COLUMBIA, Mo. — It’s time again for Master vs. Apprentice.
Obi-Wan vs. Anakin
Ward vs. The Beaver
Miyagi vs. LaRusso
Walter vs. Jesse
Saban vs. Smart
Alabama’s Nick Saban needs to fill three more digits to have two hands of national championship rings. Georgia’s Kirby Smart would sure like No. 1, especially in a matchup against his old boss. Smart coached under Saban for more than a decade at LSU, with the Miami Dolphins and at Alabama. He gets another shot Monday night in Indianapolis.
The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs met just 37 days ago for the SEC championship with Bama winning big, a 41-24 victory that clinched the Heisman Trophy for Bryce Young and forced the Bulldogs to back into the College Football Playoff with a semifinal showdown with Big Ten champion Michigan. We know what happened next. After Saban’s Tide overwhelmed Cincinnati 27-6, Georgia suffocated the Wolverines 34-11, setting up the fifth Saban-Smart showdown since Kirby left the Alabama staff to take over his alma mater in 2016. The history favors the Tide.
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2017 CFP championship: Alabama 26, Georgia 23
2018 SEC championship: Alabama 35, Georgia 28
2020 regular season: Alabama 41, Georgia 24
2021 SEC championship: Alabama 41, Georgia 24
Only two active college coaches have won FBS national championships at their current school: Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.
North Carolina’s Mack Brown won the title at Texas back in 2005, while his newly hired defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won it all at Auburn in 2010. Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher won the championship at Florida State in 2013. Les Miles and Ed Orgeron, both national champs at LSU, are out of coaching, as is Urban Meyer, a three-time champion at Florida and Ohio State.
To join that illustrious list, all Smart has to do is beat his mentor. Easier said than done.
“It's a great honor to be across from Coach Saban and the tremendous job he's done, but it's probably nothing unusual for him to be in this game because he's been in this game an awful lot,” Smart said Sunday. “And I know he doesn't take that for granted because I know the work and effort he puts into it to get his team here.
“I've been able to see that. I've been a part of that. I also know the work and effort we've put in to get to this point. It is no easy job to get to this point in the season through the SEC gauntlet, through the championship game, through the semifinals. It's a tough rigorous season.
“So, to be in this position is certainly an honor. To be across from Coach, it's a tremendous honor for our team and our organization. But, like we've always said, it's not about he and I. It's about the players and their opportunities to go out and be successful and make a lasting memory.”
Let’s make one last pick for the 2021 college football season …
CFB National Championship Game
No. 1 Alabama (13-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (13-1)
Kickoff: 7 p.m., ESPN, Indianapolis
Line: Georgia by 2.5
Matter’s Pick: There’s a lot to like about Georgia winning the rematch. From top to bottom, the Bulldogs probably have more NFL-ready talent. Georgia is more talented along the defensive line and at linebacker. Georgia’s offensive line is a better unit and its running back collection is deeper. Alabama will have the best receiver on the field in St. Louis’ Jameson Williams, but Georgia has more playmakers at wideout and tight end, notably freshman tight end sensation Brock Bowers. At quarterback, Young clearly has more upside athletically, but Stetson Bennett is far more than a caretaker. He doesn’t have Young’s yards or TDs, but he’s got the superior passer rating (178.1) and yards per attempt average (10.2). He’ll stretch the field if his O-line can keep edge-rushing madman Will Anderson Jr. out of the pocket. Georgia’s offensive line has been excellent all season, and if the Bulldogs can do to Anderson what they just did to Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson in the Orange Bowl, Bennett can have a successful night.
Expect a more aggressive defensive game plan from Georgia compared to the SEC championship game, when the Bulldogs seemed intent to casually sit back in coverage rather than force the Tide into mistakes with pressure. Alabama was the only Georgia opponent this season that posted more yards per play against UGA than its season average: 7.66 against the Bulldogs, up from its season rate of 6.70. Otherwise, UGA dominated the rest of its schedule — and it’s not like Smart faced a lightweight slate in terms of offensive talent. Six of UGA’s 14 opponents ranked among the nation’s top 25 in yards per play: No. 10 Alabama, No. 13 Florida, No. 17 Tennessee, No. 21 Kentucky, No. 22 Michigan and No. 25 Arkansas.
Here’s how great this Georgia defense was this year: It held six opponents to at least 2 yards per play under its season average. That would be Clemson (3.0), UAB (3.28), Vanderbilt (1.67), Arkansas (3.60), Kentucky (3.3) and Georgia Tech (3.35).
Now, it’s fair to wonder if Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning might be sidetracked by his new gig as Oregon’s head coach heading into Monday’s title bout, but Smart knows from experience how to manage those situations. He had accepted the Georgia head-coaching job weeks before Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 CFP championship game, with Smart pulling double duty at both schools leading up to the game. If there was any slippage from Lanning’s role the past few weeks, Smart’s smart enough to pick up the slack.
Another thing to consider: Georgia knew it could afford to lose to Alabama in the SEC championship game and still make the playoff. A mental letdown in Atlanta might have been hard to avoid considering all the media focus is put on the playoff, not conference championships. The Georgia team that came out of the locker room against Michigan played with a different level of urgency than the team that lost to Alabama. Expect more of the Miami Bulldogs, less of the Atlanta Bulldogs.
Then again, never underestimate Saban’s ability to convince a locker room full of five-star prospects and future NFL millionaires that nobody believes in them. Just like the SEC championship game, Georgia is favored. We saw how the master motivator used that to his advantage last time. Saban likes to call media attention on his team “rat poison.” Headed into the SEC championship game, he feasted on the underdog angle. “The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal,” he said after the win, “but the rat poison that you put this week was yummy.”
He was at it again Sunday, building up Smart’s Bulldogs like they’re the Green Bay Packers.
“We certainly feel like this is the best team in the country that we have an opportunity to play, the most consistent team all season long, in terms of how they played,” Saban said. “And it's a tremendous challenge for us, and really kind of an honor to have the opportunity to play against what we feel is one of the most elite programs in the country. And probably, just looking at the future, probably will be for some time in the future as well.”
You’ve got us convinced here, Nick. It’s the apprentice’s time. Saban was 52 years old when he won his first national championship at LSU. Smart, 46, won’t have to wait that long. He’ll take down the master on Monday for ring No. 1. Georgia 31, Alabama 28
SEC bowl picks
Straight up: 6-6
Against the spread: 6-5-1
Straight up: 128-46
Against the spread: 96-77-1