Championship or bust? It's what Alabama players sign up for

Staff drawing by Mark Wiedmer / No. 1 Alabama (13-1) and No. 3 Georgia (13-1) will meet at 8 p.m Monday in Indianapolis in the College Football Playoff's national championship game. ESPN will televise the matchup, with Alabama seeking its seventh national title in coach Nick Saban's 15 seasons leading the program and Georgia trying to end a 41-year championship drought.

There are 130 programs in college football's Bowl Subdivision.

Imagine finishing ahead of 128 of them and considering it a disappointment.

Welcome to Alabama's world in the Nick Saban era, where it has been national championship or bust ever since the Crimson Tide won three titles in a four-year stretch from 2009-12. Alabama will be seeking a third national crown in a five-year period Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the top-seeded Crimson Tide (13-1) will collide with third-seeded Georgia (13-1) in a rematch of last month's Southeastern Conference championship game that Alabama won 41-24.

"That's what you commit to when you're coming out of high school," Alabama junior safety Jordan Battle said Saturday on a Zoom call. "You know the standard is what it is and that it's a national championship-minded standard. You know you have to do whatever it takes just to get to this stage, and we know it's going to be hard.

"We know we're going to have to overcome some adversity, but that's what this team has done this year."

While Georgia is chasing its first national championship since 1980, Alabama is seeking a seventh national title in Saban's 15 seasons, which would extend the most successful run in college football history. Saban already has seven titles given his 2003 crown with LSU, and his six with the Tide match the total the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant accumulated during his 25-year regime in Tuscaloosa.

When Alabama has come up short in a championship bid, Saban has implemented the goal of "not wasting a failure" for the following season, and he was asked Sunday on a Zoom call what defines a successful year.

"I've always philosophically thought that college football was all about helping players be more successful," Saban said. "We all get judged as coaches on how many games we win and lose, but I think you try to get everybody on your team to have the right competitive character, attitude, discipline - whatever you want to talk about - that will give you the best chance to maximize the team's chances to be successful.

"If the team reaches its full potential, then I think that's probably a successful year, and I don't know how that equates into wins and losses."

photo Alabama photo by Rodger Champion / Alabama junior safety Jordan Battle celebrates during last month's 41-24 win over Georgia in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide will face the Bulldogs for the national title Monday night in Indianapolis.

Georgia counterpart Kirby Smart was a Saban assistant at LSU (2004), with the NFL's Miami Dolphins (2006) and at Alabama (2007-15), serving as defensive coordinator on four national championship Tide teams. Smart admitted Sunday that he has taken more from Saban in terms of coaching and overseeing an organization than any other coach throughout his career, and Smart also believes he has evolved since the first Alabama-Georgia title encounter.

In the championship game of the 2017 season, Alabama rallied from a pair of 13-point deficits to stun Smart's Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"I've got a staff of great coaches, and I've got an organization that's full of good leaders," Smart said. "I trust in those people maybe more now than in 2017, when I felt like I needed to micromanage and be over the top of everything. Now I'm probably a little more comfortable delegating things out and trusting people to do their jobs and maybe imparting a little bit of their personality into their parts of the organization.

"A lot of the people in the organization aspire to go and do things, and I want them to be successful because they stopped at Georgia. That's probably the biggest difference, but the core beliefs and the way we do things haven't changed much."

Monday will mark the fifth meeting between Saban's Tide and Smart's Bulldogs. Of the 240 regulation minutes of the previous four meetings - the national title contest of the 2017 season, the 2018 SEC title game, the 2020 regular-season meeting in Tuscaloosa and last month's SEC title game - Georgia has led or been tied 71% of the time but is a well-documented 0-4 in those games.

The Bulldogs led last month's matchup 10-0 early in the second quarter before the Tide erupted for a 38-7 run and won going away.

"No game is going to be the same," Alabama sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson said. "What happened last game is what happened last game. We have to worry about what happens this game."

photo Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sixth-year football coach Kirby Smart fell to 0-4 against Alabama at last month's SEC title game in Atlanta but will look to rebound Monday night against the Crimson Tide in Indianapolis.

NIL, portal concerns

This marks the first national championship game of college football's name, image and likeness era.

While both Saban and Smart view players having the opportunity to earn money as a positive, they are not lacking in apprehension.

"What is a little concerning is how is this used to get players to decide where they go to school, because I don't think that was the intention," Saban said. "I don't think that would be the NCAA's intention. I think we probably need some kind of national legislation to sort of control that to some degree, because I think there will be an imbalance relative to who can dominate college football if that's not regulated in some form or fashion."

Saban and Smart believe the gap between the haves and have-nots will only grow larger, with Smart adding that today's highly active transfer portal is an issue as well.

"The free agency market out there that's going on is being done while we're trying to prepare for a national championship game," Smart said.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.