Saban plays it safe as Smart’s bold Bulldogs take title

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Kirby Smart was coaching cautiously. Nick Saban was even tighter. Eventually, Smart had Georgia take more chances. If Saban was coaching for Alabama not to lose the national championship game Monday night, then his former assistant’s team was going to go for the win.

Maybe nothing changes about the outcome if Saban used a more aggressive strategy near the end of the first half. It was hard for the Crimson Tide to score so no reason to think they’d tally with a short clock. The problem was that Saban signaled safety when Bama needed daring. His team would go down with a whimper as Smart’s Bulldogs blew the game open late.

Credit Georgia’s defense for dominating the Tide. That’s the main reason why the Bulldogs won their first national championship since 1980. Georgia held the Tide to three field goals on four trips inside its 20-yard line. The Bulldogs put them away with a pick-six in the final minute of the 33-18 victory and redeemed the defense’s collapse against Bama in the SEC Championship game.

“We talked about putting it on our shoulders and it being on us,” Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett also gets accolades. He was 6 of 9 for 97 yards and two touchdowns after halftime. Bennett’s controversial fumble set up Alabama’s only touchdown. Instead of withering, Bennett came back to confidently lead the Bulldogs on two TD drives in the fourth quarter.

“I put my head down and say: ‘That’s not going to be how we lose this game,’” Bennett said.

Finally, give it to Smart and his offensive coordinator, Todd Monken. Smart’s defense kept sending blitzes at Alabama quarterback Bryce Young even when he made a few plays behind it. That paid off late. Alabama’s relentless pass rush made it hard on Bennett in the first half. Georgia’s coaches still let him take shots after halftime. That worked out, too.

Georgia’s turnaround came after Smart played it safe near the end of the half. Saban responded by playing it even safer. Neither coach wanted to take a chance.

Credit: Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

The Bulldogs had the ball at their 10-yard line with 1:33 until halftime. Bennett handed off to Zamir White. He ran for four yards before being tackled with 1:28 on the clock. Saban had three timeouts. He didn’t use one before Bennett handed off again to White, who was tackled with 43 seconds on the clock. Saban let the clock run down to 22 seconds before calling timeout.

Said Saban: “I’ve been in situations like that when you call timeout, then they make a first down and then they go two-minute (drill) and then you’re hanging on. That was my thinking on that. I don’t really think it had much of an impact on the outcome of the game, actually.”

If Saban were worried about Georgia trying to go fast and score, it seems the best call would be not calling timeout after White’s second-down run. That just left more time for Georgia with more timeouts. It didn’t matter once White ran 10 yards for a first down and Smart let the clock run out.

Saban was worried about a two-minute drill when Georgia just wanted to get into the locker room. That wasn’t the energy the Tide needed from their leader. It wasn’t the strategy the moment required. Jameson Williams, Alabama’s star wide receiver, had suffered a left leg injury while making a 40-yard catch in the second quarter.

The Tide had to squeeze every percentage point out of win probabilities. Saban apparently was too worried about worst possible outcomes to think that way. The Tide led 9-6 at the time. Saban was coaching as if they could win by that score.

That wasn’t possible once Georgia scored its first touchdown of the game to lead 13-9. Alabama answered with a field goal that cut its deficit to a point. Saban ordered the kick with the Tide three yards from the end zone.

Alabama got another first-and-goal just a few moments later. Christian Harris hit Bennett as he tried to throw. Teammate Drew Sanders snagged the ball from the air just as he stepped out of bounds. Game officials ruled that it was a fumble recovery and Bama’s ball at Georgia’s 16-yard line. The call stood after a replay review.

“It was a good shift of energy for us,” Alabama defensive end Will Anderson said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Tide used that emotional boost to score a touchdown. A roughing penalty on Georgia gave them a first-and-goal. On third down, Young ran away from the pass rush and passed to Cameron Latu for the score. Alabama led 18-13 with 10:14 to go.

That’s when Smart’s Bulldogs decided to let loose. Just because Bama was coming at Bennett didn’t mean he’d stop taking deep drops and throwing long. Bennett completed an 18-yard pass to Jermaine Burton. He drew a pass interference on another long attempt to Burton. Bennett hit Kenny McIntosh for a first down on Alabama’s side of the field.

The Tide sacked Bennett on the next play. That set up yet another bad down-and-distance for the Bulldogs, who were behind the sticks for much of the night. On the next snap, Bennett saw that an Alabama defender jumped offsides early. He lofted a pass to the end zone for Adonai Mitchell, who was tightly covered but caught the ball anyway.

Georgia 33, Alabama 18

That score put the Bulldogs ahead for good. Alabama’s next possession ended with a three-and-out. Georgia got the ball with 7:10 left and ran the ball for two first downs. The Bulldogs got another first down when Alabama freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry had to grab George Pickens to save a touchdown.

Georgia lined up in a tight formation on third-and-one at Alabama’s 15-yard line. Bennett faked a handoff as Tide defenders looked for the run. Instead, Brock Bowers slipped out to the left and caught a pass from Bennett. Bowers scored a 15-yard TD to push Georgia’s advantage to 26-18 with less than four minutes to go.

Bennett: “It’s the thing that coach Smart and the whole team has been preaching all year: resiliency, toughness, composure, connection.”

Now the Tide were forced to play the end of the game with the kind of desperation they lacked near the end of the first half. They made it to Georgia’s 44-yard line with about a minute to go. Young tried passing deep down the left sideline to Traeshon Holden. Georgia’s Kelee Ringo intercepted the pass and ran it back 79 yards for a touchdown.

Saban didn’t cost his team the game with the safe clock strategy at the end of the first half. But that sequence didn’t indicate that he was coaching with urgency. Once the Bulldogs got bolder after halftime, Alabama couldn’t keep up.