There were moments this past November when Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was not the most popular member of Nick Saban's coaching staff.
During a mundane 20-14 home win over a mediocre LSU, the Crimson Tide were held to 6 rushing yards, and an Iron Bowl trip to a mediocre Auburn three weeks later yielded a 10-0 deficit through three quarters. O'Brien had countless detractors at that point, but the 24-22 comeback in four overtimes against the state rival followed by a sparkling performance in last month's Southeastern Conference championship game rapidly erased the negativity.
Alabama racked up 536 yards on Georgia's vaunted defense during the surprise 41-24 whipping inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, cementing a Heisman Trophy for sophomore quarterback Bryce Young and continuing what has been a fairly wild ride in O'Brien's first season in Tuscaloosa that followed seven mostly successful years as head coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.
"It's been a great experience," O'Brien said this week on a Zoom call. "It's been awesome. We have a lot of great kids to coach. They're hard working, they love football and they're great teammates. The coaching staff led by Coach Saban is one of the best coaching staffs I've ever been a part of, and that says a lot, because I've been part of a lot of coaching staffs.
"It's been a lot of fun to coach a guy like Bryce and the rest of the guys on offense. I can't say enough about this program and how grateful I am to have this opportunity to be here and to try to do my part to help this team win."
Heading into Monday night's national championship rematch between the top-seeded Crimson Tide (13-1) and third-seeded Georgia (13-1) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, much is being written about Saban's success against former assistant Kirby Smart and contrasting Young, a former five-star signee, with Georgia counterpart Stetson Bennett, who arrived in Athens as a walk-on.
Yet it's hard to find a more important component to Monday's matchup than O'Brien, unless it's Jameson Williams, with those two having to work together in trying to combat the loss of Williams' fellow junior receiver John Metchie. The biggest blow to Alabama's 29th SEC crown was losing Metchie late in the first half to a torn ACL after he already had amassed six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
Williams torched the Bulldogs for 184 yards and two scores on seven receptions, and it's no secret the Biletnikoff Award finalist is a focal point for the out-for-revenge Bulldogs.
"We're always finding ways to get all of our guys the ball," O'Brien said. "Our guys are really smart. You can move them around. You can do a lot of different things with them, but schematically I'll probably try to stay above the fray here in this Zoom session.
"All our guys are really capable, and they're excited about the opportunity Monday night."
Metchie's injury occurred during Alabama's final drive of the half, which culminated with an 11-yard run by Young that put Alabama up 24-17. Five plays into the second half, Young and Williams connected for a 55-yard touchdown for a 31-17 lead, and a 42-yard interception return by Jordan Battle early in the fourth quarter extended the advantage to 38-17.
Given that the dynamic of Alabama's offense changed up multiple scores, it's hard to gauge how the Bulldogs defended the Metchie-less Tide in the second half or how they plan to Monday night.
"I guess they tried to play a little over the top," Williams said. "That's all we've seen. We've seen some extra defenses, but that was pretty much it. I don't think it affects us in many ways, and I feel we will have plans to get around it."
In last Friday's 27-6 dumping of Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl, fifth-year senior running back Brian Robinson Jr. shouldered much of Alabama's offensive load with 26 carries for 204 yards. Williams had a team-high seven catches for 62 yards, while freshman Ja'Corey Brooks added four receptions for 66 yards and the back-breaking touchdown just before halftime that made it 17-3.
Redshirt junior Slade Bolden and tight ends Jahleel Billingsley and Cameron Latu had catches against the Bearcats and expect to be aerial options Monday as well.
"Ja'Corey stepped up before Metchie went out," Williams said. "You saw that in the Auburn game when I couldn't play. He stepped up and made a big play, a real big play, and in the SEC championship after Metchie went out, he played real good ball there, too. I would say Ja'Corey is doing excellent right now."
Said O'Brien: "Ja'Corey has really come up big for us. He's made some big catches over the last few games, and that's been important for our team."
Alabama finished the Cotton Bowl without guard Emil Ekiyor and center Chris Owens, so that uncertainty factors into O'Brien's task as well.
O'Brien has worked with plenty of outstanding receivers throughout the past 15 seasons, beginning with Randy Moss and Wes Welker as a New England Patriots assistant, Allen Robinson during his two years as Penn State's head coach in 2011-12, and DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson during his time with the Texans.
Williams is showing the potential for NFL stardom as well, with the 6-foot-2, 189-pounder from St. Louis having compiled 75 receptions for 1,507 yards (20.1 per catch) and 15 touchdowns this season since transferring from Ohio State.
"I've coached a ton of great receivers, and Jameson has excellent speed, is an excellent route runner and is a very competitive guy," O'Brien said. "He's a very instinctive player. He's a very smart player, and he's a player who goes out and practices every day like it's a game.
"The great ones have those traits. Everybody is built differently. Everybody has different skill sets and different speed and things like that, but the best ones have those traits, and Jameson is in that category."
O'Brien was asked this week about the Bulldogs hurrying Young eight times but never sacking him in Atlanta, and he responded: "That's an interesting stat. When I watched the film, I saw a lot more times than that. They've got a great front."
Monday night could represent the 15th and final game O'Brien serves as Alabama's offensive coordinator should he decide to return to the NFL ranks, though that has not been a topic for this week. What has dominated his time is this rematch, and nobody has experienced more rematches in recent years than O'Brien given how pro teams play divisional foes twice each season.
"It's tough, because you do have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak," O'Brien said. "You've got to start from scratch, but you have to look at the last game. You've got to go back and review the whole season — your season and their season — which makes for a long week.
"They just have a great defense, almost like a generational defense. They have a lot of great players and coaches on that side of the ball, so it's going to be a challenge for us."