ATHENS, Ga. - Only one year ago, it was difficult to see the foundation for success Kirby Smart was building at Georgia.
This year's spot in the College Football Playoff seemed like a distant dream when the Bulldogs finished a disappointing 8-5 in Smart's 2016 debut as coach. Among the low points were home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
Wide receiver Terry Godwin says players expected this year's dramatic turnaround. He insists players' belief in Smart never wavered.
"Of course not," Godwin said Tuesday. "As a player, we never had any doubts in that locker room. We knew once everything got clicking and rolling and everyone bought in and knew what they were supposed to do and knew their assignments, it was going to be a special year, and that's what it turned out to be."
Smart has guided No. 3 Georgia to a 12-1 record, its first Southeastern Conference championship since 2005 and a Rose Bowl playoff game against No. 2 Oklahoma on Jan. 1. The Bulldogs are two wins away from their first national championship since 1980.
It was most important that Smart won over the players he inherited from former coach Mark Richt. The crucial vote of confidence in Smart came after last season when four top players - running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy - announced they would return for their senior seasons instead of enter the NFL draft.
"For everybody to stay ... it felt special because we knew coming into the season we were going to have something special," Godwin said. "With coach Smart bringing that grudge and physicality, it just went with our swagger and we knew that with this team staying together and those guys coming back we were going to have something special this year. That's what we're doing."
Smart celebrated on the field with his players as confetti fell from the roof of Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium after Georgia beat Auburn 28-7 in the SEC championship game on Dec. 2.
Then Smart went to work to make sure his players understood there are bigger games ahead.
The coach is turning up the volume to make his point.
"That's probably why you hear my voice is hoarse right now," Smart said Monday. "I'm trying to make sure they understand that you can't acknowledge the pats on the back. You can't embrace that. You can't feel good about yourself because obviously ... winning the SEC championship is a great honor and they'll have that for a long time. It will be on these walls for a long time, but they can't be satisfied."
With a spot in the national championship game on the line, Carter said players have been told to treat the Rose Bowl "like a business trip."
"Coach does a good job on keeping us locked in and focusing on getting better," Carter said. "A lot of teams get sloppy going into their bowl games, but he just wants us to make sure we are focused on ourselves and do what we need to do."
Business is good for Smart. The season already has earned the coach almost $1 million in contract incentives with the opportunity for another $900,000.
Smart, whose contract is worth $3.75 million annually, has earned bonuses of $500,000 for a spot in the playoff, $250,000 for the SEC title, $150,000 for a spot in the SEC championship game and $50,000 for being named SEC coach of the year. He'd earn additional incentives of $100,000 for a spot in the national championship game, $400,000 for winning the national championship, $200,000 for Georgia finishing in the top five of the AP or coaches poll and $100,000 for being named national coach of the year.
Smart's winning formula has been no surprise.
The former longtime Alabama defensive coordinator has helped build one of the nation's top defenses, led by Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith. The Crimson Tide won four national championships with Smart serving as Nick Saban's top defensive coach, and now Georgia's defense is thriving with similar speed and depth.
Smart and his staff used the momentum of the season to land a signing class in this week's early period that was ranked No. 1 in the nation by 247Sports.
Smart told reporters at a news conference to discuss signing day that he was in "kind of a confused state."
He found time to discuss the signees, but only after he made sure his priorities were clear.
"My mind is on Oklahoma," he said.
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