Nick Saban poised to keep Alabama coaches step ahead of Kirby Smart and Georgia

Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban meet on the field after the SEC Championship game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nick Saban has been down “Rematch Road” before, back in 2011 when Alabama and LSU staged a rematch of their No. 1 vs. 2 game in what was then a BCS-governed title matchup.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was at Saban’s side, then the defensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide as they avenged a 9-6 loss to the Bayou Bengals with a 21-0 win in the BCS National Championship Game.

Now, it’s Smart vs. Saban in the first rematch of this kind in the College Football Playoff Era, with the Bulldogs playing Alabama at 8 p.m. next Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Smart was clearly fired up for the rematch, so much so he wouldn’t allow players to celebrate their Orange Bowl win with the traditional “Gatorade Bath” most often reserved for head coaches.

“I’m not interested in celebrating that,” Smart said. “We’ll look back on that win and that’ll be great, but we’re focused on the task ahead, and that’s the objective and that’s what our guys -- they worked their tail off for three to four weeks to get this opportunity.

“It was a one-game season, and now it’s another one-game season.”

Saban seems much more relaxed, taking what will be his fifth head-to-head meeting with Smart and Georgia in stride.

“It’s much like the NFL when you play in a division and you play the same teams twice a year, and maybe even again in the playoffs,” Saban told ESPN. “You try to change things up, you try to evaluate what happened in the last game, what they did to take advantage of what you do, and how you can maybe adjust so that you have a better chance to have success on offense, defense, special teams, whatever.”

The Alabama pass game overwhelmed the Georgia defense in the last meeting, with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young passing for an SEC Championship Game record 421 yards in the Tide’s 41-24 win.

Defensively, Alabama kept UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett off balance, forcing two interceptions including a Pick-6 and limiting Georgia to just 7 points on six second-half possessions.

Smart spoke immediately after the loss to Alabama about “fixing” the things Bennett had done wrong, but Saban will be sure his defense produces a moving target in that respect.

The Tide won’t necessarily play the Georgia offense the same way, and the chess match will be on from the opening snap.

“There will be a lot of that going on, on both sides of the ball, trying to get it figured out,” said Saban, whose Alabama teams trailed Smart at halftime in three of the first four matchups, each won by the Tide.

“But that’s why we prepare for the games, and that’s why we have practice, and that’s the most important thing, that the players can go into the game with confidence with whatever it is we choose to do.”

Saban and the Tide were a 6-point underdog the last time they played Georgia, much to the Alabama head coach’s delight as he spoke of how much he enjoyed playing that role.

The Bulldogs are again favored, this time only by 2 1/2 points, so Saban doesn’t necessarily believe that underdog edge is no longer valid.

“The team has an opportunity to win the national championship, so you expect to play a good team, we’re probably still going to be underdogs in the game,” Saban said. “Georgia played an outstanding game, the part that I saw against Michigan, they were dominant, so I can see why people would think that.

“It’s a challenge, I think our players have a tremendous respect after playing Georgia of how good of players they have and how good of a team and how well-coached they are and what it would actually take to have success against them,” he said.

“I think that’s got to be the way we start, and that’s got to be the mental edge we have to have, and if we don’t have that, we’re not going to play like we’re capable of playing or like we need to play to compete against a team like this.”

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