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Teacher vs. Student: Alabama’s Nick Saban to Face Gerogia’s Kirby Smart for National Title


Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart spoke to the media on the College Football Playoff teleconference on Tuesday as both men prepare to face each other in the College Football Playoff Championship Monday night.

This was both coaches first opportunity to speak to the media after arriving back to their universities following huge wins in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Georgia knocked off the Oklahoma Sooners in a double-overtime thriller by a score of 54-48 in what is being coined as the best Rose Bowl in history. Alabama, in a rematch against the team it lost to in the national title game in Tampa last season, dominated the Clemson Tiger’s in a defensive battle in the Sugar Bowl.

The massive amount of story lines in this game is a story line in itself. For the first time since 2011, teams from the same conference will compete for the national title  (Alabama vs. LSU 2011). Georgia will play for a national title for a championship for the first time since the 1980s. Alabama will make its sixth appearance in a national title game in the last nine seasons, and try to win its fifth. To put that into perspective, Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant won his fifth championship at Alabama in his 16th season in Tuscaloosa.

Those are all great story lines, but no story line is bigger than that of Nick Saban going toe-to-toe with his longtime friend and former defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart. Smart was on the Alabama staff from 2007-15, and was charged with leading the Alabama defense for the latter eight seasons in Tuscaloosa.

In need of a secondary coach during his tenure at LSU, Saban said Smart was a highly recommended commodity for the position. “I like hiring young guys and helping them develop in our system and teaching them what we do,”Saban explained. “He was a secondary guy, and we were looking for a secondary coach. Some of the other coaches on the staff knew him. I was very impressed with him from day one. He was very bright. He learned quickly. I would hire him anytime, anywhere, on any staff based on the body of work that he did over the nine or ten years that he was with us. He did a fabulous job.”

After joining Saban at LSU, the Smart/Saban duo was seemingly inseparable. Smart joined the Miami Dolphins coaching staff along with Saban in 2006 after serving as the Georgia running backs coach in 2005. When Saban left Miami after fervently denying all rumors of his departure to Tuscaloosa, Smart followed Saban to the Capstone.

Joining Saban’s LSU staff was not as glorious as it may sound, and from Kirby’s brief reminiscence, we can conclude he did not expect to work for Saban for over a decade. When asked about joining Saban he said, “I don’t even know, whatever year it was I went to LSU, ’04 maybe. I’m not really sure. I just remember the interview in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, and Coach Muschamp, a good friend of mine, connected us, and we met in the airport and visited. I had a lot of respect for the program that Nick had put together at LSU. I remember wanting the job, but I wanted the job because I was a GA, I didn’t want the job because it was Nick Saban. I wanted the job because I didn’t have a job, and it was my first career SEC job, so it was a great opportunity for me.

With the two spending thousand of hours together, the two certainly know each other’s tendencies and coaching style. At Georgia, Smart has implemented a very similar system that Alabama uses. This goes from top to bottom in the football program. Starting at on-field play all the way down to communications and dietary staff.

Can you blame Kirby for doing things almost identical to Saban? Absolutely not. First, you can only coach what you have learned, and the majority of SMart’s career has been learning and studying under Saban. Second, it works. Kirby has used the “if it ain’y broke don’t fix it” mentality, and it has gotten the Dawgs to the CFP in just his second season.

On the field, however, head coaches who have gone on to have careers and face Saban head-to-head have not successful versus their former mentor. In fact, Saban has never lost to a former assistant coach. Saban is 11-0 all time in games against coaches he personally trained, and the games have not been close. Check out the list below:

  • 3-0 vs. Derek Dooley at Tennessee. Combined score 122-29.
  • 3-0 vs. Jim McElwain at Colorado State and Florida. Combined score 114-37.
  • 2-0 vs. Will Muschamp at Florida. Combined score 80-31
  • 2-0 vs. Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. Combined score 87-7.
  • 1-0 vs. Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. Combined score 24-7.

In total, Saban has outscored former assistant coaches by a landslide of 427-111, giving up just 10 points per game in those match-ups.

The odds are certainly stacked against Bulldogs. Obviously, Saban never taught these assistant coaches everything he knew, but Smart laid out the formula he believes can beat Alabama. “[Saban’s] tendencies are very similar to a lot of good coaches: Smart, good decisions, protect the ball, play great defense, kick your butt on special teams. There’s not a lot of tendencies that he has that are just going to be ground-breaking to allow us a benefit. The bottom line is our players got to go out and we’ve got to play a really good football game to stay with these guys,” Smart said.

Going into this game, both coaches seem to have the demeanor, praising the other team and giving high compliments. On the Bulldogs Saban said, “They play hard. They’re very relentless, and I think this last game was sort of a reflection on the attitude that he’s been able to instill to overcome adversity and come back in a game like they did against Oklahoma. They’re playing extremely well, which is a reflection on his ability and his leadership to get everybody to buy in to doing things the way he wanted them done so that they could play at a very high level, and they certainly are. They have a lot of good players, and they’re all playing at a very high level, and I think that’s a compliment to the coach and the coaching staff.”

Saban and Smart will prepare this week for the shortest turnaround in the brief four-year stint of the CFP, having only seven days to get their teams ready to go.

The 2018 College Football Playoff national title game is set for Monday, Jan. 8 at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. CDT on ESPN.

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