GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida-Georgia rivalry begins a new era this weekend, with Kirby Smart making his head coaching debut in the neutral-site game.
It will have a familiar feel for the men in charge.
Smart and second-year Florida coach Jim McElwain became close friends while spending four years together at Alabama (2008-11). Between meals, meetings, practices, late nights, long hours and road trips, they forged a bond that extends well beyond the football field. Winning helped, too. With Smart and McElwain as coordinators, the Tide went 48-6 and claimed two national championships.
Smart and McElwain will reunite in Jacksonville on Saturday as the Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) try to salvage their season against the 14th-ranked Gators (5-1, 3-1).
“This will be a great chess match,” McElwain said.
Smart and McElwain know each other well enough to predict every move. Of course, that wasn’t always the case.
When McElwain arrived in Alabama in January 2008 to help Nick Saban get the Crimson Tide back to national prominence, he had never heard of Smart. The former Georgia safety was coming off brief stops at Valdosta State, Florida State, LSU and in the NFL before following Saban to Tuscaloosa and being put in charge of the defense.
“I didn’t know anything about him before I got there,” McElwain recalled. “And yet he was one of the first guys to welcome me in the door, which tells you what kind of guy he is. When you work together like that in an environment like that, you get to know each other pretty well. Our wives know each other.
“I mean, it becomes a family.”
With McElwain drawing up plays and Smart trying to stop them, they made practices intense and raised the bar in Tuscaloosa.
All that success helped McElwain land his first head coaching job at Colorado State and eventually make the move to Florida. Smart remained with the Tide another four seasons — picking up 50 additional wins and two more national titles — before leaving for his alma mater.
“He had a bunch of opportunities along the way, obviously,” McElwain said. “I think he did a great job of being patient and taking the one that he had his eyes on.”
Smart downplayed how much the coaches’ common background will be a factor this weekend, saying it’ll be mostly meaningless after kickoff.
“I don’t know that it does provide advantage, because for every advantage I might have, they have the same,” Smart said. “I think you can overthink these things.
“We know what we do, and the players got to go make the plays.”
The Bulldogs haven’t made enough plays lately. They have dropped three of their last four games , including an embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason’s inexperience has been obvious at times. The running game, even with Nick Chubb healthy, has been inconsistent behind a mediocre offensive line. The defense has been decent, no surprise given Smart’s background. But special teams have been downright awful.
“I want to play our best game in all facets of the game, being able to be balanced on offense and being able to control the line on scrimmage on defense and play well in the kicking game. That’s the part that we’ve got to be able to do all three, and some of them have hit on all cylinders at all different times. We need them to hit all the same time.”
Even though the Gators sit atop the Eastern Division, they have been far from perfect. Florida’s vaunted defense was gouged in the second half against Tennessee, and the offense has been hit and miss because of quarterback Luke Del Rio ‘s limitations and a lack of playmakers outside receiver Antonio Callaway.
McElwain and Smart have spent the last two weeks dissecting every aspect of the matchup. When they see each other on the field before the game Saturday, they’ll be able to relax — for a few minutes.
“We’ll get together and laugh about some stories, and that’s always fun,” McElwain said. “And yet it doesn’t matter. When you kind of blow the whistle, it’s your guys against their guys and see who comes out (on top).”
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