Atlanta – Nick Saban’s greatest rival, his most persistent foe, is human nature. So far, Saban is winning that matchup.
Alabama’s coach has his Crimson Tide back in the College Football Playoff national championship game for the third straight season. Alabama has won four national titles since Saban took over in 2007, and played for another. Only once since 2008 has Alabama lost more than a single regular-season game.
There has never been anything quite like this Crimson Tide dynasty in college football.
Alabama has been the sport’s equivalent to the NFL’s Patriots during Saban’s time, fitting since he once worked for New England coach Bill Belichick, the winner of a record five Super Bowls.
Add a BCS championship Saban won while the head coach at LSU, and his five poll-era national championships leave him one short of a record held by the man who coached Alabama’s first dynasty, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Saban can match the Bear on Monday night when No. 4 Alabama faces No. 3 Georgia in an all-Southeastern Conference national championship game that President Trump is expected to attend.
Relentlessly driven and motivated by competition for competition’s sake, Saban has engineered a complacency-proof program in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Whether it is lunchtime basketball with the assistant coaches or what has become Alabama’s annual appearance in the national title game, the 66-year-old Saban only knows one approach.
“Well, I think that I’m always looking for the next challenge,” he said Sunday. “I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised or whatever, that you’re kind of only as good as your last play, as your last game. I think everyone has heard me talk a lot about the fact that success is not a continuum, it’s momentary, and it’s human nature to get satisfied and get a little complacent when you have success.
“But in a competitive business like we’re in where there’s always a next challenge, there’s always a next game, there’s always a better team to play, if you have that mindset, you’re not going to be able to play with any consistency. And if you can’t play with consistency in performance, you’re not going to really have a lot of success long-term.”
Saban’s latest challenge comes from a former protege.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart spent nine seasons with Saban at Alabama, the last eight as defensive coordinator, before taking over as head coach at his alma mater in 2016. The two shared the stage Sunday with the tall, gold championship trophy for a final news conference before Monday night’s game. Smart was part of those basketball games for years, usually on Saban’s team because, as Saban said, they both hated to lose.
Smart, 42, has taken Saban’s “process” to Athens, Georgia, a title hungry town that has not celebrated a Bulldogs’ championship since Herschel Walker was a freshman in 1980. Asked what the most important lesson he learned from Saban, Smart had a well-prepared response.
“Well, this is not the first time I’ve answered this question this week, so I’ll be happy to answer it again,” Smart said. “But probably the single greatest thing is just the level of commitment to the organization, holding everybody in the organization to a standard that he kind of embraced himself. 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.”
With Smart only in year two at Georgia, it is too soon to say this game represents a potential paradigm shift in the SEC. But a few weeks removed from the Bulldogs signing the top recruiting class in the country, there are signs that this is just the beginning of a high-stakes rivalry between mentor and mentee. In 11 games, Saban has never lost to a head coach who once worked for him.
The only downside — if there is one — to living under the Saban Standard is anything less than the best can seem like the worst. A second straight championship game loss after last season’s thriller against Clemson would mean “just” one national title for Saban and Alabama in the last five seasons.
“That’s a career for most coaches, but for him it’s an abject failure,” national radio show host Paul Finebaum said.
Why Alabama will win
■With the nation’s top defense, Alabama is equipped to control the damage inflicted by Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Leading that charge will be linebacker Rashaan Evans, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne.
■Alabama has a veteran secondary to contend with Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm has had a terrific freshman season, but he struggled when Auburn’s defense held Chubb and Michel to a combined 48 rushing yards.
■Offensively, Alabama has playmakers like quarterback Jalen Hurts, tailback Damien Harris and wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
■Nick Saban has a perfect track record against former assistants like Georgia coach Kirby Smart. He’s 11-0 and none of them have come closer than 17 points against his Tide teams.
Why Georgia will win
■Georgia’s running game is deeper and better than Alabama’s. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined to run for 326 yards against Oklahoma in the semifinals to become the most productive tandem in NCAA FBS history, passing SMU’s Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
■Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm is far more than just a game manager. He has passed for 23 touchdowns and almost 2,400 yards and he rarely makes mistakes. Fromm won his first start, at Notre Dame, immediately supporting reviews from coaches and teammates that he has unusual poise, especially for a first-year player.
■The defense is packed with NFL-bound talent, led by linebacker Roquan Smith.
■Rodrigo Blankenship has made 17 of 20 field goals, including an important 55-yarder to close the first half at the Rose Bowl.
Alabama (12-1) vs. Georgia (13-1)
Kickoff: 8 Monday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Line: Alabama by 4