WATCH Mel Tucker: How championship teams get over the hump
ATHENS — Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker knows and likes a good challenge, and he has measured up to them at several stops, including Georgia.
Tucker, in addition to his NFL defensive coordinator stints with Cleveland, Chicago and Jacksonville, has been a part of collegiate national championship staffs at Alabama and Ohio State — as well as the DC for the 2017 runner-up Bulldogs.
More recently, Tucker took over a rebuilding Michigan State program five years removed from its most recent Top 10 finish. In Year One, Tucker’s Spartans toppled a heavily favored Michigan team and beat a Top 10-ranked Northwestern club on the road.
If anyone knows what it takes to get over the hump and win a national championship, it’s Tucker, and he shared his wisdom on Monday night’s Ingles on the Beat show.
Two keys to title runs that Tucker identified were recruiting– which everyone knows Georgia has solved — and getting buy-in from players to operate in a team-first concept.
“In general with championship teams I’ve been a part of, recruiting obviously is the key, because in order to win a championship now, you have to get in and you have to win two games,” Tucker said, referring to how the College Football Playoff format introduced in 2015 has played into the hands of the heavyweight programs.
“When we won it at Ohio State, we had to win one game we beat Miami (2003 BCS title game) and that was it.”
Mel Tucker was the Bulldogs defensive coordinator from 2016-2018 before leaving for the Colorado head coaching job.
Georgia had the best team in the SEC in 2017 during the regular season, capturing the SEC Championship.
But Alabama snuck into the CFP as an at-large pick, even after losing 26-14 in its final game of the regular season to the same Auburn team UGA would beat a week later in the SEC title game in Atlanta.
The Tide beat a weaker Clemson team in its first-round playoff game in the Sugar Bowl, while the Bulldogs flew across the country to win a Rose Bowl overtime thriller against Oklahoma.
Alabama beat Georgia in the CFP title game one week later in overtime.
Still, Tucker’s formula for a championship team holds weight. He has seen it from both sides, having worked alongside Smart on Nick Saban’s 2015 national title team.
“Throughout the season you’re going to have to win close games,” Tucker said. “Sometimes you will win ugly, but the bottom line is you have to get in the left-hand column and move on to the next one and continue to get better, so when you get into November, you’re playing your best football.”
That was the case for Georgia in 2018, when it appeared the Bulldogs were on the verge of another College Football Playoff run.
But Alabama got in the way again, topping the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game 35-28 after senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker left the game with injury, and UGA did not have a replacement capable of containing Jalen Hurts’ key scrambles.
That’s where Tucker’s pillar of team concept comes into play, particularly on defense where every player has to play out their role and assignment to perfection or risk allowing a TD from anywhere on the field.
“Those championship teams, one common value that they’ve had, they were teams of very unselfish players that bought into something that was bigger than themselves, and bought into that concept that when the team wins, I win, and together we can accomplish more,” Tucker said. “That’s culture and that takes a lot of work, but it’s possible.”
And once a team gets it rolling, as Georgia appears to have gained momentum with four straight wins exiting the 2020 season, great things can happen.
“If you can just get yourself in a position to win, and believe you can win, expect to win, and not just hope tin win, you’ve got a great chance,” Tucker said. “It is a tall task when you are competing at the highest level.
“Where we are success is measured in inches, and the ultimate goal and expectation is to win a national title every year, that’s a tall task. But that’s what we’re in it for, and we don’t back down from those expectations.”