ATHENS – All indications are Nick Saban is going to stick around Alabama awhile. Based on his contract, that looks to be at least until 2024 at Alabama. We can joke about other deals he may have made to age as well as he has.
The fact is, the Crimson Tide’s coach looks great and says he feels great at 66. There is no evidence of him slowing down anytime soon.
We know Georgia’s Kirby Smart is going to be around a good, long while, too. He’s 42 and expected to receive a raise and contract extension in the coming weeks and months.
My point here – this could get really fun before it’s all over.
It’s not like Georgia needs any new rivals. Lord knows the program probably sports more intense rivalries than any other single team in America.
If you ever want to initiate a good debate around the water the cooler or at your local watering hole, ask a group of people whom they believe is the Bulldogs’ biggest rival. Chances are you’ll hear Florida or Georgia Tech out of most folks.
But as was well-illustrated this past season, Georgia’s rivalry with Auburn is pretty intense, as well. It is, after all, the oldest one in the Deep South. Only a pair of world wars have kept the schools from playing each other every year since 1892. And after the split in 2017 – with the Bulldogs winning the more important one in the SEC Championship Game – only two games separate them on that extensive ledger, with Georgia holding a 58-56-8 advantage.
Georgia and Tennessee used to hardly ever play. But they’ve met every year since conference expansion in 1992. And that has been a wild one of unusual streaks on both sides. Most Volunteers fans probably would tell you Bama is their main rival, but I’m not sure that’s truly the case with the way that series has gone of late. The Crimson Tide have won “The Third Saturday in October” contest 11 times in a row and 12 of the last 13.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Pruitt has been installed as Tennessee’s coach, and if you look at his coaching staff, it has a decidedly Georgia flavor to it. Thirty percent of his full-time assistants were with him when he was defensive coordinator at UGA: offensive line coach Will Friend, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer. Then I found out the other day that John Lilly – former tight ends coach at Georgia and, at different times, interim offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator with the Bulldogs – has joined Pruitt’s staff as an offensive analyst. Pruitt is definitely going to have some inside intel on UGA, and it would behoove him to change the direction of that series, which has seen the Bulldogs win six of the last eight.
And while it likely never will be the case for Georgia, don’t underestimate what the annual series with South Carolina means to the Gamecocks. I have a ton of family members who live in South Carolina and are alums of that school. While Clemson always will carry the torch as their greatest rival, the Georgia game is huge to them every year, especially when it’s in that SEC opener slot, as it is this season. They’re under the direction of Will Muschamp, a UGA alum and one of Smart’s close friends. We all know how competitive close friends can be.
Florida is Florida. Just ask DawgNation’s Brandon Adams – the consummate Georgia fan – where that rivalry ranks for him. That’s another rivalry that has swung wildly one way or another over the years. Smart is 1-1 in it, but the Gators just brought in Dan Mullen as coach. He knows the lay of the land down there and, contrary to the last few coaches in Gainesville, knows how to find a good quarterback and what to do with one once he gets there.
And, as the old Georgia saying about Tech goes, if you don’t know how important that game is to the fan base, lose it and you’ll find out. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, that doesn’t happen as often as it once did.
But if Georgia’s program continues to trend the way many believe it will, the Bulldogs could have a budding rivalry with Alabama in the works. We all know what happened in the National Championship Game in January, and they’re already prohibitive favorites to meet in the 2018 SEC Championship Game. Based on recent recruiting rankings, that’s a matchup that could up to be a regular one over the next several years.
There is the potential for Georgia-Alabama to go the way Florida-Alabama did in the 1990s. Did you realize they met nine times during that decade? The Gators won six of them.
Lane Kiffin, the former Alabama offensive coordinator and Tennessee head coach, talked about Georgia and Alabama in an interview with ESPN’s Off The Bench Thursday. He said he expects Saban to continue to coach Alabama for a long time, but he said Smart’s presence at Georgia could have an impact on the Crimson Tide being able to sustain the level of success it has had to date.
“That’s hard to do when you’ve got someone who’s been with you for 10 years and knows every single thing you do and every single reason why you’re successful,” said Kiffin, who’s now coach at Florida International, in the interview. “I went to Alabama for three years and it was already rolling. Kirby was there from Day 1 to see how [Saban] built it. That’s hard. The guy’s been there 10 years and now he goes inside the conference and you’ve got to compete against him.”
Of course, Smart’s just one of a number of former assistants to go against Saban. Pruitt and new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher join a long list that includes Muschamp and Jim McElwain in the conference. The difference is Smart has been able to win more of the head-to-head recruiting battles.
Georgia and Smart will have to keep that up to have any hope of actually turning Alabama into another rival. It’s anything but at the moment. After the Crimson Tide’s win in the championship game, they lead the series 39-25-4.
Kiffin credited Saban’s skillful recruiting for Alabama’s success.
“That’s the No. 1 reason he wins,” Kiffin said. “Every Saturday they play, they have better players than the other sideline, and it’s usually not even close. They had better players, by far, even in the national championship.”
According to recruiting rankings, Georgia ended up with the better players this year at least. If Smart can make that a trend, the Bulldogs might have a nice, new rivalry in the making.