TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — Nick Saban put on his go-to-press-conference face and did his duty Monday in advance of The Game That Will Frack Athens Wide Open.
Or, as it’s known in these parts: A Saturday.
Big games have become fairly routine for the Alabama Crimson Tide. And when the hyperventilation begins, Saban is well-practiced at playing the role of paper bag.
There is one thing he said Monday about Georgia that bears some notice. It could be just about the greatest compliment he’ll ever pay an upcoming opponent.
“They look a lot like some of our teams of the past,” Saban said Monday. “Very physical. Don’t make a lot of mistakes. Don’t beat themselves much. And they play with a lot of toughness.
“They are very aggressive on both sides of the ball,” he continued. “That’s the kind of team we’ve always sort of aspired to have here, and it certainly looks like that’s the kind of team they have developed there.”
So, in other words, Georgia’s attempts at lifting from the Alabama model may be having some effect.
In the aftermath of Alabama stomping on their heart in the 2008 “blackout” game and the 2012 SEC Championship — and of watching the Crimson Tide win three of last six national championships — the Bulldogs began injecting a little of the Crimson Tide into their own bloodstream.
The most obvious addition was former Alabama defensive back/aide/DB coach Jeremy Pruitt to coordinate the defense in Athens.
Saban gave his former assistant a long-distance pat on the back, Monday, before it all gets up close and personal. “I think it goes without saying that the results he has gotten everywhere he’s been (add in Florida State here) are very good. It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “The guy’s a really good coach, the players respond well to him and he’s a good teacher.”
The results Pruitt is chasing at Georgia include imparting a tougher, faster, more physical, more athletic edge to the Bulldogs defense. You know, make it more like the archetype Alabama D.
Other additions to the Georgia staff with Alabama ties — outside linebackers coach Kevin Sheerer, offensive line coach Rob Sale, strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke, even several player development and quality control staffers — wouldn’t be there if the trade secrets they learned in Tuscaloosa couldn’t survive the move 275 miles to the east.
Toward that goal, it is instructive to hear the man who made the mold say he sees a reflection of it now at Georgia.
He also, not shockingly, still likes his own team, even after its rather shocking loss to Ole Miss two weeks ago.
“I have a lot of faith in this team,” Saban said. “We’re certainly a developing team right now. We got to play with more passion and aggressiveness on a consistent basis, be confident in what we’re doing and focus on what we need to do well down-in and down-out.
“Got to be aggressive, that’s the most important thing for our team to do right now.”
Saban — for the moment — has settled on one quarterback, senior Jake Coker over Cooper Bateman. Coker finally got the full first-string treatment last week.
Against Louisiana-Monroe, he was 17 of 31, 158 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
His coach was in an uplifting mood Monday.
“I think Jake has improved and played well. We had six drops in the last game which didn’t help the so-called statistics that a lot of people look at,” Saban said.
“What I look at: Did you do what you were supposed to do on a play; did you throw the ball where you were supposed to; did you manage the team? I think in all those areas, he has gotten better and better and better. I think he has gotten more confident. I think he is playing now with a little more passion about what he’s doing rather than thinking about what he’s doing.”
Saban, also, was very kind to Georgia’s first-year starting QB, Greyson Lambert, as is to be expected in the pregame build-up. Said he has added balance to an offense framed around the running game.
“You play a team that just runs the ball you can do some things; play a team that just passes the ball you can do some things. But when they can do both it makes it a little more difficult. Not much of a cheat sheet going in, you just have to play good, sound, solid football. You got to cover people; you got to play your gaps up front, especially tackle well with their great backs, and be able to cover people when they pass,” Saban said.
Sounds a little like he is getting ready to play Alabama.