ATHENS – Nick Saban’s former assistant coaches are 1-25 against him as head coaches. Kirby Smart, who is one of those, is 0-4.
Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way early in the long lead up to Georgia and Alabama meeting in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Fans will be hearing about it every day for the next week. Runaway winners of the two CFP semifinals on Friday, the Bulldogs (13-1) and Crimson Tide (13-1) will meet in a rematch of the SEC Championship Game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis (8 p.m., ESPN).
Georgia’s 41-24 loss to Alabama on Dec. 4 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium was Smart’s fourth at the hands of his mentor, friend and boss of more than 11 years, including nine at Alabama. Nevertheless, the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs find themselves posted as the early favorite in the game.
Georgia, based in part on its dominating 34-11 win over No. 2 Michigan, was listed as a 2.5-point favorite over the Crimson Tide by FanDuel Sportsbook. That represented the median of most the early odds posted over the weekend.
Saban was aware of the early lines when he spoke to ESPN College GameDay hosts on Saturday’s pregame broadcast.
“We’re going to be underdogs in the game, I would assume,” Saban said. “Georgia played an outstanding game last night, the part that I saw against Michigan, they were dominant. So, I can see why people would think that, but it’s a challenge. This is a challenge.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to motivate, that is classic Saban. The Bulldogs were 6.5-point favorites when the Crimson Tide met them in the SEC title game. After winning, Saban thanked all the different commentators and prognosticators who picked against his team.
“You guys gave us a lot of really positive rat poison,” Saban said after the last Georgia matchup. “The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal, but the rat poison that you put this week was yummy.”
“Rat poison” is Saban’s longtime reference to media and fan praise and adulation. He believes it causes teams to subconsciously not focus as intently on preparation.
Smart also uses that phrase regularly, too, and was employing that general philosophy in the wake of Friday night’s one-sided win over Michigan. He pointed out his team’s sub-par play after halftime and was annoyed when some players tried to give him a Gatorade bath in celebration of the Orange Bowl victory.
“I’m not interested in celebrating that,” Smart said. “We’re focused on the task ahead.”
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Smart also talked to the GameDay crew briefly on Saturday, right after the team touched down at Athens-Ben Epps Airport.
“We’re heading into the office now to kind of put this game behind us,” he said. “We’ve got some good notes from the last time we played them. We’re going to try to use those and certainly get a better plan for the players.”
The truth is, all that great stuff they did against Michigan on Friday, it has been wiped off the white board. None of it applies to what they will be facing against Alabama.
In the SEC Championship, the Crimson Tide and quarterback Bryce Young knocked the Bulldogs on their heels with 421 yards passing. Wideout Jameson Williams torched Georgia’s secondary to the tune of 184 yards and touchdowns of 67 and 55 yards.
Georgia held run-oriented Michigan to 88 rushing yards and 328 overall. But the Bulldogs did give up 43- and 42-yard pass plays and a 35-yard TD pass to Michigan.
In the meantime, UGA has one of the largest support staffs in all of college football. A portion of that group has been devoted to studying Alabama since the day after the SEC Championship. They have been feverishly searching for a solution to defending the Tide’s receivers and generating a pass rush against Young, who was not sacked the last time out.
Saban suspects they’ll see some different looks from Georgia in Indy.
“There will be a lot of that going on on both sides of the ball, probably,” Saban said. “They’re trying to get it figured out. But that’s why we prepare for the games and that’s why we have practice. That’s the most important thing leading up to the game, that the players go in the game with confidence in whatever it is we choose to do.”
One can be sure Alabama’s players will be confident. After all, they have the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) as their coach. He will be coaching in his 10th national championship. He’s 7-2 in the previous nine.
Only Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher has been able to defeat Saban. Fisher’s unranked Aggies did it with a shocking 41-38 win on a last-second field goal on Oct. 9, handing Alabama its lone loss this season.
But of the nine former assistants that have faced Saban, none of them have been as consistently competitive against him as Smart has been with Georgia. While the Bulldogs lost the last two games by 41-24 scores each, the average margin of 11 points (35.75-24.75) is less than all the coaches from the Saban tree.
Smart’s teams have built early leads in all four of the previous matchups. They simply have not been able to sustain.
He definitely has earned Saban’s respect.
“Georgia’s got a great team,” Saban said. “It’ll be a great challenge for our team and we just have to do the best we can to prepare the guys to have the best chance be successful against a really, really good team. That’s the way it’s supposed to be when you play in a championship game, you know you’re going to play a great team.”
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