GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A year ago, as Kirby Smart entered his first Florida-Georgia rivalry game as coach of the Bulldogs, Gators coach Jim McElwain reflected on their time together as coordinators at Alabama while noting that Smart was one of the first guys to welcome him to the program there.
They both talked about their respect for the other, the relationship their families formed during that time in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the genuine friendship they developed over four seasons on Nick Saban’s coaching staff from 2008 to 2011.
Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who also spent time on that Alabama staff with McElwain and Smart in 2011, reinforced that claim.
“You know, sometimes you can just be working buddies or whatever, but I think they truly like each other and I think they respect each other for what each one brings to the table,” he said a year ago.
This is one of the unique dynamics college football provides with the white-hot fervor fan bases have for their programs. McElwain and Smart may still be great friends, but their pursuits of success now are directly in the way of the other.
The reality is nobody poses a biggest obstacle to McElwain’s tenure at Florida now than his old buddy from Bama.
Many Florida fans were unsatisfied even when McElwain was getting the Gators to back-to-back SEC Championship Games in his first two seasons, only to be beaten convincingly by the Crimson Tide. How are they going to feel if the program isn’t even getting to Atlanta, while Georgia instead takes control of the SEC East as presently projected?
McElwain has a well-established reflex for not answering questions or saying as little as possible, but he actually gave something of a response earlier this week when asked if it’s human nature to feel a little extra competitiveness with Smart while each tries to build a contender in the same division.
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s some of that. Obviously, we went against each other in a lot of springs, so I’m sure there’s a little bit of that,” he said.
That competitive quality is especially magnified by the state of the respective programs heading into their clash Saturday in Jacksonville.
Smart, the longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, has No. 3 Georgia off to a 7-0 start, led by the third-ranked defense in the country. In just his second season in Athens, he has delivered on the identity he was hired to establish for the Bulldogs.
But in his third season at Florida, McElwain, the former Tide offensive coordinator, has an offense ranked 102nd nationally, a young quarterback in redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks who hasn’t delivered on expectations, and a team that is in general still searching for its identity after a 3-3 start.
Georgia would all but lock up the SEC East if it takes care of business against Florida, although stranger things have happened in this rivalry series (see: 2014). The Gators can just as quickly change their season with an upset of the Bulldogs and keep their division hopes alive.
Regardless, though, the competition between the two sides continues beyond Saturday, off the field and back on the recruiting trail. Florida presently has the sixth-ranked recruiting class nationally for 2018 (according to the 247Sports composite) while Georgia’s class of commits ranks seventh. Both programs presently rank in the top 3 in terms of 2019 commits.
When asked his thoughts on Smart’s second-year success at Georgia, McElwain said all the right things.
“Yeah, you feel good about [it for him]. He’s got things going, which, you know what, this is the way, Florida-Georgia, man, that’s what this side should be about,” he said.
“They’ve done a great job of recruiting. They’re keeping guys at home. One thing you see is stay the course. Consistent in what you do and how you do it.”
The corresponding point that could be inferred from that line is that while the balance of power in the rivalry seems to have shifted to Georgia this season, the big-picture battle between the two programs isn’t going to be won or lost on Saturday.
The comparisons and jostling between the Gators and Bulldogs never end, and the same can be said about the coaches.
The SEC East’s two perennial contenders both plucked leaders from the vaunted Saban coaching tree, hoping to borrow from the success of college football’s steadiest program. The arm-chair evaluations of which side got the better of the deal will continue as long as Smart and McElwain remain in their positions.
It’s easy to see Georgia’s quick transformation into a legitimate national championship contender and form some early opinions, though the real determination is to be made down the road.
But it certainly looks like McElwain’s job moving forward is being made more difficult by a guy with whom he once collected national championship rings.
“One of college football’s best rivalries,” McElwain said of the Florida-Georgia series.
He was speaking generally, of course. But the personal subplot sure is intriguing, too.