Nick Saban’s coaching tree has thick branches flourishing in other ecosystems. The best college brain of our time has given rise to a spate of talented proteges now practicing their craft elsewhere and dreaming of the success now routine in Tuscaloosa.
But the Crimson Tide’s brain trust has not been kind at all to his former assistants in head-to-head matchups. Alabama has won all 11 — three against Jim McElwain (Florida) and Derek Dooley (Tennessee), two against Will Muschamp (Florida/South Carolina) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), and one against Jimbo Fisher (Florida State).
Next Monday Saban will be across the field from Kirby Smart, his former defensive coordinator who has piloted Georgia to the national championship game. It will be the first time the two former co-workers match wits.
Smart is obviously up against long odds, though the Vegas line is currently 4.5, a bit lower than I would have expected. There are a few things in his favor that could help light a guide to an unbeaten path the previous assistants failed to reach.
First, the game is being played in Georgia, ensuring Alabama won’t have a distinct advantage in crowd size. Secondly, and most importantly, is that Smart has at his direction the most talented roster a Saban apprentice has brought to the table.
Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are a 1-2 backfield punch capable of breaking the strongest of jaws. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, once a game manager, has turned into a game breaker. And the Georgia defense is bursting at the seems with speed and strength.
The Bulldogs will likely try to out-Bama Bama. This has been a recipe for disaster in all previous kitchens. No chef, however, has had the secret spice of near-equal talent. For as good as the Tide have been, the Jalen Hurts-led offense is fallible. Even in last night’s victory over Clemson, it sputtered and was helped mightily by a turnover and short field.
Alabama is still Alabama. Put this offense in any other jersey and there’s no mysticism or wonder to it. If anything, it’s bruising and efficient — something Georgia could match.
Smart won’t be intimidated, and he shouldn’t be. On paper, his side is close in quality. No other coach on the Saban tree has been able to say the same. Perhaps this will end differently than the other 11.