ATHENS, Ga. -- Kirby Smart was still talking a mile a minute during the final seven and a half minutes of his postgame press conference on Saturday. His inflection rarely dropped and he had no problem cracking a couple jokes or boasting a big ole smile on his face.
Powering through a hard-fought 13-7 win over No. 9 Auburn in a roller coaster first season as Georgia's head coach will make a man do funny things. With the Bulldogs thwarting Auburn's SEC and playoff plans while becoming bowl eligible in the process, Smart finally got his first signature win at Georgia.
Smart said this win won't necessarily mark a foundation change for the 6-4 Bulldogs, but it "does wonders" for the program through recruiting, momentum and confidence in players. It also shows that as Georgia's playing identity has slowly formed through Smart's first season, so has his own coaching identity, and guys are buying in.
"It gives our kids something they can hang their hat on and say, 'Look, if we do this right what coach is saying is true, I believe in it,'" Smart said.
"Our kids are getting more and more confident in believing that in a close game, we're going to win."
Smart is more confident in his own process before, during and after games. He's more comfortable with "game-time stuff and game-time decisions." The simple aspects of deciding whether to run or pass on certain downs don't stress him as much. He's learning when to be conservative with his timeouts and when not to be. Smart's finally staying a step ahead of his counterparts in certain aspects of games -- not all of them, but improvement is improvement for the rookie head coach.
This might sound elementary, but the little things and the hints of evolution have gone a long way for a team that was 4-4.
You saw it perfectly in two trick plays he ran near the goal line with Terry Godwin going from runner to passer. While neither worked -- the first one was intercepted and the second, which would have officially ended the game, was knocked out of quarterback Jacob Eason's hands in the end zone -- it showed some great progression on Smart's part. Smart wanted to be the aggressor, and it showed that he isn't scared to take a major risk for a potential major reward in a huge game.
"You wanna run the ball in third-and-fourth at the goal? No, we want to find a way to get it in," Smart said of the trick play.
Smart took a chance there, like he took a chance changing up his motivational tactics last week by having a veteran Navy SEAL Captain of 26 years address his team. His message was clear: Be relevant. That didn't mean just beat Auburn, that meant do your part to positively affect yourself and your teammates.
It's that simple for Georgia, and as Smart gets more confident and comfortable running more than just a defense and constructing more than just a blitz package, his players are getting more confident in his philosophy and are getting tougher in games.
After ending October by getting pushed around on both sides of the line in an agonizing 24-10 loss to Florida, the Bulldogs have had some more thump to them in the last two weeks. After being held under 100 yards in consecutive weeks (both losses), Georgia ran for 215 yards two weeks ago in a 27-24 win over Kentucky. After being challenged by Smart to be more physical during the week, the Bulldogs pummeled Auburn's offensive line, holding the Tigers to a season-low 164 total yards.
In a game where the little things could have doomed a streaky Georgia team, the Bulldogs stayed in their lane on both sides of the ball. Outside of those two trick plays, Georgia was relatively careful, but executed more cleanly -- even without an offensive touchdown -- than previous games. Defensively, after giving up 80 yards on Auburn's only touchdown drive in the first quarter, the Dawgs gave up just 84 total yards after.
How much growth did Smart see that fans might have missed? Well, Smart was almost giddy about his offense chewing up 6:53 off the clock on its second-to-last drive that ended in a field goal and forced Auburn to spend two timeouts.
"It's not about tricks and gimmicks and schemes, it's about guys executing," Smart said.
Yes it is, and Smart and Co. are slowly getting better at that in all phases of this program.