Georgia begins Kirby Smart era against rising Tar Heels (2024)

ATLANTA (AP) — Tired of sending countless players to the NFL but going a decade since its last Southeastern Conference championship, Georgia decided that a change in leadership was needed to get to the next level.

Exit Mark Richt.

Enter Kirby Smart.

The longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, who knows a thing or two about championships working for Nick Saban, will take the sideline as a head coach for the first time when the No. 18 Bulldogs open the season Saturday against No. 22 North Carolina in Atlanta at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

Smart downplayed his debut and wants his players to treat it as just another game.

Good luck with that.

It’s the first since 2001 that Georgia will be led by a new head coach.

“This is like kind of anti-climactic for me,” Smart insisted. “My focus has been on this team, getting this team better. There are a lot of things I can’t control outside that, that have nothing to do with the outcome of the game.”

North Carolina is coming off an 11-win season, its most victories since 1997 and matching the school record.

Coach Larry Fedora realizes the significance of building on that success with a victory over the Bulldogs.

“It’s a big game,” he said. “It’s against a great opponent who has a great tradition. They are well known. It is a good measuring stick for where we are with this program right now.”


Some things to watch for Saturday at the Georgia Dome:

CHUBB’S RETURN: After a horrific knee injury midway through last season, star running back Nick Chubb made a faster-than-expected recovery for the Bulldogs. He’s fully cleared for the opener and Smart said there are no limitations on how many carries Chubb might get. It will be intriguing to see if he’s still the same dynamic back he was before the injury. Chubb was a Heisman-touted player who had tied Herschel Walker’s school record with 13 straight 100-yard games before he went down. Sony Michel and freshman Elijah Holyfield are both nursing injuries, so Chubb figures to get plenty of carries in his first game back — especially against a North Carolina defense that ranked 121st nationally (247.4 yards per game) and surrendered nearly 1,000 yards on the ground in its last two games against high-powered offenses.

SIGNATURE WIN: Despite last year’s success, which include an appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, North Carolina is still seeking the sort of victory that will stamp Fedora’s program as a true national powerhouse. North Carolina hasn’t beaten an SEC school since a victory over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl to end the 2010 season. Beating Georgia would show North Carolina might be capable of challenging the ACC dominance of Clemson and Florida State.

EASON WATCH: Less than 72 hours before kickoff, Georgia finally confirmed that fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert remains the starting quarterback. He started 12 games a year ago and set a school record for lowest interception percentage (two picks in 256 passes). But it seems just a matter of time before the Bulldogs turn to Jacob Eason, a touted freshman who is clearly the quarterback of the future. Smart said the depth chart will remain a work in progress. “It’s never over,” he said. “It’s continuous, just like who the right corner is. If he doesn’t play good, then we have to change it.”

HOLLINS OUT: North Carolina will have to play the first half without one of its top deep threats and special team players. Receiver Mack Hollins must sit out the first two quarters after receiving a targeting penalty in a bowl loss to end last season. Hollins not only plays on four special-team units, he had 30 catches for 745 yards and eight touchdowns — leading the national with 24.8 yards per reception. Smart calls Hollins a “dominant feature player.”

EXPLOSIVE HEELS: North Carolina set school records by averaging 40.7 points and 486.9 yards per game. The Tar Heels were especially dynamic during a two-game November run, piling on 125 points in routs of Duke and Miami. Running back Elijah Hood, an All-ACC pick last season with 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, looks forward to matching up with Chubb. “You definitely feel the competition,” Hood said. “You just want to show who you are.” Georgia figures to have its hands full containing North Carolina, especially with four new starters at linebacker.


AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed to this report.


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at . His work can be found at .


AP College Football website:

Georgia begins Kirby Smart era against rising Tar Heels (2024)


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Personal life. The Smart family poses for reporters ahead of the 2023 CFP title game. Smart is married to Mary "Beth" Elizabeth Lycett, who played basketball for the University of Georgia. The couple has three children.

What is Kirby Smart's salary? ›

His total compensation now as Georgia football coach is $13 million a year in a contract that now runs through December 31, 2033 in changes approved last week.

Did Georgia hires Kirby Smart? ›

Georgia's Kirby Smart has received a new 10-year, $130 million deal that was approved by university officials Thursday in its annual athletics board of directors meeting. The deal makes Smart the highest-paid college football coach in the country and its first $13 million coach.

What is Georgia's record under Kirby Smart? ›

Entering 2024, he has a record of 94-16, sitting just six wins shy of 100. Sep 23, 2023; Athens, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart ahead of a matchup against the UAB Blazers at Sanford Stadium.

Does Kirby Smart have a son? ›

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Kirby Smart have three kids, twins Weston and Julia born in 2008 and the yougest son Andrew was born in 2012. The children are involved in the sports like their parents and they share strong bonds.

What is Nick Saban's salary? ›

Saban signed a new contract with Alabama in 2022 worth a reported value of $93.6 million over eight years, including that $305,000 base salary. It also featured a talent fee worth north of $9 million annually. All told, Saban was the highest-paid coach in college football at the time.

Who is the highest paid person in the state of Georgia? ›

Area briefs: Smart is state's highest paid, Oconee Co Commissioners are busy. A familiar name tops the latest list of Georgia's highest-paid state employees. UGA head football coach Kirby Smart leads the way with a salary of more than $13.2 million in 2023.

What is Nick Saban's net worth? ›

Nick Saban's net worth is currently $93.2 million. That equates to ~$327,017 per win over his 27-year career 💰 Saban makes about $5M/year from endorsem*nts like Aflac and Coca-Cola.

Did Kirby Smart play in the NFL? ›

Kirby Smart grew up dreaming of playing football and hadn't thought about doing much else with his life until he was cut by the NFL's Indianapolis Colts before the 1999 season, when he returned to Athens to join Coach Jim Donnan's UGA staff as what would now be considered an analyst position.

Who will replace Nick Saban? ›

Washington's Kalen DeBoer will be the next head coach at Alabama and replace the legendary Nick Saban, ESPN reported and FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman confirmed Friday.

Was Kirby Smart under Nick Saban? ›

Smart worked under Saban at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. He spent nine seasons under Saban with the Crimson Tide, but he's established Georgia as a college football power in its own right by winning back-to-back national titles at his alma mater.

How many players has Kirby Smart put in the NFL? ›

In Kirby Smart's eight years as head coach, 63 of his players went on to be taken in the NFL Draft.

How many interceptions did Kirby Smart have at Georgia? ›

Smart was a four-year letterman at defensive back for Georgia, where he was a First-Team All-SEC pick as a senior. He finished his career with 13 interceptions, a mark that still ranks sixth in UGA annals, and paced the Bulldogs with six interceptions in 1997 and five in 1998.

Did Kirby Smart ever coach at Alabama? ›

During Smart's time at Alabama, he coached players at three different positions, in addition to his coordinating duties. He was recognized as the 2012 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year and the 2009 Broyles Award winner as college football's top assistant. He also was a finalist for the award in 2015.

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Among his teammates were Kerry Marbury, who went on to star for the West Virginia Mountaineers and play in the Canadian Football League. On December 18, 1971, Saban married Terry Constable, also from West Virginia. In 1973, he graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor's degree in business.

Does HUGH Freeze have a wife? ›

Freeze also served as the state president for the Mississippi Baptist Student Union. Born in Oxford and raised in Independence, Mississippi, Hugh, and his wife, Jill, are the parents of three daughters: Ragan, Jordan and Madison.

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