Nick Saban gets chance to prove there’s only one Alabama

Georgia is top challenger, but Crimson Tide have staying power
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban reacts against the Georgia Bulldogs during the second half of the SEC Championship football game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, on Saturday, December 2, 2023. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban reacts against the Georgia Bulldogs during the second half of the SEC Championship football game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, on Saturday, December 2, 2023. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

A year ago, ESPN declared that Kirby Smart had built Georgia into another Alabama. I declared that ESPN was being a bit hasty. Smart’s Bulldogs beat Saban’s Crimson Tide for the 2021 national championship, but that was Smart’s first ring. Saban owned six titles at Alabama and a 4-1 record against his ex-assistant.

The case for UGA becoming another Bama strengthened when the Bulldogs went on to win the 2022 national championship. Then came another undefeated regular season for Georgia. The Bulldogs made it back to the SEC Championship game this month as the favorites to beat Alabama and go on to win a third consecutive national title.

Here was a chance for Georgia to make that ESPN headline appear prescient rather than premature. Instead, the Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs again for a conference championship. They took Georgia’s place in the College Football Playoff.

While basking in the glow of his ninth SEC title at Bama, Saban acknowledged that his team has fed on the many outside doubts about them this season.

“I think that’s an interesting point that you bring up because one of the motivating factors for this team all year long is they wanted to prove who they were because of the criticism that they got,” Saban said. “Now, this validates (them). Winning the SEC, beating Georgia, the No. 1 team, kind of validates who they are.”

That seemed improbable for much of the season, but the Tide made it happen with their eighth victory in 10 games against top-ranked teams with Saban as coach. Now Alabama can add a second national title to sandwich around Georgia’s back-to-back championships. They can prove that outsiders shouldn’t be too quick to write them off.

That shouldn’t need to be said. Alabama won three of the past eight national titles and was runner-up three times during that span. But the standards are so high in Tuscaloosa that two years without a national title had outsiders searching for the next Alabama. Smart’s Bulldogs are the obvious choice for that distinction.

Or at least they were before losing a third consecutive time to Alabama in the SEC Championship game. The Bulldogs won back-to-back national championships, finished 8-0 in the SEC for three consecutive seasons and compiled a 29-game win streak. But they still couldn’t escape the Bama bogeyman.

It seems that there can only be one Alabama so long as Saban as coach.

“It’s not about me,” Saban said. “It’s about everybody on the team who contributed to the success of this team, players and coaches alike.”

That’s true. But players and assistants have come and gone at Alabama. Saban, 72, stays and keeps winning. He’s not fading away.

Saban still recruits at an elite level. Alabama’s defense has five freshman and sophomores starting and five other underclassmen as primary backups. It’s Saban’s best defense in years. The Tide have figured out a way to score enough points without the top NFL prospects at quarterback and wide receiver they’ve had in years past.

When the Tide ended Georgia’s national title aspirations before, those great skill players produced explosive offensive plays. This time, Alabama beat Georgia with old-fashioned bully ball. The Bulldogs hadn’t faced a defense as good as Bama’s, and it showed.

The Tide are ranked eighth nationally in defensive SP+ (efficiency adjusted for opponent, situation and tempo) and 17th in scoring defense. None of UGA’s other 12 opponents rank better than 21st in SP+ or 36th in points allowed. Faced with a foe who could match them physically, the Bulldogs were stopped on four of their six third-and-short plays.

“Only thing we can say is, they whipped us up front,” Smart said. “They have big, big humans. People always say, ‘Georgia can run the ball.’ It’s hard to run the ball when they have good size in there. They’re a physical front.”

That’s been the calling card for Georgia’s defense under Smart. It’s been clear all season that, while they were still very good defensively, the Bulldogs have slipped. That’s to be expected when the past two NFL drafts featured six ex-Georgia linemen and linebackers among the first 30 picks. It’s difficult to replace so many talented players without a drop-off in production.

Saban knows all about that.

Alabama’s defense declined as its best players went on to be paid for their labor. The Tide produced a steady stream of skill players who were coveted by NFL teams, including two quarterbacks drafted within the top five picks overall (Tua Tagovailoa and Bryce Young). Now the Tide are in position to win a national title with a quarterback who’d been benched for performance (Jalen Milroe) and no running backs or pass-catchers who are projected as top NFL prospects.

Georgia will continue to challenge Alabama for college football supremacy. The 12-team CFP that begins next season will provide a larger margin for error. It’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs ever being left out of a playoff field that big (of course, the same thing goes for Alabama).

Truthfully, the Tide shouldn’t be in this year’s CFP field. They benefited from the determination of decision-makers to leave out undefeated Florida State in favor of the one-loss SEC champion. The Seminoles got robbed (the Bulldogs did not). The Tide are fortunate the CFP has a sham selection committee.

None of that will matter for the record books. Saban gets a chance to add another trophy to his case and remind everyone that there can only be one Alabama so long as he’s the coach.


ORANGE BOWL

Georgia vs. Florida State in Miami Gardens, Florida, Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN

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