ATLANTA — It took two overtimes for Georgia to finally beat Oklahoma and claim its spot in the national championship game.
Each extra second added more drama — and more reason for coach Kirby Smart to worry about the needle on his players’ collective emotional tank.
Factor in the drain of the cross-country flight back to Athens from Pasadena, California and the fact players returned to classes this week following the Christmas break, and Smart believed there was reason to worry about the preparation for Monday night’s game against Alabama for the national title.
As soon as last week’s Rose Bowl semifinal playoff win was over, Smart began addressing those concerns with his players.
“A very emotional game … which concerns me, and I talked to the players immediately afterward about not burning any more energy or emotion on that game and moving on,” Smart said earlier this week.
Smart and two players, running back Sony Michel and linebacker Roquan Smith, participated in a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday. Otherwise, Smart has shielded his players from interviews before Saturday’s media day at Philips Arena.
Smart, the former longtime defensive coordinator under Alabama coach Nick Saban, said players may not realize how the demands of the week can cut into time he wants to devote to preparing for the game.
“I want to make sure these players understand that, because a lot of them don’t,” Smart said. “They don’t understand that 20 minutes with the media, 45 minutes waiting on a bus or two hours waiting in traffic, those all add up. … That’s what’s important to me is to lead these young men the right direction so they have the best opportunity at success as they can have.”
Both Georgia and Alabama are expected to arrive in Atlanta on Friday night.
Michel and Smith say the Bulldogs won’t have any difficulty moving past the emotions of the dramatic 54-48 Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma. After all, this is the opportunity to play for No. 3 Georgia’s first national championship since 1980.
“We’ve won games around here, so we know how to handle situations like this,” said Michel, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a direct snap. “We know our task at hand. We’ve just got to move forward. We’ve got a big, a good opponent we’re about to face, so I’m sure this team, this coaching staff knows what we’ve got to focus on from here on.”
Smith, named the defensive player of the game in the Rose Bowl , said players understand the win was only a step to the team’s ultimate goal.
“We just have to shift our focus back because the main thing is to win the national championship, and we know that if we’re not honed in and doing everything we can in our power to prepare ourselves for that game, then we know we’ll be shorting ourselves,” Smith said. “… I think we’ll be 100 percent, though, for sure.”
The matchup of Southeastern Conference rivals will cap an emotion-packed week for Smart. He coached with Saban at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and for nine years with Alabama, the last eight as defensive coordinator. Smart coached on four national championship teams at Alabama, but those titles belong to Saban.
Saban is 11-0 when coaching against his former assistants. Smart is trying to beat his former boss as well as end Georgia’s 38-year national championship drought.
Asked about his emotions after taking Georgia to its first SEC championship since 2005 and the Rose Bowl win, Smart said “Oh, I’m good.
“Emotionally I’m excited about the opportunity. You can coach a long time and not get opportunities like this, and I’ve been blessed to be part of games of this magnitude and nature before,” Smart said before adding “Obviously never as a head coach, but I know that every minute and every second counts, and that’s what’s important to me.”