Wiedmer: Bulldogs' coach smart enough to hold his own against Tide's Nick Saban

Wiedmer: Bulldogs' coach smart enough to hold his own against Tide's Nick Saban

December 1st, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, left, and Alabama coach Nick Saban talk Friday near the SEC football championship trophy during festivities in Atlanta ahead of Saturday's league title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

ATLANTA — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart's fourth-ranked Bulldogs may or may not beat No. 1 Alabama today in the Southeastern Conference title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Some oddsmakers have made the reigning national champion Crimson Tide as much as 13.5-point favorites over the Bulldogs, and there's a reason why those wise guys are professionals. By almost every measuring stick except the one that gauges heart and luck, Bama's better. And no one much argues that.

But in at least one category that understandably isn't expected to decide the SEC champ, Smart got the better of Bama counterpart Nick Saban on Friday during the league's annual luncheon sponsored by Regions Bank.

Paired with his former boss for a question-and-answer session in front of 1,100 or so fans and corporate sponsors inside a Hyatt Regency ballroom, Smart intently listened to Saban discuss the basketball pickup games he ran for members of the Tide coaching staff, which for nine years included Smart.

"I pick my team first, and (Kirby) was always on my team," Saban said. "Then whoever's left is on the other team."

Replied Smart with perfect comedic timing: "Yeah, he gets to do that in football, too."

The reference was obvious. Over the past 11 years, Saban has had the nation's top-ranked recruiting class seven times, according to 247Sports.com.

But Smart wasn't done. When luncheon emcee and SEC Network analyst Laura Rutledge asked Saban about Georgia-Bama becoming a budding rivalry, because they also met in last season's national title game inside the same Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saban highly praised Smart and his program, then said, "Hopefully, we can maintain some kind of standard down the road as well."

Fired back Smart with a chuckle: "Yeah, some sort of standard."

Of course, that standard has been all but impossible for anyone else in college football to touch pretty much from the time Saban took over the Alabama program in winter 2007. His teams have played in six national championship games since then and won five of them.

The one golden opportunity Smart had to zing his former boss, he probably was wise to pass on.

At one point during the luncheon interview, Saban volunteered that "sometimes your team needs to lose. I know we've had teams that losing a game helped us get better."

Inside, Smart almost assuredly was begging to shout, "Coach, I can't think of a better time for your undefeated team to take a loss than tomorrow in the SEC title game."

Instead, he held his tongue and said of the Bulldogs' lone defeat this season, at LSU in October, "LSU made us look at ourselves in the mirror."

Whatever they saw, they quickly changed it. Since that 36-16 loss to the Bayou Bengals, the Bulldogs have won five straight games, none by fewer than 17 points. Their average margin of victory during that run — which includes wins over bowl-bound Auburn, Florida, Kentucky and Georgia Tech — is 23.2 points.

Said Saban in comparing last year's national runner-up Bulldogs bunch to this one: "I think they've made improvements from a year ago."

So has Bama, of course. Especially on offense, where last year's national champs wound up averaging 37 points a game over 14 starts while this year's model heads into the SEC title game with a preposterous 49-point scoring average through 12 contests.

Asked about defending Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who led Bama's charge to victory from a 13-0 halftime hole in last year's national championship game, Smart said, "He creates a lot of parts to an equation, and it's really tough to figure out that equation."

It wasn't exactly an equation that Rutledge touched on during the luncheon that drew the biggest reaction from the crowd, but it certainly momentarily stumped Saban. Reading from an index card filled out by someone in the audience: Rutledge asked, "How do you ensure that your team stays motivated with the amount of sex it has had — uh, I mean, success it has had?"

The crowd laughed long and loud as Saban paused for several seconds, then replied, "I'm not sure I understand the question."

Both Saban and Smart understand what is on the line. The winner is all but guaranteed a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff. The loser, especially if it's Georgia, is probably headed to the Sugar Bowl.

And proving that Saban can turn on the charm when he wants to, when Rutledge asked Smart what coaches had the biggest influence on him, Saban instantly replied, "He didn't get any (help) from me, I promise you."

What Saban later said he got when he first hired Smart at LSU in 2004, then brought him along to the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 2006, was this: "Kirby is very bright. I think the record sort of speaks for itself in that whatever he was responsible for was very, very efficient and successful."

If Smart's as efficient and successful with his game plan for Alabama as he was with his words at Friday's luncheon, Georgia just might have the equation to upset the Tide on its way to a second straight trip to the CFP.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.