Georgia Tech’s Key brings new vigor to the rivalry with #1 Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Georgia coach Kirby Smart sees a change in the game and players at Georgia Tech under interim coach Brent Key.

“You can see the kids are playing with a lot more passion and energy,” Smart said. “You’re a game away from bowl eligibility and you saw it come out in the game against UNC.”

Saturday is the first meeting between Smart and Key, each coach at his alma mater. And it has the potential to reinvigorate the rivalry – especially if Key can pull off a big upset.

Georgia, the defending champions, is looking to wrap up its second straight undefeated regular season this weekend. It has a four-game winning streak against Georgia Tech (5-6); including last year’s 45-0 loss, the Bulldogs have outplayed the Yellow Jackets 180-35 in those four years.

Georgia (11-0, No. 1 CFP) has also won 17 of the last 20 games in the series since 2001, perhaps making it difficult for current players to appreciate the rivalry known for clean old-fashioned hate.

“I didn’t really grow up with it,” Georgia field kicker Jack Podlesny said Monday when asked about his memories of the rivalry. “All I knew was that there was that clean old hate or whatever the saying goes for it, and the knowledge that there was always disgust between the two schools, or whatever you want to call it.”

Georgia is favored by FanDuel Sportsbook with 36 1/2 points, but the Yellow Jackets’ 4-3 record under Key includes last week’s 21-17 win at No. 1. 13 North Carolina. Georgia Tech defeated No. 24 Pittsburgh on Key’s debut on October 1.

The Yellow Jackets would become eligible by beating the Georgia Bowl for the first time since 2018, but the state’s restored boasting rights could mean more.

“It’s easy to say that this is the next game on the schedule, but it’s Georgia and we’re Georgia Tech, and that’s why you come here to the school to be in this football game,” Key said. “It’s an honor to be able to sit here and train at this football game.”

NO INTERVIEW YET

A Georgia Tech win over Georgia would generate more support for Key to take on the role full-time. Key said he hasn’t spoken to new athletic director J Batt about the full-time job.

“No, I’m worried about Georgia,” Key said Tuesday. “We have the No. 1 team in the country and that’s the biggest challenge in my life right now.”

BIGGER GOALS

In the 16-6 win in Kentucky last week, the Bulldogs had some offensive problems at times. Georgia is trying to pick up steam for the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 3 against No. 6 LSU in Atlanta — and defend its first-place ranking in the college football playoffs.

Smart said he will tell his players Georgia Tech is standing in the way of their goal of repeating themselves as national champions.

“It means a lot to our players what they want to achieve and they have to win this game to achieve those things,” Smart said.

THE RIGHT BACKGROUND

Georgia Tech defenseman Keion White said Key’s background as an offensive line coach has shown itself in his ability to generate more physical play from the team.

“…(H)e definitely gives the whole team a more physical feel,” said White. “…That’s what I think he brings to the table. I feel like that’s my type. He just brings a different energy to the table.”

rivals and friends

Smart’s playing career as a safety at Georgia overlapped with Key’s stint as an offensive guard at Georgia Tech.

Smart said Key is “a coach I have a lot of respect for. I’ve known Brent for a long time.”

Key said the friendship “goes way back. He’s a good soccer coach. He did a good job at his alma mater. I’ve faced him many times as an offensive line coach.”

EARLY PLAY CALLER

Key’s four-year-old daughter, Harper, expresses an interest in gaming. On Tuesday, Key said Harper was at practice and offered advice on a new way to use quarterbacks Zach Gibson and Taisun Phommachanh.

Gibson started against North Carolina and Phommachanh ran for a touchdown. The two’s time together after Georgia Tech’s top two quarterbacks, Jeff Sims and Zach Pryon, lost to season-ending injuries.

Key said Harper wants Gibson and Phommachanh “to be in the game at the same time and one of them is on a route and one of them is able to throw back passes and then do a kind of double throw. It’s all her idea, so if you see it on Saturday, it’s Harper’s idea.”

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