championship….

"I've repeatedly said the same thing, there is no schedule for winning championships. Our job at the University of Georgia is to educate, get degrees, make sure we make the student-athlete a better person, and to win championships. So the objective is to get the most out of every team that we can, and that's what we tell our coaching staff every week. Our job is to prepare them to be the best they can in the game to get the most out of them. At the end of the season, we look back and say did we get the most out of this unit, this team, that we possibly could withstanding injuries, withstanding circumstances that you can't control. That's what we'll do at the end of this year and we'll do the same thing the following year.

But I think everybody wants to say that this is the schedule. There is no schedule. The only thing there is what you have and what you do with what you have. So I'm going to leave it to you guys to decide what the schedule is or what the term is, because that's what you guys do. That's not really for us internally -- we want to do the best we can with what we've got, and that's what we're trying to do this year."

On the difficulty for linebackers and corners to avoid taking on blocks and going against an offense like Auburn… 

"Yeah, I don't know exactly what you're asking about there. The fakes, I mean, they're very good at perimeter runs, and they also are very good exposing your edges. A lot of that is based on the guys with the ball in their hands. Eli Stove, he's an unbelievable, great athlete that runs rocket sweeps really well. When you say every time Stove comes in motion, they run a rocket sweep, no, they complement that really well with the power run game inside. So with those two combinations, you're having to defend two things all the time. They've got a really good power run game. People think they don't. I've played them for a long time, they do. They have physical players. They can run gap plays, they can run zone plays and they can run on the perimeter. Then when you add the dimension of a quarterback who can throw the ball and be elusive enough to create with his feet, you hit the perfect storm. Right now they're playing at a high level because they've got all those factors. So it's important for us to keep our edges, but we can't give up movement at the same time. When you start giving up movement on these guys, they'll crease you and gas you and do a good job. And Kerryon (Johnson) is incredible at being here one second and the next second he's out there on the perimeter and can bounce out on you."

On disrupting Jarrett Stidham's passing game to keep him from being as accurate as he's been these last five games…

"Well, I think you've got to do things. You've got to mix coverages. You've got to be able to get pressure. A lot of their passes sometimes are seven-man protections. So everybody's screaming and yelling about not getting pressure. When they're protecting with seven, unless you bring eight, you're going to have trouble getting there. So they do a good job with mixing up their protections. They do a good job of putting him in situations to be successful and to be honest, he's a really good quarterback who, I think, has gotten the greatest amount of improvement during the year of any player that I've seen from early in the year, which we've got games we played early in the year until now. I think he's got confidence in the system. He's gotten used to the SEC. I think he's playing at a high level."

On the injuries of Trenton Thompson and Christian Payne…

“We expect both of them to be fine. We haven't practiced yesterday, so we don't really know. Trenton actually played in the game. He came back in and played. He should be fine. Christian, I'll know more on today.

On how the noise and environment at Auburn played a factor in the outcome of the game…

"I actually thought that we handled that part pretty well from an offensive standpoint of functioning, snap count, timing, that kind of thing. The atmosphere in this weekend is going to be probably just as loud in a lot of ways because you could make a case that we'll have more fans there. But from what we've been told, it's an extremely loud place. So crowd noise will always be a factor when you play indoors. We'll prepare for that. I don't think that the crowd noise there had an impact on the timing or any plays. Jake (Fromm) did a good job handling that. I think their defense had a lot to do with the struggles that we had because they've got a really good defensive front."

On the development of the senior class… 

"I think you're always developing. I mean, I think culture is created, and culture is taught. The one thing we tried to do as an organization since they got here is put them in situations -- whether it's meeting with certain people that we bring in from outside organizations, meeting with speakers, we try to put them in leadership positions. Throughout the summer, we try to put them in leadership positions. The culture is created by what situations you put them in and they grow in those situations. They learn. They learn how to handle situations, and over the course of two years, they've gotten better.

Now, were they good kids and good players when we got here? Absolutely. This senior class is a good class. It's got some good players in it. So I think that's important to have that foundation of talent, but you develop the leaders. They develop their leadership qualities throughout their course of being here. Each one of them has experienced things throughout their time here that's made a better leader. I'm a firm believer that Sony (Michel) and Nick (Chubb) are the leaders they are because of the hard times they've been through. I mean, each one of them has been out with significant injuries during their career. That's helped them be a stronger leader. Same way with Lorenzo (Carter) and Davin (Bellamy) , they've become leaders because Jordan Jenkins was a good leader. Leonard Floyd was a good leader. We've had people come in and meet with them and talk to them about the ways we want to lead. I meet with them. We try to teach that and coach that so that they can be the right person in the clutch, and it's not always perfect. But we certainly aspire for them to be better men because they have played here."

On the dominance of the SEC West teams in the SEC Championship in recent years and some characteristics he wanted the team to have in terms of physical play…

"Yeah, I mean, the most physical team usually wins whatever the game is. Doesn't matter if it's SEC East, West, crossover, championship, physicality is the part of the game. Who controls the line of scrimmage? It just so happens the teams from the West have controlled the line of scrimmage more often than the teams from the east. So that's an objective in every game. That probably won't ever change in the game of football. So, I mean, that's an objective for this game, but it's not about East or West. It's about the game of football.

