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Top Bulldog has become very comfortable in his skin

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stands in front of the Bulldogs’ 2018 scheduled as he speaks during Southeastern Conference Media Days Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stands in front of the Bulldogs’ 2018 scheduled as he speaks during Southeastern Conference Media Days Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) AP

The most noteworthy thing about Kirby Smart at SEC Football Media Days — his third as Georgia’s football head coach — had nothing to do with the Bulldogs’ depth chart, the reconstructed defense or even his thoughts on the crushing loss to Alabama in the national championship game.

Rather, it was simply Kirby himself.

Relaxed. Engaging. Comfortable in his environment.

The contrast between the rookie head coach of 2016 or last year’s version that Athlon magazine ranked 12th out of 14 in the SEC and the current version is stark.

There is a parallel between Smart’s maturation as a head coach and his team’s ascension as a nationally elite program. The two are almost certainly not coincidental.

Smart pointed out that Georgia was picked to win the SEC East last year despite coming off of an underwhelming 8-5 finish. But that was mostly by default. It was clear that Florida and Tennessee had their troubles. South Carolina and Missouri were rebuilding. And Kentucky and Vanderbilt were, well, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

This year, Georgia is the runaway favorite to win the East because the offense should be explosive, the defense will be talented and momentum is a real thing.

“This season for us is going to be simple,” Smart said. “It’s going to be the measure of potential versus effectiveness. And when I say that, a lot of people are like, yeah, every team has a certain amount of potential. I think potential is dormant ability. And I think effectiveness is what we get out of our potential. And we talk to our players all of the time, the pressure is really a privilege. You should feel privileged to have pressure to win games, to have expectations. Everybody is talking about the expectations. Those are things we embrace at the University of Georgia. We can’t run from those things. We know that.”

Here’s the difference for the Bulldogs between last year and now. Last year, a 10-2 regular season finish and a respectable loss in the SEC Championship Game would have been viewed as acceptable progress. This year, anything less than a return to the College Football Playoff would be a disappointment.

Such is life at the top. Las Vegas already has Georgia as the early favorite in every game.

“If pressure is a privilege, how you manage that and how you embrace that and our coaching staff getting the effectiveness of our players out is what’s important to us. And that’s really the key ingredient for us going into this season.”

The parallels between Nick Saban’s early years at Alabama and Smart’s at Georgia have been well documented. Saban’s first Bama team went 7-6, which included a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. The next year, Bama went 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators then won the national championship.

That Bama team, like Georgia, lost some key players — its starting quarterback John Parker Wilson, their leading rusher Glen Coffee, and their two most important offensive linemen, left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith and All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell. Nonetheless, the Tide won the national championship.

That might not be quite as daunting as having to replace Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn, Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and Dominic Sanders. But the principle is the same. Every team is a little different,, beginning with different leaders.

“We’ll have a competition at an all-time high. I think our top 100 guys out there at practice in fall camp, we’ll have the greatest competition we’ve had since my arrival. We may not have the most talent that we’ve had, but we’ll definitely have the most competition.

And I think competition is what separates you. Everybody talks about iron sharpens iron. That’s true.”

Smart would have you believe that even the quarterback job is up for grabs. That’s a stretch. Unless he breaks his other hand and does it right before the season opener, Jake Fromm is the starter, Justin Fields the talented backup. Still, Smart’s message is genuine.

“We can’t allow complacency to slip into our program and slip into our staff,” Smart said, “because I know that will eat away at the core fundamentals that we started to believe.”