CFB Rivalry: Will Nick Saban Continue His Mastery Versus Former Assistants?

All eyes will be on #Tuscaloosa this Saturday night as #2 Alabama hosts #3 Georgia in an early-season #SEC tilt with huge #CFP implications.

Prognosticators expect this to be the first of two meetings between the juggernaut programs, as they are also expected to link up in Atlanta in the SEC title game with the winner headed to the College Football Playoffs.

The battle within the battle involves the student and the teacher. Nick Saban has a rich, deep coaching tree that has seen many of his former assistants move on to head coaching jobs. When Tennessee hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as its head coach in 2018, that made four SEC head coaches at the time, who were Saban assistants. These guys benefitted from being part of the Alabama machine, but they haven’t figured out how to beat their mentor.

Saban is 21-0 against former pupils but if there’s any program that could breakthrough and end this streak it’s Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs. SEC insiders say Georgia has been closing the gap on Alabama, who for the first time in College Football Playoff history, was not among the top four teams in 2019 after playing in the past four national championship games.

Gametime is Saturday night @8PM at Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Nick Saban & Kirby Smart 

There’s a small history between the respective coaches of these ambitious programs in head-to-head contests the past several seasons. Alabama and Georgia have faced off in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game and the SEC Championship Game. It’s probably the biggest budding rivalry in the Southeastern Conference. In fact, recent Georgia and Alabama games have been heated with several on-field fights adding alot of sauces to the already high stakes game.

Before these coaches were on opposite sidelines, they won 4 National Titles together (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015) at Alabama. Smart was Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator and when he nabbed the coveted Georgia gig, Smart took the jewels he learned under Saban and built his Bulldog program in the image of Alabama’s historic football factory.

While together (2008-2015) #BAMA possessed the best defense in CFB year in and year out. They’ve had a consistent funnel system to the NFL and have always landed the top recruits in the nation. Following their 45-41 thrilling National title win over Clemson in 2015, the aforementioned Smart accepted the head coach position at his Alma Mater the Georgia Bulldogs, where he played defensive back from (1995-1998).

As he began to build his program, he didn’t tiptoe into the job. Smart got down and dirty, getting some top recruits to de-commit from Tuscaloosa and follow him to Athens. The sheisty recruiting maneuvers made Saban feel a certain way but this is the way of big-time college football recruiting and nobody knows that better than the $50 million man.

When asked in 2019 about a possible rift in their relationship, Smart said this:

“Absolutely not. I don’t have any issue or any problem with any relationship with Nick. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s done anything but grown for more respect since we’ve played them twice. Every time I see Coach Saban, we have a great relationship. We’re not texting and calling each other buddy, buddy, but I’m not doing that with anybody. So that’s not to be of mention. I got a lot of respect for him. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him, and there’s no problem with our relationship.”

With those recruits and many others, Smart stockpiled, it made many folks predict that Georgie would be the SEC squad to stop the Alabama Football DYNASTY.

Building A Georgia Dynasty That Can Take SEC Crown

While BAMA continued to run through opponents in 2016 until their last-second title loss to Clemson (Deshaun Watson), Smart struggled a bit (8-5) in his first year on the sidelines in Athens. Then in 2017, the scene set-up great as both teams came out swinging, handled their business all season until Alabama stumbled with an “Iron Bowl” loss to archrival Auburn, which kept Bama out of the SEC Championship.

Actually Auburn beat both teams a couple of weeks apart to punch its ticket as the SEC West representative, while Georgia still got in as the SEC East representative. In the rematch, young freshman DeAndre Swift torched the Tigers on the ground to help the Bulldogs win the SEC Title, and for all intents and purposes punch their ticket to the CFP.

This Auburn upset and a couple of other teams losing, allowed Alabama to cash in on the fourth and final spot in the playoffs. The committee said the eye test proved both UGA and the Tide were worthy of a bid, making the SEC the first and only conference to this day to get two teams in the CFP (They were seeded 3 and 4).

The other two teams to receive bids were Clemson and Oklahoma. In the first playoff game Georgia and Smart behind the running of future and current pro backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and DeAndre Swift outlasted the 2nd seeded Sooners led by presumptive #1 overall pick in Baker Mayfield (54-48 in 3 OT) to advance to the CFP Title Game in Smart’s second season at the helm.

Waiting for them would be none other than “the mentor” himself, Nick Saban. His Crimson Tide defeated the top-seeded Clemson Tigers behind a dominant defense (24-6).

In the title game, UGA dominated from the onset and led BAMA 13-0 at the half and you could see the frustration mounting on Sabansas his offense couldn’t get anything going. Smart who was highly influential in the recruitment of Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts, knew his limitations and wouldn’t allow Bama’s running game to get going; meaning Hurts, considered a suspect passer at the time, would have to win this game with his arm.

Hurts struggled in the first half, which prompted Nick to make the unthinkable switch to a true freshman 5-star recruit from Hawaii named Tua Tagovailoa. Tua would lead his guys back to win the CFP National Title in OT on a play called SEATTLE.

The loss was just gut-wrenching for the UGA program who were literally seconds away from the school’s first title since 1980 when Herschel Walker toted the rock and ran through defenses in Athens.

They’d meet again in the 2018 SEC Title game and this time Jalen Hurts would get his redemption, relieving the injured Tua trailing 28-21 in the 4th quarter. Hurts tossed a game-tying TD and sprinted in the game-winner for a (35-28) come back win. Hurts deserves a ton of credit for staying after losing his job to Tua following his heroics in the title game because Tagovailoa mentioned he was considering transferring following that title game had he not played and became a hero in a half of football.

These are the crazy storylines and incredible turn of events that can be expected in a matchup between two powerhouses of college football, both loaded with future NFL stars and 5-chip high school recruits.

Saban is 2-0 versus Smart and besides his close battles with him, no other former assistants have come close until this past weekend when Lane Kiffin and his Ole Miss Rebels hung 48 points and over 600 yards of offense on a reeling Tide defense that hasn’t been a truly dominant force since 2018. Problem is, Alabama scored 63 points and that’s the problem teams face when they go against Saban’s multi-headed monster. So far, the master teacher still rules.