Georgia eager to scratch its 41-year national championship itch

'We came here to be legendary,' 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior Nolan Smith says

Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Alabama quarterback Bryce Young eludes the pressure from Georgia junior outside linebacker Nolan Smith during last month's 41-24 win by the Crimson Tide at the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta. The two programs will vie again Monday night in Indianapolis for the national title, with the Bulldogs seeking to end their 41-year drought.

Nolan Smith is a chiseled 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior outside linebacker for the University of Georgia who arrived in Athens as college football's highest-rated recruit in the 2019 signing class.

Early last month, moments after his Bulldogs fell to Alabama 41-24 at the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta, the usually imposing Smith was a blubbering mess.

"Want the honest to God truth? I cried," Smith said during a recent group Zoom call for national media. "I'm 20 now. I've been playing football since I was 4 – for 16 years - and haven't won anything. I've won a couple of bowl games, but I haven't won anything big like a championship.

"I could care less how it gets done or how pretty it looks. I just want to win one."

The College Football Playoff's third-seeded Bulldogs earned another crack at coach Nick Saban's top-seeded Crimson Tide by winning the Orange Bowl 34-11 over second-seeded Michigan on New Year's Eve. To claim a national championship, Georgia must topple the sport's gold standard Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Alabama, which routed fourth-seeded Cincinnati 27-6 in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve to reach this familiar spot, has won six of the last 14 national titles under Saban and has defeated Georgia six straight times. The Crimson Tide's domination of the Bulldogs includes the national championship game of the 2017 season in Atlanta, when a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 delivered a riveting 26-23 overtime triumph.

"They've also been a problem and a thorn for any team they've played besides ours," Bulldogs sixth-year coach Kirby Smart, who spent eight seasons as Saban's defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa before coming to Georgia, said on the videoconference call. "We have that in common with a lot of teams."

Georgia's latest opportunity to stem the Tide could result in the program's first national crown since 1980, a year that contained the Iran hostage crisis, "The Empire Strikes Back" and Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter. Since the Bulldogs last reigned supreme, they have watched the other five members of the SEC's historical big six - Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee - ascend to college football's summit.

Herschel Walker was an 18-year-old freshman tailback who spearheaded the Bulldogs to that 1980 title. Now he's a 59-year-old candidate seeking the Republican nomination in Georgia's 2022 U.S. Senate race.

"It gets brought up pretty often, just knowing that was the last national championship that was won at Georgia, which was 41 years ago," Bulldogs redshirt junior receiver Kearis Jackson said in the videoconference. "Now we have the opportunity right in front of us. We have to go make a statement so we can be the next ones that people are going to be talking about - the 2021 team."

Georgia's roster is overrun annually with Peach State players, with Smith hailing from Savannah, Jackson from Fort Valley, redshirt freshman receiver Ladd McConkey from Chatsworth and fifth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett from Blackshear, to name but a few. They will take the field Monday representing former Bulldogs in-state greats such as Champ Bailey and David Pollack who never got this far, but they can't make the burden too big.

"I know this means a lot to a lot of people," Bennett said on the videoconference. "Is it just another game? No, I'm not silly, but I don't think as 20-year-old kids that you can put that kind of pressure on yourself, because you might go crazy."

These Bulldogs simply want to experience the kind of crazy that has confetti involved.

"This would mean everything," Smith said on the videoconference. "There are a lot of kids born and raised in the state of Georgia, and this is one you'll never forget. Ultimately, my goal and my dream is to someday bring my kid back and tell him, 'This is what I did.'

"I don't just want to be another University of Georgia player. We came here to be legendary."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.