John Paul Van Wert/UGA
Scott Sinclair and the Georgia strength staff have drawn raves for Georgia's lack of injuries the past couple years.

Georgia’s strength in championship game: Lack of injuries

ATLANTA — When Kirby Smart left Alabama to become the coach at Georgia, it was widely thought he would bring Scott Cochran, the Crimson Tide’s longtime strength and conditioning coordinator, with him. The two were very close, their wives and children close.

But Cochran opted to stay at Alabama, and Smart turned elsewhere. And in one of those twists of fate that can sometimes decide a championship, Georgia ended up with Scott Sinclair.

“I think the Scott we got has been probably the biggest blessing and asset for our program,” Smart said. “He’s been kind of the unknown secret to the fact that we’ve been very fortunate.”

When Georgia and Alabama meet to decide the national championship on Monday, they look evenly matched in most every area. But there’s one place Georgia definitely has an advantage: injuries.

Alabama has had perhaps its least healthy season under Nick Saban, and it got worse in the Sugar Bowl, when two starters were lost for the Monday game: Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings and guard Lester Cotton. Star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick also injured his kidney and had to be taken to the hospital on Tuesday, but said he was healthy to play on Monday.

“I can’t even tell you the number of guys that we have out, but it’s a pretty significant number,” Saban said.

Georgia, on the other hand, will be without its third-string tight end, Charlie Woerner, who injured his leg in the Rose Bowl. Starting inside linebacker Natrez Patrick is also away from the team because of off-field issues. Otherwise, Georgia should have everyone available on its two-deep.

Some of it may be luck. Alabama has suffered some injuries this year that were just freaky and not seemingly tied to strength.

But Cochran, giving a rare interview on Saturday, fully endorsed the idea that injuries fall on his staff.

“For sure. You put it on the strength staff. I know I do. Any time there’s any kind of injury I try to figure out so it never happens again,” Cochran said. “So trying to figure out how you get bigger, faster, stronger, but fix those injuries too before they happen. You’ve got your rehab. We’re trying to do pre-hab also.”

That has made this season as tough as Cochran has ever faced, he said Saturday. And the challenge comes not just with dealing with the fallout of the injuries, but also maintaining the strong in-season regimen that Alabama has made a staple of its program.

Smart brought that idea to Georgia too, part of the culture change: Work hard not only in the offseason but during it, in order to increase endurance and help avoid injuries.

Cochran was asked about Georgia’s lack of injuries — not only this season, but last season — and asked if it was due to what Sinclair had done, or just luck?

“All of the above,” he said. “I think it definitely has to do with hats off to the staff, trainers, strength coaches, practice plan. All of that plays a role, I believe. Because you’re competition is going to practice so hard that guys are overachieving constantly that they’re pushing themselves. There’s an injury zone, so to speak.”

Alabama has been in that this season. Georgia has, with few exceptions, not been. It could be the underrated factor in Georgia’s favor on Monday.

“When you look at injuries and how well you’ve been able to survive injuries and not have injuries, we’ve been really, really, really fortunate that we haven’t had many injuries, and I think that’s a credit to your strength and conditioning staff,” Smart said. “And Scott Sinclair is by far and away the best in the country to me at that.”