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Kirby Smart and Georgia aim for history in trying to beat Alabama’s Nick Saban

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The Nick Saban era at Alabama has been one known for its unprecedented success and, depending on how you look at things, occupies a place as one of the longest running dynasties the sport has seen over the years.

The Crimson Tide certainly have the numbers to back it up, going 131-20 in the 11 seasons since Saban moved to Tuscaloosa in 2007. Over that span, the school has captured five SEC championships, made the national title game five times and won four of college football’s most famous trophies.

Come Monday night in Atlanta, Saban (factoring in a title at LSU) has a chance to tie Bear Bryant as the coach with the most rings in the history of college football. In this day and age, there’s simply the Tide head coach and everybody else doing their best to follow in his footsteps. As a result, particularly in the SEC, there has been an increasing Saban-ization that has been underway since he started winning big at Alabama.

In a sense, if you can’t beat him… replicate him by bringing ‘The Process’ to your own school.

Perhaps it’s fitting then that across the sideline at the national title game this year is somebody the coach and the Tide know well in Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. Not only did the Bulldogs’ lead dawg work under Saban at LSU back in 2004, he was also with him during a brief stint with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and served as the defensive coordinator at Alabama for most of his run in Tuscaloosa from 2007-2015.

“Georgia had a pretty good nucleus of players there. I think they won 10 games the year he took over. Now, (Smart) has done a fantastic job of bringing those players along, getting those players to play with discipline, getting them to play together,” Saban said recently of the job his protegé has done in Athens. “They’re playing extremely well, which is a reflection on his ability and his leadership to get everybody to buy into 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.”

When Smart and Saban shake hands prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it will be a not so rare occurrence. In fact, the title fame will be the 12th time a former assistant of Saban has faced off against his old mentor on the gridiron. Georgia fans probably don’t want to hear this but that’s not exactly a good thing as the former assistants are a combined 0-11 against the man himself.

Yes, 0-11. Here’s the list:

Jimbo Fisher
—  2017 Alabama 24-7 over Florida State

Jim McElwain
— 2013 Alabama 31-6 over Colorado State
— 2015 Alabama 29-15 over Florida
— 2016 Alabama 54-16 over Florida

Derek Dooley
— 2010 Alabama 41-10 over Tennessee
— 2011 Alabama 37-6 over Tennessee
— 2012 Alabama 44-13 over Tennessee

Will Muschamp
— 2011 Alabama 38-10 over Florida
— 2014 Alabama 42-21 over Florida

Mark Dantonio
— 2011 Alabama 49-7 over Michigan State
— 2015 Alabama 38-0 over Michigan State (College Football Playoff)

That’s 11 losses by an average score of 43-11. Only one came within two touchdowns. It has, to say the least, been a lopsided time in Saban vs. the world in general but especially so when it comes to his former assistants.

Fisher did get the better of Saban back in 2007 (in a game that was vacated — on both sides) when he was the Florida State offensive coordinator under Bobby Bowden but that’s pretty much as close as they come. That he did so as an assistant keeps the win out of that 0-11 stat but does bring up a good point as there are several coaches who have crossed paths with Saban over the years — including several in the title game on Monday.

For example, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has actually beaten Saban three times. That happened when the former was at Purdue in 1997-99 and the latter was at Michigan State. That hasn’t been the only time the two have squared off against each other though as Chaney has never taken home a win over Saban in the SEC (0-6 calling plays at Tennessee/Arkansas).

Bulldogs defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was actually a graduate assistant under Saban with the Spartans back in the day too and was Alabama’s associate head coach when they won it all in 2015… before following Smart out the door to Athens. Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has had two stints at his alma mater in Tuscaloosa since Saban hired him from the high school ranks back in 2007, won a ring with Fisher in 2013 and spent two seasons at Georgia (coaching/recruiting several starters on the 2017 team) before taking over Smart’s role as DC.

Pruitt will eventually add to the dozen meetings in 2018 on the third Saturday in October as the new Tennessee head coach, which brings annual rivalry games with Alabama.

“I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players,” Saban added this week. “And I think in most of those games if the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beat us. So it’s not about the coaches. I mean, I didn’t catch any passes. I didn’t make any tackles (in the Sugar Bowl). I didn’t do any of that. I mean, the players did it all.”

The Alabama coach has a point about players and it’s worth noting in the case of both that undefeated record and the upcoming meeting with Smart.

Looking at those 11 teams over the years, a full six failed to crack the eight-win mark and one other one was a Group of Five team. Hardly any of the group has been able to go toe-to-toe with equal talent to the Tide and one of the few exceptions (FSU in this season’s opener) that was anywhere close to comparable lost a runaway game and barely finished with seven wins on the year. This has been a lopsided set of meeting to be sure, but the assistants have been the decided underdog in every one by a pretty big margin.

That could change in this year’s All-SEC title game. According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite rankings, which tally up the amount of recruiting stars a team has, Alabama ranks No. 1 in 2017 and Georgia checks in at No. 4. The Tide has 18 five-star players and 51 four-stars manning their roster while the Bulldogs counter with 11 five-stars and 43 four-stars. For what it’s worth, the Seminoles check in fifth on the list with fewer five- and four-stars than UGA.

In short, the Georgia team that takes the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be the most talented team a former Saban assistant has ever had in facing the most successful coach of all-time.

When Monday night turns into Tuesday morning and a new national champion has been crowned in Atlanta, Kirby Smart will walk across the field and shake his old boss’ hand. At that moment he’ll make history as either the first to slay Saban or simply become the latest name added to the disappointing dozen.

As five other coaches can attest to over the years, the much discussed ‘Process’ that Saban preaches never really said anything about that.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”