NEW ORLEANS — While the cheers of “S-E-C” filled and then echoed throughout the Mercedes-Benz Superdome late Monday night, it was almost as if the rest of college football groaned in unison.
One could feel it, and certainly see it on social media, a collective sense of “not again.”
The University of Alabama football team back in the National Championship Game for the sixth time since 2009 is bad enough for everyone else, but having league and regional rival Georgia as an opponent made it even worse. Moreover, the game will be played in Atlanta, the new capital of college football.
This was the kind of thing they hoped to avoid by getting rid of the Bowl Championship Series when Alabama and LSU played in New Orleans for the 2011 title. Yet few will be talking about that, or things like Crimson Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley facing his brother and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Mel Tucker previously having worked for the Crimson Tide.
It’ll all be about Nick Saban against his former protégé Kirby Smart, whom he groomed for years not only at Alabama, but at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins.
Let the Star Wars comparisons begin.
“I’m proud of the job that Kirby has done there,” Saban said when asked about Smart moments after defeating former Alabama player Dabo Swinney and Clemson, 24-6. “They have a great football team. It will be a challenging game for us, so we’ll enjoy this one a little bit, then we’ve got to get ready for that one pretty quick.”
When Alabama’s drive-friendly College Football Playoff culminates next week — both of its games will have been played within the Crimson Tide’s prime recruiting territory — everyone will be sick of one statistic in particular: Saban is 11-0 against his former assistants.
Not only that, but none of them were close to winning. All lost by at least 14 points.
Saban crushed Mark Dantonio and Michigan State twice, once in a playoff semifinal. He’s 3-0 against Jim McElwain, including back-to-back victories in the SEC Championship Game, and 2-0 against Will Muschamp when he was at Florida.
Fittingly, this season begin with a win against former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher in a neutral-site opener at the site of the title game. Many thought the national championship could come down to a rematch, but instead it’s against Smart, who held out for the job he couldn’t say no to at Georgia, his alma mater.
In between, other schools continued turned their programs over to those hailing from the Saban coaching tree, including Mario Cristobal at Oregon, Jeremy Pruitt to Tennessee and Fisher bolting Florida State for Texas A&M and a 10-year contract.
They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but Smart reaching the title game is only going to magnify it.
“I’ve learned more about football in my time with Coach Saban than any other time in my career,” Smart said when he was still Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “I got the chance to go to Miami, from Georgia, my alma mater, I jumped at the chance because of how much I could learn.
“He knows ball. He loves ball, he loves coaching ball, he loves the fundamentals of ball, and he’s good at it. He had a lot of experience. To be that, and do that, and get a chance to be with that, I wanted that.”
When Saban initially hired Smart at LSU in 2004, he was looking for a young padawan, err, assistant coach to groom and develop. Frustrated by the volume of veteran coaches who were moving on after just a year or two, he hoped to develop some consistency and continuity in the program, plus he liked the idea of having someone who hadn’t learned too many bad habits.
Although their relationship got a bit strained when Smart was doing double-duty during the 2015 postseason, Saban had called him as loyal as any assistant coach he’d ever had.
“His reaction was he was excited for me,” Smart said during his introductory press conference at Georgia. “He and I have a great relationship.
“He’s been a great mentor for me and was very supportive and said he’ll do anything he can to help me and continue that development. He’s always been supportive. He’s got a lot of guys out there that he’s worked with in this profession.”
With Georgia’s victory in the Rose Bowl requiring double overtime and ending after Alabama’s game had started, Saban may have barely known the outcome before he started fielding questions about the matchup and his relationship with Smart.
He’s going to get asked about it during every press conference and interview until the game is played, and the same is true of Smart. They will say things like the following:
“I think when people are in a position of responsibility, which Kirby was our defensive coordinator for a long time — and if you look at the track record of what he was responsible for and the success that he had, the good defensive teams that we had, we had good players,” Saban said. “But we always did a great job of coaching those players and always put together good plans for them to be able to go out there and execute.
“So it’s no surprise to me that his role expanded to be a head coach. But his leadership and hard work — he’s a good football coach, a very bright guy. And he took over a program that has been successful and was actually fairly successful when he took over the program. He’s done a great job of taking it to the next level.”
By doing so, the Saban coaching tree closed out the title game, during a playoff featuring three head coaches with strong Crimson Tide ties.
That’s on top of Saban just completing the most successful decade in college football history, with a dynasty that’s on the verge of being both extended and supplemented.
How fitting is it that someone who helped him put it together is now the one in his way.