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National Title Game Preview: It’s Master vs. Apprentice on College Football’s Biggest Stage

Nick Saban’s Alabama program is a modern hegemonic power. Kirby Smart’s Georgia program has modeled itself after the Crimson Tide. Who wins a matchup between two programs steeped in familiarity?

Nick Saban and Kirby Smart Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best preview of Monday night’s national championship game between Alabama and Georgia is the comically overacted nine-plus-minute fight scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker that ends the Star Wars prequels. A master faces an apprentice who has matched his power, and the two use their immense skills and encyclopedic knowledge of each other’s tendencies to block 5,000 lightsaber swings apiece. Just swap out the overflowing lava pit for Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and decide whether Alabama or Georgia is supposed to represent the Dark Side. For many fans, both SEC teams may qualify.

If you watched the Rose Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Day, you beheld the glory of a game that pitted two excellent teams with contrasting styles. Oklahoma, the prototypical Big 12 program with a blistering offense and imaginary defense, torched Georgia by racking up 31 points in the first half. But Georgia, the prototypical SEC program with a dominant rushing game and lockdown defense, roared back after the break, using a slew of gigantic run plays and critical stops to win 54-48 in double overtime and advance to the national title game.

Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t watch the Rose Bowl live; he was busy at the time, given that the Crimson Tide were preparing to play in the Sugar Bowl. He finally got around to watching the game on YouTube Friday night, and saw something that reveals why the national championship game won’t be a matchup of excellent, stylistically different teams. “We basically run the same defense,” Fitzpatrick said at media day Saturday. “Even the hand signals and stuff like that are pretty similar.”

The Tide are coached by Nick Saban, the inventor of the Process, the person who transformed Bama into college football’s modern hegemonic force, and a man perpetually flustered by the fact that his team’s near-annual run to the national championship prevents him from focusing on recruiting until mid-January. Georgia is coached by Kirby Smart, who worked as an assistant under Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins and who later served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2015. Saban is 11-0 against his former assistants, but none of them have ever come armed with a team as good as these Bulldogs.

Smart has brought the Process to Georgia. His defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, was Bama’s assistant head coach in 2015. Two of Georgia’s three defensive position coaches, Glenn Schumann and Kevin Sherrer, have also worked under Saban. Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said there is “probably” more coaching overlap in this game than in any he’s ever coached. He acknowledged that the defense he studied all week looks a lot like the one his own team runs. “They wear a different color and they have different numbers,” Chaney said. “But they are schematically very similar.”

It is not unique for teams with similar defensive schemes to face off. Yet while the Bulldogs and Tide are far from the only schools in college football to employ a 3-4 base defense, the similarities and shared coaching history between the two go beyond that to a point of near absurdity. To illustrate the incestuous nature of these teams’ staffs, let’s focus on the career trajectory of one man: Alabama defensive coordinator and future Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Pruitt was an Alabama defensive back in the 1990s and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Tide. When Saban became Bama’s head coach in 2007, he hired Pruitt as director of player development and later promoted him to defensive backs coach. In 2014, Pruitt was hired as Georgia’s defensive coordinator under Mark Richt. When Smart took over for Richt following the 2015 campaign, he didn’t retain Pruitt, whom Saban instantly hired to replace Smart as Bama’s defensive coordinator. During the 2016 playoff, Pruitt technically shared a job with Smart, the man who semi-fired him. (“We didn’t share an office,” Pruitt said. “I didn’t really have an office. I just hung out.”) Now Pruitt has been hired by Tennessee, and his 2018 defensive coordinator will be Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer.

“At the end of the day, we’re all really good friends,” Pruitt said at media day. Friends, coworkers, enemies—what’s the difference?

The coaches of these teams have spent the past week searching their memories and souls for answers to questions that nobody could ever glean from film study. Having coached their opponents’ players and worked with their opponents’ coaches, they are keenly aware of how their competition thinks, what it likes to do, and what it’s capable of. In Atlanta, they’ll have to decide how much that knowledge is worth.

“Sometimes, you might overthink it,” Pruitt said. “You say, ‘OK, if we do this, Kirby’s going to know we’re going to do this. So they’re going to try to do it this way.’ And I’m sure he’s probably sitting there doing the same thing.”

