Alabama head coach Nick Saban has established quite a reputation when going up against his former assistants, but Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is looking to break the trend in the biggest game imaginable. Saban’s perfect record against his former assistants will be put to a mighty test against the Bulldogs, coming off a red-hot offensive performance in the Rose Bowl to come away with a double-overtime victory to clinch a spot in Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game. Unlike other former Saban assistants, Smart may have the best opportunity to put a dent in Saban’s record against his assistants.
Saban improved his career record against former assistants to an amazing 11-0 when Alabama crushed Florida State in the season opener in Atlanta, setting the tone for a lost season in Tallahassee that ended with Jimbo Fisher finding his way to Texas A&M. That particular season opener was supposed to be one of the toughest challenges Saban had against one of his former assistants, with Florida State entering the 2017 season as a popular pick to make a national title run. As we found out, that was far from the case. But this will be the first time Saban has had to go up against one of his more recent assistants, and Smart is arguably the best equipped to give Saban some concerns.
It begins with Georgia’s running game. As the Rose Bowl showed, these Bulldogs are a force to reckon with on the ground with the running duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Oklahoma was incapable of slowing either down, with Chubb rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries and Michel going off for 181 yards on 11 carries with three touchdowns, including the game-winner in double overtime off a direct snap. Georgia’s ability to dabble in a power running game with Chubb and more of a speed attack with Michel was a challenge for Oklahoma to keep up. The major difference in the championship game is Oklahoma has the 54th-ranked rushing defense and Alabama comes in ranked first in the nation against the run, allowing just 91.77 yards per game and eight rushing touchdowns all season long through 13 games. Do not expect Georgia to rack up the offensive yardage on the ground the way they did against the Sooners, but Georgia’s advantage will be the ability to adjust their running styles to keep Alabama on their toes.
You also have to wonder if Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm will ever cave under the pressure when the lights are the brightest. So far, the answer has been a resounding “nope.” Fromm comes into the national championship game with a higher passer rating, more passing yards, and more passing yards than his Alabama counterpart, Jalen Hurts. Hurts has been in this game before, of course, but Fromm is quickly amassing a number of big games himself, including in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the SEC Championship Game was definitively won by the Bulldogs against Auburn. Fromm will come into the game without an interception in his last three games; a rivalry game against Georgia Tech, the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, and the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma. At this point, Fromm has arrived and will be as confident as you can get for a freshman.
The offense will be up against a juggernaut with Alabama’s defense, and Georgia’s defense may need some plays out of Roquan Smith. It took a while for Smith to have a significant impact in the Rose Bowl, but the game reached a point where Smith put himself in position to make clutch tackles. Look for Smith to play a big role on the defense once again. Georgia will need that out of him, but the Bulldogs also need to tighten up their own defensive concerns after a long day against Oklahoma.
And if there is one distinct advantage Georgia has in this game, it is placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship. Blankenship nailed a 55-yard field goal against the Sooners at the end of the first half that helped Georgia gain an ounce of momentum before the break. Alabama’s kicking woes have long been a concern for the Crimson Tide. Not having that kind of anxiety on the Georgia sideline if a field goal is needed should be comforting for Smart.