“The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.” —Don DeLillo, Underworld
“There’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting.” —Kirby Smart
Nick Saban created modern college football and has spent every day since making sure no one catches up to him. This has been a wildly successful endeavor—he has won six national titles at Alabama and no one has consistently come close to building the type of machine the Crimson Tide have. He built this version of the sport and controls it. No one recruits as well. No one stacks talent as well. Even if they do, they can’t develop it as well. No one else deploys resources as well to solve any problem that college football throws at them. No one is Alabama because Alabama reinvents itself and the sport on a near-constant basis.
That brings us to Georgia, a team made in the image of Kirby Smart, a former Saban assistant who has spent the past five years building a program on a parallel track that looked to climb the same mountain. There is no replacing Alabama—not as long as Saban is there—but there is a way to nudge your way into the frame. After years of frustration, the Bulldogs finally did it.
Georgia beat Alabama 33-18 Monday to win its first national championship in 41 years. It was a rematch of the SEC title game because it had to be. Both teams so thoroughly destroyed their semifinal opponents that there was no other option. Those games confirmed what recruiting rankings, stats, the eye test, and common sense already told us: that these were the two best teams in the country and are probably the two best programs in the country.
The defining moment came when Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, a freshman from Arizona, caught an underthrown pass from Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and ran it back 79 yards to put the Bulldogs up two scores with 54 seconds left. You can go to a lot of games but you rarely get a moment like this. The type of moment that will not just be remembered—there are all sorts of memorable moments in title games—but a moment whose image will be painted on the side of random sports bars. Fans will look up the play on YouTube when there’s nothing to do after they’ve had two beers. People will get tattoos of the play and it won’t be considered that weird. That sort of play. It will be the type of play that will flicker into people’s heads for the rest of their lives and they will feel bliss. There may be bigger plays—Georgia is the type of program built for bigger plays—but there will never be one that ushered in a new era like Ringo’s pick-six. The thing about changing everything is you only get to do it once.
The press box in Indianapolis is high and at a strange angle to the point that you can sort of see everything at once. And everything was happening at once. You could see that Ringo had a decent shot at the end zone with just a few moves, but you could also see a bench full of Georgia players react with as much joy as I’ve ever seen from a group of sober adults. You could see Alabama fans file to the exits because they didn’t want to be around while Georgia fans exorcised their demons. You could see the Georgia fans literally falling all over each other in glee and triumph. Parents hugged kids. Students hugged other students. You’re looking over all of it and you can see that everyone below you is letting go of whatever they were holding in. The near misses in the Mark Richt era. Watching Florida take over the division under Urban Meyer, and before him, Steve Spurrier. The brutal overtime loss against Alabama in this same game four years ago. Whatever it was—whatever any Georgia fan imagined in their mind’s eye when they thought of football misery—had ended.
Smart knew Ringo would catch the interception as soon as he saw the ball in the air. He’d seen too many defensive back drills not to know. “The sad thing was, I was screaming to get down,” Smart said. “I saw the receiver coming from behind him and, pessimistic thought, I was worried about the guy stripping the ball from behind.” The strip never came. The pessimistic thoughts never materialized. From now on, a lot of Georgia fans’ pessimistic thoughts won’t materialize. It is simplistic and ridiculous to say that there was any torch passing—Smart lost to Saban last month. What Georgia’s win signaled is that these two programs will trade blows for years to come.
So. About the game. Saban declared last season that good defense no longer beats good offense. This was a stunning departure for a defensive coach who believed that no problem on earth couldn’t be solved with a nice little pass rush and fundamental defensive back play. This was the football equivalent of Elon Musk telling people to abandon electric cars. This is not supposed to happen. But even more rare than Saban denouncing defense was Saban being wrong. Georgia’s defense controlled this game, limiting Young to one touchdown on 57 passing attempts. He was sacked four times and the Tide settled for field goals all night. The last play of the game came when Nolan Smith sacked Young as time expired. It was a strange sort of buildup—Georgia fans were counting down the “3 … 2 … 1” but as Young dropped back it looked like the play would be extended beyond the countdown, and the euphoria would have to be delayed just a few seconds. Instead, Smith burst through and found the quarterback, who immediately went to the turf, to end the game directly in line with the countdown. That is bending a game to your will.
