When I first met with Kirby Smart at Georgia in the spring of 2016, we discussed the elephant in the room: the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Smart had spent the past nine seasons with Nick Saban at Alabama, helping the Tide win four national titles, four SEC titles and, between 2008 and 2015, more than 89 percent of their games and 87.5 percent of their SEC contests. He had been a vital part of the most successful dynasty in modern college football. Then he returned to his alma mater, which had limitless potential but had not won a national title since 1980 nor directly competed for one since the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
As Smart began to mold Georgia, he seemingly had an obvious blueprint in Tuscaloosa.
"It's tempting," he told me then. "Coach Saban's a great coach; he does it his way, and I have to do it my way. I have to cut my own cloth. But yeah, when you say, 'What's the infrastructure like? What's the core beliefs?' A lot of that is going to be similar because that's what I know and that's what I know has been successful.
"You can say it's copying, but not everything here is going to be the same as it was there."
Two and a half years later, Smart will guide No. 2 Georgia -- trailing only You Know Who in polls -- into Tiger Stadium this week to face No. 13 LSU. Smart is 27-7 at UGA with an SEC championship, a national championship game appearance and ESPN's top-rated 2018 recruiting class.
While many Saban protégés haven't come close to matching the master, Smart seems different. He leads a program that, despite being nowhere near Alabama's historical success, boasts superior elements -- more in-state recruits per capita and no major in-state recruiting threat (sorry, Georgia Tech).
So, is Smart building the next Alabama, or something unique but possibly just as dominant in the future? I recently spoke with Smart, Georgia players and administrators in Athens, as well as others familiar with the program, to find out.