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Alabama’s Saban to face former assistant Smart

The Sports Xchange

January 07, 2018 at 1:17 pm.

Jan 7, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban (left) poses for a photo with Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart and College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy at Sheraton Atlanta. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 7, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban (left) poses for a photo with Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart and College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy at Sheraton Atlanta. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Alabama’s Nick Saban is 11-0 coaching against his former assistants, but the stage is much bigger and the circumstances a bit different in Monday night’s College Football Playoff Championship Game when he goes against Kirby Smart for the first time.

Georgia’s Smart was with the Crimson Tide as recently as two years ago and he comes from the defensive side rather than from a role with the offense, like Jimbo Fisher and several of the others.

Saban, a former defensive back like Smart, always takes the most pride in stopping the other team and defense should be in the forefront at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the all-SEC showdown as Georgia tries for its first national title since 1980 and Alabama hopes to give its coach a sixth championship, tying the legendary Bear Bryant.

Both teams have defenses ranked in the Top 10 nationally and Smart, as well as his defense, is viewed as a near clone of Saban and the Crimson Tide.

“It’s like playing against yourself,” Saban said. “They do a lot of the same things on defense that we do. You worry about your terminology when you make a call. Do they know what you’re calling?”

“We basically run the same defense,” Alabama All-America defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “Even the hand signals and stuff are pretty similar.”

Georgia fired Mark Richt despite a long run of mostly success in part because they didn’t want to miss out on Smart, a former Bulldogs player who had made his mark as Alabama defensive coordinator.

Two seasons later, Smart faces Saban for the first time with the ultimate prize at stake.

Saban has tried to downplay that aspect of the title game and also his success through the years against former assistants.

“I don’t think it has to do a lot with the coach. I think it has a lot more to do with the players,” said Saban, whose team has outscored former assistants 427-111. “Georgia has really outstanding players, so it will be about the players again.”

The storylines leading into the game, though, have centered on the coaches and the mentor-pupil relationship.

“I’m just trying to be me. I’m not trying to be Nick Saban,” Smart said. “Our personalities, for the people that know us, are not the same. I’m a different person than Nick. I’m OK with who I am. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not trying to be him or emulate him.”

Saban said: “I always tell guys, and I told Kirby this when he left, to be your own man, be yourself, do it the way you think it ought to be done. Don’t try to be somebody else. I think he’s done a fantastic job of that.”

Smart and Georgia, though, would certainly love to emulate is the long-term success of the Alabama program under Saban. The Crimson Tide is bidding for their fifth national title in nine seasons.

“Probably the single greatest thing (I learned from Saban) is just the level of commitment to the organization, holding everybody in the organization to a standard that he kind of embraced himself,” Smart said. “He never asked anybody in the organization to work any harder than he did. He held every person on the staff — and I’m not talking about just the coaching staff, I’m talking about the entire organization — to be at their best.

“And I think that’s sometimes a lost art. You see successful business organizations run that way, but you don’t always see athletic programs run that way, and I think he does a tremendous job of that, and if there’s anything I took, it’s being in that seat and having to be in command, make decisions, and make sure that everybody understands the message that’s coming from the top down and the standard that you want people to work to.”

A victory by Georgia would make Smart the first coach since Jim Tressel of Ohio State in 2002 to win a national title within his first two seasons. To do it, he has to break a long losing streak by former Saban assistants.

 

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