NEW ORLEANS — Terry Saban, the mama bear of Alabama football, does not like the idea that the Crimson Tide’s road to a fifth national championship in her husband Nick’s 11 seasons as head coach goes through Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, Saban’s right-hand guy for so long.
“It’s like arguing with your children,” Terry said after the Tide defeated Clemson 24-6 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. “You don’t like to do that.”
Which brings to mind Brad Paisley’s song “Letter to Me”:
“Each and every time you have a fight/Just assume you’re wrong and Dad is right.”
That’s how it’s gone when Saban has faced a former assistant: He’s 11-0 against five guys who used to coach for him.
Saban began the drive to a national championship this season with a 24-7 victory over one former assistant, Jimbo Fisher of Florida State, and he will end it by facing another. Saban said about what you would expect him to say about Smart, who worked for him at LSU and the Miami Dolphins before joining him at Alabama in 2007.
“He’s a good football coach, a very bright guy,” Saban said of Smart. “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 not only knows how Saban thinks, but, as Saban’s top recruiter during his tenure in Tuscaloosa, Smart had a hand in signing just about every player in an Alabama uniform.
“It’s going to be strange seeing him in a Georgia Bulldog shirt,” free safety Ronnie Harrison said. “It’s still all love, though.”
But for every Kirby Smart, there’s a Jeremy Pruitt, the Alabama defensive coordinator who held that same job at Georgia in 2014 and 2015. Asked after the game Monday night how many Bulldog players he had a hand in recruiting, Pruitt said, “All of ’em.”
To recap, the Georgia head coach recruited the Alabama players to Alabama, and the Alabama defensive coordinator recruited the Georgia players to Georgia. Take the case of Alabama sophomore linebacker Terrell Lewis, who came off the bench to make two tackles against Clemson.
“Coach Smart recruited me at first when I was coming to Bama,” Lewis said. “And then when he left, he was trying to get me to come to Georgia. … I knew of Pruitt and he was recruiting me to Georgia so once he finally got to Bama, he was recruiting me, too. They went from telling to come here for this reason to (telling me to) come there for this reason.”
Because this is the College Football Playoff National Championship, it is difficult to imagine that Smart will fare as badly as the five former assistants who have coached against Saban. Only one, former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, came within 14 points of beating his former boss. The average margin among McElwain, former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp (0-2 while at Florida) and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is nearly 29 points.
Not only that, but Georgia will have the advantage of playing this “neutral-site game” in Atlanta, a city that is one hour from campus and has 90,000 alumni in the metro area. Remember, Saban won his first national championship coaching LSU on a “neutral” field against Oklahoma in the 2004 Sugar Bowl.
But that’s about where Georgia’s advantages stop. Alabama under Saban has been most vulnerable to dual-threat quarterbacks in an up-tempo spread. Think of Deshaun Watson at Clemson or Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
That is not what the Georgia offense is. As good as Bulldogs seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are, does anyone think an offense that ran the ball 69 percent of the time, that is run by a true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm), can turn back a Saban defense?
On the other hand, Georgia will have a much easier time stopping Alabama, which Clemson held to 261 total yards, than it did stopping Oklahoma, which gained 531 yards Monday in the Rose Bowl. And that’s before the knowledge that Smart will bring to bear against the Tide.
“It will be very weird,” Tide defensive back Anthony Averett said. “He was my coach my first three years I was here. He’s a great coach. [Georgia defensive coordinator] Coach [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 definitely makes it more fun.”
So maybe on the 12th try, one of Saban’s apples won’t fall so far from the tree. Maybe Smart’s version of The Process will overcome The Process. In October, Smart dismissed the idea that his team deserved to be thought of as an equal to Alabama. Now the Bulldogs are a victory away from being Alabama’s better.
Because of that local knowledge, because each team’s X’s will know the other’s O’s, the Tide players started talking about just doing their jobs against Georgia. There is no exotic matchup, none of the romance of playing a team from another part of the country. When the schedule for this year’s postseason came out, there was some concern because the semifinal games and the final are separated by only seven days.
It’s just like the middle of the season. One week between games. Sounds just like another SEC game.