On that status of Kerryon Johnson affecting Georgia’s game plan…

"Well, I think you've got to be smart. You've got to understand where a team's strengths and weaknesses are. They've got a lot of strengths. They've got other backs that are good, probably not near as good as Kerryon. But they've got quality backs and they're SEC backs. They've also got ways of creating a running game that Gus has done outside of Kerryon. He does a good job of sharing those carries. They've got a quarterback, who don't mistake him for a runner, because he can run the ball when you least expect it. They have several designed runs for him against Alabama. When you start running the quarterback, it creates a really tough dynamic. So they've got other ways to get carries. I fully expect him to play, and we'll have to deal with it either way.

On the recruiting advantages and disadvantages of playing in this game…

"I always believe there are a lot more advantages than disadvantages because you can show what's on paper. The publicity you get and just the amount of exposure you get from playing in this game, CBS, and everybody in the country will be tuned in. There is no price tag you can put on that. The only disadvantage is somebody sitting in your kid's home this week and they're doing an in-home visit, and they're getting to sell their program while you're preparing for a game. But most of the people that we're recruiting, they understand that we can't be there right now, and they recognize that we'll be there as soon as we can. That begins after this game.”

— — 

Senior Tailback #1 Sony Michel

On the difference between championship week and any other week…

“It feels the same. For the past three years that I’ve been here, this is one of our weeks off so it just feels like another game. It is another week of preparation. But our guys are excited that we have another game and to be on the big stage at the SEC Championship. At the end of the day though it is just another game."

On changes to make in second go-around with Auburn…

“We get another chance to prepare for this game. We have to try to eliminate some our mistakes we made in the game and try to capitalize on them."

On adjustments in the running game from the past Auburn meeting…

“I think it is just the execution level. Everyone has to do their job and be on the same page. That will help us be successful."

On preparation walk-thrus…

“Those walk-thrus are big. They are essential to this team. It helps guys focus – not physically, but mentally. You have to lock-in. It is tough for a college football team, because there are a lot of guys that probably aren’t going to play that will be out there  So everyone just has to lock in and be on the same page. I think our team manages to handle that well.”

On discipline…

“Discipline always has been one of our mottos. We have to follow it because Auburn is a team that capitalizes on mistakes. We have to stay poised and do what we do. We can’t act out of character. We just need to go out there and play our ball game."

Graduate Safety #35 Aaron Davis 

On moving on from the last Auburn game…

“You can’t get caught up in the results from last week or two weeks ago. It will do you a disservice in terms of preparing for the next team. If you get caught up on if it was a big win or a big loss last week then that could deter your mind from the team that is in front of you.”

On mistakes to fix from previous Auburn loss…

“Discipline. They hit us with a couple reverses, outside leverage type things as far as set and containing. For the defensive backs, we have to crack and replace. I know I missed that a couple times when my man came in to crack and I didn’t fill out on the outside to make sure the ball doesn’t get out there. Being disciplined on both sides and communication. We can correct those things and limit those big plays.”

On stadium atmospheres…

“Auburn is a tough place to play. They have the new big Jumbotron which keeps the fans up and rocking throughout the game. I remember playing in the Georgia Dome for the North Carolina game so I know it is exciting. I’m sure the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to just the same.”

On playing in the SEC Championship Game…

“The last time we have been here was the year before I got here. We are used to having this week off, but it is definitely exciting. It is what you work for. We’ve been working hard the past 11 months to get to this point. All the guys are super eager to get out there to put on our best performance.”

Junior WR #5 Terry Godwin

On facing Auburn for the second time…

“It helps a lot. We know what kind of game it’s going to be, and what they’re going to try to throw at us. We’re going to have to take this week to prepare for. This game means a lot because I get to go out there and try to prove myself for these seniors and send them out on top. To get revenge for them. I hate for them to go out with a loss like this. For this team, I think we kind of needed that to wake us up. For these seniors, we’re going to go out there and put it all on the line.”

On the last time Georgia faced Auburn this season…

“We went out there and didn’t play Georgia ball. We went away from what we’ve been doing the whole season, and it showed on the scoreboard. That’s not something we normally do, so we’re going to go out there and fix it this week. Being more focused and being more disciplined. Not causing the self-inflicted wounds or the self-inflicted penalties. Just being the Georgia team, being clean and physical.”

On if the pass game should be utilized more…

“If that’s what the coaches want to do, that’s what we’re going to do."

Senior OLB #7 Lorenzo Carter

On what linebacker D’Andre Walker brings to the defense…

“[D’Andre] is energetic. He brings a lot of energy to the games. He’s a playmaker. So, we plan on having him in there to make some plays and keep the momentum in our favor.”

On the last time Georgia faced Auburn this season…

“It was tough because they were winning, so there’s not that much you can say when somebody’s beating you. It’s just another chance. There’s not many chances when you get a chance to redeem yourself, and I feel like we have to go out there and be ready to redeem ourselves on Saturday.”

On learning of Georgia's opponent in the championship…

“It was excitement. It was a lot of excitement just realizing we get a chance to play in the championship in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It really didn’t matter who we played, but getting the chance to play Auburn again, it was big, because they’re the one blemish on our record.”

On coming back for his senior season…

"We came back, the seniors came back, and we really wanted the chance to play for a championship, and now everything’s on the table. We know what we have to do, but we’ve got to keep working and keep grinding.” 

On facing a team twice in one season…

“It’s always better playing somebody twice. You get a feel for the players, you get a chance to see their offense again, and you’re a lot more comfortable. We’ll be in the lab, just watching film, getting more comfortable and watching the game we played.”

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