FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Kirby Smart had yet to begin film study on the Michigan football team when his nine-year-old son offered a preliminary scouting report.
On Dec. 4, when Smart returned home from the SEC Championship Game, the Georgia coach found his son on the couch marveling at a different championship game — the one out of the Big Ten. He quickly informed his dad about Aidan Hutchinson, rattling off the numerous accolades that the senior defensive end had accumulated.
“I’m like, ‘How does my nine-year-old son know about Aidan Hutchinson?’ ” Smart quipped on Dec. 5.
Nearly a month later, with the Bulldogs and Wolverines set to clash in the College Football Playoff at the Orange Bowl on Friday night, Smart is well acquainted with Hutchinson’s prowess.
“The first thing you have to do is match their intensity,” Smart said Wednesday, referencing both Hutchinson and redshirt sophomore edge rusher David Ojabo. “The strain, the desire, the want; it leaks through film.
“You talk to people who played them, one of the first things they talk about is, ‘Man, we didn’t take into account how hard they play. How much effort, how much desire.’ And that has to come from within. It doesn’t come from a start that was given to you in high school or a reputation you got. It comes from what you have inside you.”
That desire has long fueled Hutchinson. For Ojabo, the fire materialized over the offseason, when he spent fall camp in Hutchinson’s hip pocket — “grinding his ass off this whole offseason,” Hutchinson says.
“At the end of the day, I have the tools and the physical traits, but it’s the work ethic and the grind,” Ojabo said. “Just knowing that you’re not going to fall from the sky and become a top-round pick. You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to put it on film. It’s the mentality part.”
That mindset, honed behind the scenes in what Hutchinson called the “meat and potatoes” of the season, has certainly borne fruit. Hutchinson (14 sacks) and Ojabo (11 sacks and five forced fumbles) entrenched themselves as one of the premier pass-rush duos in all of college football. Their dominance often swings games in the Wolverines’ favor.
“We just feed off each other,” Ojabo said. “You go up, I go under. You go under, I go up. We just do our thing.”
Georgia is certainly aware of the challenge that looms.
“They present different matchups,” Georgia offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer, an All-SEC second team member, said. “Each of them are very good at different things, very talented players. Obviously I’ve heard both their names for about a month now.”
Salyer’s task on Friday will be corralling Hutchinson and Ojabo enough to prevent them from reaching Stetson Bennett IV, the Bulldogs’ dual-threat quarterback. Bennett’s ability to extend plays with his legs, using his quickness to escape a collapsing pocket, could allow the Bulldogs to neutralize Michigan’s potent pass rush.
“He’s a very mobile quarterback, so that’s definitely a point of emphasis,” Hutchinson said. “But first things first, we’ve got to stop that run game. That’s definitely the point of emphasis. And then get them to third-and-long and let us rush the passer and get after it.”
On the flipside, Bennett is keeping his preparation the same, seemingly unfazed by the threat that Hutchinson and Ojabo pose.
“Obviously, we have a bunch more time, so that allows me to put more time into (preparing for them),” Bennett said. “But I didn’t change anything up about my process — what I watch on what day, who I watch — because then you start overthinking things and it’s just too much thought going into it.”
While much has been made about the other battle in the trenches — Michigan’s cohesive offensive line against Georgia’s stout front seven — this one may very well dictate the outcome.
Neither side is shying away.
“For me, I’m a competitor,” Salyer said. “I like to compete. If they say a guy is the best, I want to play against the best. That’s what you come to college football for.”