ATLANTA– Alabama coach Nick Saban is 11-0 when coaching against his former assistants. But the stage will be much bigger tonight and the stakes will be much higher when the Crimson Tide play Georgia in an all SEC showdown for the national championship and 66-year old Saban faces his former protegee and 42-year old prodigy Kirby Smart here at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Smart spent eight years as Saban’s distinguished, highly paid defensive coordinator at Alabama before accepting the head coaching job at Georgia in Dec. 2015. He knows his former boss’s thought processes and tendencies better than anyone
“He’s a good football coach, a very bright guy,” Saban said. “And he took over a program that has been successful . . .. and he’s done a great job of taking it to the next level.
Smart was Saban’s best recruiter when the Tide won four national championships, the last in 2015 when Smart stayed on to coach the Bama defense in the college football playoffs before moving back to his alma mater. Smart had a hand in signing just about every player on those Alabama rosters. “It’s going to be strange seeing him in a Georgia Bulldog shirt,” free safety Ronnie Harrison.’
Saban, who opened the season by beating his former LSU offensive coordinator and newly minted Texas A & M coach Jimbo Fisher 24-7, when Tide defeated Florida State in Atlanta, will close it by coaching against Smart for the first time.
Saban, a former defensive back like Smart, has always taking pride in stopping the other team and defense likely will determine the outcome as Georgia attempts to win its first national title since 1980 when Herschel Walker was in school. Alabama has designs on giving Saban his sixth title, tying the late, great Bear Bryant.
Both teams have defenses ranked in the Top 4 nationally, and Smart and his defense are viewed as clones of Saban and the Tide.
“It’s like playing against yourself,” Saban said. “They do a lot of the same things on defense that we do. You worry about your terminology when he make a call. Do they know what you’re calling?”
“We basically run the same defense,” Alabama’s All- American defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “Even the hand signals and stuff are pretty similar.”
Georgia fired highly successful Mark Richt because they didn’t want to miss out on Smart, who has elevated the program to a championship level more quickly than expected. Saban has tried to downplay the mentor-pupil aspect of the title game as well as his successes against former assistants, four– Smart, Fisher, Will Muschamp of South Carolina and Jeremy Pruitt of Tennessee— who currently are head coaches in the SEC.
“I don’t think it has a lot to do with the coach. I think it has a lot more to do with the players,” said Saban, whose team has outscored seven former assistants, 427-111. “Georgia has really outstanding players, so it will be about the players again.’’
This game figures to be closer if only because Georgia will have the advantage of playing a neutral site game here, in a city that is only one hour from the Bulldogs’ campus and has 90,000 alums in the metro area. Saban, for the record, won his first national championship coaching LSU to a neutral field victory over Oklahoma in the 2004 Sugar Bowl.
But, despite the fact the Dawgs will have the crowd behind them, the fourth-seeded Tide are still the team to beat.
Alabama’s defense held Clemson to just six points and 181 yards total offense in a 24-6 victory last week in the national semi-finals. If the Tide has any flaws, it has been vulnerable in the past to dual threat quarterbacks like DeShaun Watson of Clemson in an up tempo spread offense. But Georgia depends a lot more on its two running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for 326-yards rushing in 25 carries during a 54-48 double overtime victory over Oklahoma in last week’s semi-final at the Rose Bowl. But how Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm will play in his first national championship is anyone’s guess.
On the flip side, Georgia’s defense should have a much easier time stopping Alabama, which only had 261 yards total offense against Clemson than it did slowing down Oklahoma, which rolled up 531 yards against the Dawgs.
And that’s before the Smart factor kicks in.
“It will be very weird,’’ Alabama defensive back Anthony Averett said. “He was my coach my first three years I was here. He’s a great coach. Georgia’s defensive coordinator Mel Tucker coached me as well. They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do, like Clemson. It makes it more fun.’’
Smart is not trying to be another Saban. But he is trying is transform Georgia into the next Alabama.
This is just another SEC game, with history on the line.