The assistant coach who breaks free from a program supposedly has an advantage of knowledge when meeting the former employer. In football, an edge in playbook secrets, personnel details and coaching habits figure to favor the challenger.
Nick Saban has crushed that notion.
Alabama meets Georgia in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first meeting between the Tide’s Saban and one of his most successful protégés, Kirby Smart. Kickoff is 7:17 p.m., and the game is on ESPN.
The trend runs decidedly against Smart’s Bulldogs.
Saban’s former assistants are a cool 0-11 against their old boss. Smart spent nine seasons on Saban’s Alabama staff, the final eight as defensive coordinator. The Tide won three national championships in that span.
Now, Smart, in his second season at Georgia, attempts to become the first coach launched by Saban to capsize him.
The others who have tried include new Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who went 0-3 against the Tide as Tennessee’s coach; Jim McElwain, who lost two of his three matchups at Florida against Saban in the SEC championship game; Will Muschamp, twice at Florida; Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (0-2); and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher (0-1). Saban and Fisher served together at LSU.
Saban dismissed the run in which his teams won by an average score of 39-10.
“If the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beaten us,” Saban said. “So it’s not about the coaches.”
Smart might be in the best position to turn the tide.
Georgia, 13-1, arrives at the title game on the heels of a remarkable double-overtime triumph against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs were gashed by a Sooners’ offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in the first half, but made adjustments and roared back.
“The momentum we finished that game with, we’re carrying into this game,” Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith said.
If Georgia is successful, Smith likely will have played a major role. The Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker is having a beastly postseason as MVP of the SEC Championship Game victory over Auburn and defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl.
The first job, Smith said, as it usually is with an SEC opponent, is to stop the run. The Tide’s Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough have combined for 1,556 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, and quarterback Jalen Hurts often works as an additional running back.
“Once he’s out in the open field he’s like a running back, so we’ll definitely have to try and keep that guy in check once he pulls it down,” Smith said.
As would be expected from a Smart-coached team, Georgia ranks in the top six nationally in total and scoring defense.
But Alabama, 12-1, ranks first in both departments, and this is the strength-on-strength part of the game. A Crimson Tide defense that includes the usual cluster of prospects whose names will next be called at the NFL Combine against a Georgia offense that scored 37 points after halftime in the Rose Bowl.
This year’s Bama crop includes safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison along with nose guard Da’Ron Payne, who recorded an interception and a touchdown reception in the Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson.
The Alabama defense will be charged with stopping Georgia’s running game of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who ran wild against Oklahoma. But the Crimson Tide defense is the next level.
“I think Alabama and Georgia are big, fast, physical teams,” Fitzpatrick said. “We try to outphysical our opponents. We pride ourselves on the same things.”
An X-factor could be Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, a freshman who was playing in high school last season, started this year on the bench and has efficiently led Georgia to one of its greatest seasons.
“Does he look like a freshman? No sir,” Fitzpatrick said. “He looks like an experienced, seasoned quarterback, like a three-year starter.”
Who has the edge?
Georgia is a confident team and one that knows how to self-correct. The Bulldogs erased a 17-point deficit in the semifinal game, and a month after falling hard at Auburn defeated the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game.
Smart is only in his second year as a head coach, but it’s been done. Bob Stoops won the 2000 national title in his second year at Oklahoma.
If Georgia loses, it won’t be because of the hex that Saban, bidding for his sixth national championship and fifth at Alabama, seems to hold on former assistants. But experience matters in these games, and no program has more than Alabama, playing for its third straight national championship.
SEC games often are grind-it-out affairs, and Alabama is in a better position to win a game in that fashion. Make it Crimson Tide 23-17.
Georgia 3 to watch
LB Roquan Smith, 6-1, 225
Smith has great field vision and instincts and excels at fighting off blockers and getting into the backfield. The Butkus Award winner might have been the nation’s top defensive player this season.
RB Nick Chubb, 5-10, 225
Chubb has amassed more than 5,100 yards from scrimmage over his four seasons. He’s more of a north-south runner with good cutback ability. Teammate Sony Michel is more of a slasher.
QB Jake Fromm, 6-2, 225
A true freshman who is skilled beyond his years, Fromm took over after an injury sidelined the starter in the opener and never looked back. Don’t be surprised to hear his named called after “With the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft …”
Alabama 3 to watch
S Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6-1, 202
A true single high safety who is excellent in coverage. Fitzpatrick has played corner and safety and he’s a good tackler in the open field. Of the NFL prospects in this game, Fitzpatrick figures to be the first selected.
WR Calvin Ridley, 6-1, 190
Ridley’s numbers would be ridiculous if he played in the pass-happy Big 12. He’s the next Bama play-maker receiver, following Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, and should be the first wide receiver taken in the draft.
NG Da’Ron Payne, 6-2, 308
His numbers don’t wow, with one sack and three pass breakups, but Payne is a disruptive force in the middle of the Tide line. He was defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl and plays fullback in the jumbo package.