Kirby Smart and Georgia aim for history in trying to beat Alabama’s Nick Saban
The Nick Saban era at Alabama has been one known for its unprecedented success and, depending on how you look at things, occupies a place as one of the longest running dynasties the sport has seen over the years.
The Crimson Tide certainly have the numbers to back it up, going 131-20 in the 11 seasons since Saban moved to Tuscaloosa in 2007. Over that span, the school has captured five SEC championships, made the national title game five times and won four of college football’s most famous trophies.
Come Monday night in Atlanta, Saban (factoring in a title at LSU) has a chance to tie Bear Bryant as the coach with the most rings in the history of college football. In this day and age, there’s simply the Tide head coach and everybody else doing their best to follow in his footsteps. As a result, particularly in the SEC, there has been an increasing Saban-ization that has been underway since he started winning big at Alabama.
In a sense, if you can’t beat him… replicate him by bringing ‘The Process’ to your own school.
Perhaps it’s fitting then that across the sideline at the national title game this year is somebody the coach and the Tide know well in Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. Not only did the Bulldogs’ lead dawg work under Saban at LSU back in 2004, he was also with him during a brief stint with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and served as the defensive coordinator at Alabama for most of his run in Tuscaloosa from 2007-2015.
“Georgia had a pretty good nucleus of players there. I think they won 10 games the year he took over. Now, (Smart) has done a fantastic job of bringing those players along, getting those players to play with discipline, getting them to play together,” Saban said recently of the job his protegé has done in Athens. “They’re playing extremely well, which is a reflection on his ability and his leadership to get everybody to buy into doing things the way he wanted them done so that they could play at a very high level, and they certainly are. They have a lot of good players, and they’re all playing at a very high level, and I think that’s a compliment to the coach and the coaching staff.”
When Smart and Saban shake hands prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it will be a not so rare occurrence. In fact, the title fame will be the 12th time a former assistant of Saban has faced off against his old mentor on the gridiron. Georgia fans probably don’t want to hear this but that’s not exactly a good thing as the former assistants are a combined 0-11 against the man himself.
Yes, 0-11. Here’s the list:
— 2017 Alabama 24-7 over Florida State
— 2013 Alabama 31-6 over Colorado State
— 2015 Alabama 29-15 over Florida
— 2016 Alabama 54-16 over Florida
— 2010 Alabama 41-10 over Tennessee
— 2011 Alabama 37-6 over Tennessee
— 2012 Alabama 44-13 over Tennessee
— 2011 Alabama 38-10 over Florida
— 2014 Alabama 42-21 over Florida
— 2011 Alabama 49-7 over Michigan State
— 2015 Alabama 38-0 over Michigan State (College Football Playoff)
That’s 11 losses by an average score of 43-11. Only one came within two touchdowns. It has, to say the least, been a lopsided time in Saban vs. the world in general but especially so when it comes to his former assistants.
Fisher did get the better of Saban back in 2007 (in a game that was vacated — on both sides) when he was the Florida State offensive coordinator under Bobby Bowden but that’s pretty much as close as they come. That he did so as an assistant keeps the win out of that 0-11 stat but does bring up a good point as there are several coaches who have crossed paths with Saban over the years — including several in the title game on Monday.
For example, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has actually beaten Saban three times. That happened when the former was at Purdue in 1997-99 and the latter was at Michigan State. That hasn’t been the only time the two have squared off against each other though as Chaney has never taken home a win over Saban in the SEC (0-6 calling plays at Tennessee/Arkansas).
Bulldogs defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was actually a graduate assistant under Saban with the Spartans back in the day too and was Alabama’s associate head coach when they won it all in 2015… before following Smart out the door to Athens. Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has had two stints at his alma mater in Tuscaloosa since Saban hired him from the high school ranks back in 2007, won a ring with Fisher in 2013 and spent two seasons at Georgia (coaching/recruiting several starters on the 2017 team) before taking over Smart’s role as DC.
Pruitt will eventually add to the dozen meetings in 2018 on the third Saturday in October as the new Tennessee head coach, which brings annual rivalry games with Alabama.
“I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players,” Saban added this week. “And I think in most of those games if the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beat us. So it’s not about the coaches. I mean, I didn’t catch any passes. I didn’t make any tackles (in the Sugar Bowl). I didn’t do any of that. I mean, the players did it all.”
The Alabama coach has a point about players and it’s worth noting in the case of both that undefeated record and the upcoming meeting with Smart.
Looking at those 11 teams over the years, a full six failed to crack the eight-win mark and one other one was a Group of Five team. Hardly any of the group has been able to go toe-to-toe with equal talent to the Tide and one of the few exceptions (FSU in this season’s opener) that was anywhere close to comparable lost a runaway game and barely finished with seven wins on the year. This has been a lopsided set of meeting to be sure, but the assistants have been the decided underdog in every one by a pretty big margin.
That could change in this year’s All-SEC title game. According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite rankings, which tally up the amount of recruiting stars a team has, Alabama ranks No. 1 in 2017 and Georgia checks in at No. 4. The Tide has 18 five-star players and 51 four-stars manning their roster while the Bulldogs counter with 11 five-stars and 43 four-stars. For what it’s worth, the Seminoles check in fifth on the list with fewer five- and four-stars than UGA.
In short, the Georgia team that takes the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be the most talented team a former Saban assistant has ever had in facing the most successful coach of all-time.
When Monday night turns into Tuesday morning and a new national champion has been crowned in Atlanta, Kirby Smart will walk across the field and shake his old boss’ hand. At that moment he’ll make history as either the first to slay Saban or simply become the latest name added to the disappointing dozen.
As five other coaches can attest to over the years, the much discussed ‘Process’ that Saban preaches never really said anything about that.