The Star Wars prequels produced one of the silliest sequences in film history: the three seconds when Anakin and Obi-Wan swooshed their lightsabers in circles without hitting each other. I think this was meant to show how evenly matched the two were, and Alabama and Georgia will likely produce some similarly ridiculous sequences on Monday night as the two identical powers try to psych each other out. We’ll see who grabs the high ground, and who ends up in a heap, engulfed in flames, screaming, I hate you!

Key to the Game: Whose Quarterback Can Be Slightly Above Average?

Jalen Hurts throwing the ball
Jalen Hurts
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Both of these teams can run the damn ball. Georgia was eighth nationally in rushing yards per game (267.4) this season, while Alabama ranked 10th (255.8). Georgia was sixth in yards per carry (6.0), while Bama ranked eighth (5.8). Both teams ran for more yards than they passed for in their respective semifinal games, and who can blame them? Georgia starts a true freshman, Jake Fromm, at quarterback; Alabama starts sophomore Jalen Hurts, whose poor outing in last year’s national title game hurt the Tide.

The Rose Bowl was a running riot. The Bulldogs’ two superstar running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, carried 25 times for a combined 326 yards. That’s an average of more than 13 yards per carry. Michel broke free for touchdowns of 75, 38, and 27 yards; Chubb had a game-changing 50-yard score in the third quarter.

But Oklahoma’s run defense was, well, extremely bad. The Sooners’ defense entered the playoff as the weakest unit in the four-team field, and boy, did it live down to that billing. The Rose Bowl was basically four hours of this GIF, but with a floppy English bulldog taking the place of that husky mix.

Alabama will offer slightly more resistance than that toddler. The Tide are no. 1 in most FBS categories related to rushing defense, including yards per carry allowed (2.7) and yards per game allowed (91.8). Georgia’s run defense is good, but not on Alabama’s level. It’s 30th in yards per carry allowed (3.7) and 20th in yards per game allowed (121.9). Both groups will prioritize stopping the run Monday, forcing a pair of sometimes-shaky quarterbacks to rise to the occasion.

In Bama’s 24-6 victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Hurts turned in a pedestrian passing effort: 16-of-24 for 120 yards with two touchdowns. That was fine, and would likely be fine again against Georgia. Hurts has a history of putting up truly ugly performances against good defenses. He’s still 25-2 as a starter. The defense and running game should carry the Tide.

But Georgia, even with its spectacular collection of running backs, is facing a defense so stout it’ll have to count on Fromm. The 6-foot-2 225-pounder has been dependable all season, but the Dawgs haven’t asked much of him. He’s never thrown 30 passes in a game; he’s finished six games with fewer than 150 yards passing and just one with more than 250. He’s been a model of consistency since supplanting starter Jacob Eason in September, but the Dawgs have also given him an understandably basic workload.

Alabama will present the best pass defense Fromm has faced. The Tide lead the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (5.3) and passing touchdowns allowed (7), and they’re tied for 14th with 17 interceptions. If Alabama can get a reasonable stat line out of Hurts, that should be enough to win against a great-but-not-elite run defense. If Georgia can get a reasonable stat line out of Fromm, the 19-year-old will have avoided self-destructing against the Monstars of college football. I don’t trust either quarterback, which is exactly why I think one of their performances will determine which team gets to say it is the best in college football. (Besides UCF.)

The Pick

My first rule is never to pick against Alabama. It works most of the time.

But there are reasons to doubt the Tide here. They’re banged up, down two starting linebackers and with Fitzpatrick dealing with a kidney injury; “We’ve got an injury list that’s really, really long,” Saban said at media day. Their offense looked mediocre against Clemson; now they play a team that hung half a hundred in the Rose Bowl.

This game should be extremely ugly. That should only be exaggerated by the fact that both defensive staffs know everything there is to know about their opponent, including the thought processes of the coaches calling the plays. There will be muck.

Neither team has a significant strategic advantage. Georgia’s defense is slightly worse than Alabama’s, and Alabama’s offense is slightly worse than Georgia’s. In what should be a close game, I’m going to trust my first rule.

Alabama 17, Georgia 13