Smart on his 13-0 Bulldogs: ‘I knew we had a good football team’

Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh receives a lift from right guard Tate Ratledge after McIntosh’s 8-yard touchdown run during the 50-30 thumping of LSU in the SEC title game on Dec. 3 in Atlanta.

The Georgia Bulldogs have qualified for the College Football Playoff for a third time in six seasons and for a first occasion as the No. 1 seed.

Not too shabby for a program that set a record this past spring with 15 selections in a seven-round National Football League draft, including five defensive players going in the first round. Georgia will seek to continue its quest for a second consecutive national championship when the Bulldogs (13-0) face fourth-seeded Ohio State (11-1) at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl national semifinal inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on New Year's Eve.

"I thought in the spring that we were going to have a good team," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday afternoon in a news conference. "We were a long way away defensively from where we needed to be, but I knew we had a good football team. I knew we would have a good football team when the season ended last year.

"We have a core of good players."

The Peach Bowl will be televised by ESPN, with kickoff shortly after 8 p.m.

Georgia did have plenty of offensive pieces returning from a year ago, including veteran quarterback Stetson Bennett, the talented tight end tandem of Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, five offensive linemen with starting experience, and a slew of experience as well at running back and receiver with the likes of Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton, Daijun Edwards, Ladd McConkey, Kearis Jackson and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.

Two of the more consistent offensive performers, McConkey and right tackle Warren McClendon, were injured during Georgia's 50-30 win over LSU at the Southeastern Conference championship game inside Mercedes-Benz on Dec. 3. McClendon, voted by SEC coaches to the all-conference first team, suffered a "light MCL" injury, according to Smart, while McConkey, an All-SEC second-team pick, continues to battle knee tendinitis.

"I don't know when exactly that we'll get those guys back," Smart said. "They're not practicing with us. They're conditioning. They're running and moving around, but they're not practicing just yet.

"We're still 16 or 17 days out."

The Bulldogs are practicing but not yet preparing for the Buckeyes, who were 11-0 before losing their regular-season finale to rival Michigan 45-23 on Nov. 26. Smart said this is an opportunity for the younger players, adding that this stretch is "another set of spring practices."

Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan was in Athens on Wednesday and expressed his excitement in having Georgia, which sold out its ticket allotment of 13,000 in one day. This is the second Peach Bowl trip in three years for the Bulldogs, who topped Cincinnati 24-21 in a New Year's Six bowl to cap their 2020 season.

"In 2020, we really didn't get a chance to host Georgia like we wanted to because of COVID," Stokan said.

This is the third time the Peach Bowl has hosted a national semifinal and the third time it has housed the No. 1 seed, with the first two matchups not providing much adversity for the favorites with Alabama defeating Washington 24-7 during the 2016 season and LSU routing Oklahoma 63-28 in 2019.

Honoring Leach

Wednesday marked the first opportunity for Smart to address the unexpected death of Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, whose Bulldogs hosted Smart's Bulldogs barely a month ago.

"His impact is wide and broad," Smart said. "He traveled all over the country to coach. He went from the bottom right, Valdosta State, all the way to Washington State. His impact is really felt more at the high school level, I think, because we see the vision that he had in terms of passing the ball from his young years with Coach (Hal) Mumme all the way through now.

"Years ago, you couldn't watch a high school game without the wing-T, veer option, triple option or wishbone. Now, you actually see more 'Air Raid' elements than you do those, and he had a large part to do with that. He was a special man, and my heartfelt feelings go out to his wife and his kids."

Bulldog bites

Smart is among the six finalists for the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year award, joining Tennessee's Josh Heupel, Tulane's Willie Fritz, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, TCU's Sonny Dykes and UTSA's Jeff Traylor. ... Offensive analyst Buster Faulkner, who was hired this week as Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, is still assisting Bulldogs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, but Smart doesn't know what his role will be closer to the Peach Bowl. ... Smart on the Buckeyes: "I can't say they're exactly like anybody we've played this year."

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