When Kirby Smart and Georgia line up to play Alabama on Jan. 8, Smart will be the sixth former Nick Saban assistant to face him, and he’ll be looking to become the first to get a win against his former boss.
Derek Dooley, Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp, Mark Dantonio and Jimbo Fisher are a combined 0-11 against Saban, who’s teams have outscored them 427 to 111 in those games. But it’s worth mentioning Smart has built the best team among the 11 that have gone against him, and done so much faster than anyone expected.
His Bulldogs (13-1) are tied for the most wins in a season in program history, and are the most for a Georgia team since 2002’s Sugar Bowl-winning squad. Smart coached with Saban in 2004 at LSU, and from 2006 to 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., helping oversee the transformation of one of college football’s perennially disappointing programs at the time to one of its most dominant.
It only made sense for Smart to emulate Alabama’s program, which won four national titles from 2009 to 2015, in Athens, Ga. Despite how it looked in the first half in the Rose Bowl, he’s already got the swarming defense, led by relentless All-American linebacker Roquan Smith, who came up huge in the second half of Monday’s double-overtime win against Oklahoma.
The power running game? The Bulldogs bludgeoned the Sooners, racking up 340 yards while the tailback tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb each went over 140 yards and averaged over 10 yards per carry. Smart also already has an efficient quarterback in true freshman Jake Fromm, who played a spectacular Rose Bowl, going 20-for-29 with two touchdowns.
While Georgia’s offense looked explosive against an average Oklahoma defense, the big question heading into the national championship game is how much success will that unit have when it’s going up against Alabama?
Doubting a team coached by Nick Saban is a dangerous game, and just when we thought it was safe to enter the college football waters, Alabama attacked. The Crimson Tide’s gradual, suffocating constriction of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl served as a reminder of how it still is the sport’s premier program.
By all accounts, this isn’t even one of Nick Saban’s best teams. The offense was unimpressive against Clemson; it struggles to pass the ball, and with the exception of wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the offense doesn’t have a player with a high grade for the 2018 NFL Draft among its skill players. But the defense? It returned with a swarming vengeance against Clemson, holding the Tigers to 188 total yards and 2.7 yards per play.
After dominating the Tigers on the way to a 24-6 victory Monday night, gone are the “Alabama is overrated” and “This ‘Bama defense can be exposed” talks. Despite its perception for much of the season, the Crimson Tide’s defense still ranked first in yards allowed, points allowed and was third in rushing yards allowed per game in 2017.
Offensively, the best thing Georgia does is run the ball, and the best the Alabama does is stop the run. The difference in going against Oklahoma’s front-seven and Alabama’s front-seven will be night and day for the Bulldogs. Sure, the Tide’s defense struggled at times this year, but after having all of December to get injured players back into the mix, it’s a whole different beast. Just ask Clemson.
What’s more, how is Fromm going to play against a defense which will undoubtedly be the best he’s faced to this point in his young career. If the Bulldogs fail to establish a ground game, it’ll be trouble. Saban’s defenses feast on one-dimensional offenses, bringing wave after wave of relentless and disguised pressures.
It’s happened before, but running the ball with success against Alabama is rare. Even rarer, is a former assistant coach beating Nick Saban.
Georgia’s going to have to do both.