ATHENS, Ga. — Javon Wims refers to last year's beginning of the Kirby Smart era at Georgia as the trial-and-error phase, when the Bulldogs adjusted to changes implemented by the new coach.The stakes were raised this year. The break-in period was over.
"This year we wanted to get it right and we understood to get it right we've got to change a few things and that's what we did," said Wims, Georgia's senior wide receiver.
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Smart has No. 3 Georgia on a clear path for a showdown with No. 1 Alabama and his former mentor, Nick Saban. There's no doubt Smart learned a thing or two after spending a decade as a defensive coach with Saban at LSU and Alabama.
The time has helped prepare Smart for this moment: leading his alma mater to a top-five ranking in only his second season in charge of the program.
Georgia (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) already is drawing comparisons to Alabama.
"Georgia's being built like Alabama," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who has faced both teams this season, said Wednesday. "It looks very, very similar in terms of the mold. And Kirby was a part of those great defenses there. I think he's well on his way to establishing himself."
Key ingredients of Alabama's championship formula, defense and a strong running game, also are Georgia's strengths. The schools rank first and second in the league in rushing offense and total defense.
Mason said "Alabama's a better team" than Georgia, giving the Crimson Tide the edge at receiver and in the secondary.
Alabama's success with Saban is established. Smart has Georgia on the rise.
The Bulldogs look like a stronger, more disciplined football team.
Wims said Smart and his assistants have "absolutely" been more intense this season and have pushed players harder in practice. That includes this off week before the Bulldogs play Florida on Oct. 28.
"I told them the off week is not a bye week, it's a work week," Smart said.
More work also means more difficult practices.
"He's still on-the-edge type Kirby," said outside linebacker Davin Bellamy. "At practice he makes sure you don't get relaxed. He hasn't changed a bit. He does a great job of preaching that message to never get complacent."
That sounds like his mentor, who sees the results.
"I think he's done a great job," Saban said Wednesday when asked about Smart. "I think they have probably one of the best teams in our league right now. They're playing great on both sides of the ball. Play together. They're confident in what they're doing. They look very, very well-coached on both sides of the ball, so I think he's done a fabulous job. No question about it."
Smart has shown the ability to juggle the wealth of talent, and keep everyone happy — so far.
Smart is starting a true freshman at quarterback for the second straight year. Jacob Eason was the starter most of last season. Jake Fromm, forced onto the field when Eason sprained his left knee early in this season's opener against Appalachian State, has proved to be more than a fill-in.
Smart said Fromm has improved each week, so he has kept the job. The talented Eason played a backup role at Vanderbilt on Oct. 7 but did not play in last week's 53-28 win over Missouri.
Georgia's powerful and deep running game, led by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, has taken some pressure off Fromm.
Georgia and Alabama lead the SEC's East and West divisions, respectively, as they remain on a path to the conference championship showdown in Atlanta.
Smart is now teaching his players how to handle the pressure that comes with soaring expectations.
"The only thing that will determine what happens in the future is how we work and prepare," he said. "As long as these kids buy into that and they don't get tired of hearing that message and they don't start believing all (the media's) messages, then I think they'll be OK. But I think it's really important they understand they're going to get everybody's best shot."
Smart is giving his players a three-day weekend away from football as a reward for three intense practice days. Earlier this week he said he hadn't started to talk to his team about Florida. The focus was on Georgia improving.
"You don't get better by going out there and kinda halfway doing it," he said. "There's no secret to this whole thing. The secret is, there is no secret. So we have to go to work."
Success has come perhaps more quickly than some expected. Georgia is off to its best start since 2005, the year it won its last SEC title.
"We respect him," said tight end Jackson Harris. "We know the system works. Now we just have to buy in and keep working."