After the game, Smart said he was told the crowd was going to be 60-40 Georgia fans, but he said he thought it might have been 70-30. It felt like a hell of a lot more at the end of the game. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett made clear that the defense won the game. He spoke of “stumbling over our own feet the entire first half” and coming out slow. Bennett was right, but that shouldn’t minimize the contributions made by the offense. Bennett’s 40-yard throw to Adonai Mitchell put Georgia up 19-18 with 8:09 left. A third-down pass to Brock Bowers was the perfect play call that led to a 15-yard touchdown to put Georgia up eight. Georgia, which has 19 five-star players, was led by a former two-star quarterback. It didn’t matter—he did just enough to let the superstars lead the way. The game was strange for long stretches; it seemed to turn in Alabama’s favor after Bennett’s fumble (which appeared to be a forward pass) was sort of incidentally scooped up by the Tide’s Brian Branch almost as an afterthought. This game was two college football heavyweights going at it. It was not exactly beautiful—which happens when two defensive masterminds rule college football for a season—but it was a reflection of what these two programs have built. Almost exact replicas of each other. When Georgia beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl, Smart pointed out that Alabama got a five- or six-hour head start on game-planning because it played earlier in the day. These programs are that close that I can’t even tell whether it was said tongue-in-cheek.
Georgia and Alabama have been circling each other in some great game: In the past 11 recruiting cycles, Alabama had the top-ranked class nine times. But of the four classes that comprise the bulk of both teams’ current rosters, Georgia had the no. 1 class twice. Unsurprisingly, this concentration of talent has produced the two most stacked rosters in college football history, according to 247Sports’ talent composite. That is what we witnessed Monday. Folks griped about the rematch between the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide, but there was never any other ending. This was the stars in their courses.
Saban returned to college football in 2007 after a grim stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Once he had comfortably returned to his preferred sport, he said he’d left the pros because he realized he could not control his own destiny. At Alabama, he built a system to control every single part of his destiny. He is the destiny. His arrival in Tuscaloosa was the beginning—not just of the current Alabama dynasty but of a shift in college football that will probably be felt forever. Lars Anderson tells a story in his new book, Dabo’s World, about Clemson coach Dabo Swinney that cuts to the heart of what modern college football has become. Swinney asked for more resources as the Tigers started their rise: facilities upgrades and more support staff, among many other things. When asked why he needed it, Swinney responded, “Well, Alabama does it.” This has become more or less the defining characteristic of top college football teams. Alabama set the standard and has spent more than a decade trying to swat away the teams who meet that standard.
There’s a massive gulf between making the College Football Playoff and winning it, and you can measure the distance in talent. Around 60 percent of five-star recruits committed to the same five schools—Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State—over a five-year period ending in 2021, and that number increased later in that time span, according to the Sporting News. Those schools have combined to make 16 playoff appearances and win every national championship since the 2016 season. Texas A&M, which has the no. 1 class in 2022, has made strides to join that group.
There are two ways to win a national title: recruit at a top-five level or recruit at a level just below that but make up the difference with a historically good quarterback (Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, and Trevor Lawrence are the only quarterbacks since 2011 to win a national championship without a top-five recruiting class on the roster). Recruiting is the lifeblood of the sport. If you listen to some people in the game, it is the only thing in the sport. Last year, Ari Wasserman, a recruiting analyst at The Athletic, found that more than half of the first-round picks in the 2021 NFL draft were four- or five-star recruits, even though four- and five-star players make up an infinitesimally small number of college football players. Great high-schoolers more often than not become great college players who become great pros. There are exceptions, but the top programs are not in the exception business.
“Kirby Smart got in there and said, ‘This is exactly what I need to win,’ and Georgia gave it to him,” Bud Elliott, a recruiting expert for 247Sports, told me. This includes a helicopter, which Smart uses to navigate recruiting visits. (“Time spent going slow doesn’t work,” he said, when first asked about the helicopter, which costs tens of thousands of dollars to operate.) The state of Georgia changed a public records law early in Smart’s tenure after he lobbied against it. Everyone was on board.
“Recruiting departments didn’t even exist until Nick Saban got to Alabama,” said 247Sports national recruiting analyst Cooper Petagna, who until last year was director of recruiting at Oregon and has worked in the personnel departments of Washington and Michigan. “Other teams saw that—everyone in the country did—that Alabama is leading the way. But they didn’t truly understand or comprehend what was happening or the infrastructure he was building. They knew the leader in the industry was doing it, so we better catch up. That didn’t always end up with good decision-making.”
Part of the reason Alabama and Georgia have put so much distance between themselves and the competition is because of dereliction of duty by other bluebloods. USC, Texas, Florida, Florida State, and Miami should win by default—each of them reside in one of the best recruiting grounds in the sport. That they don’t shows that the barrier for entry to the sport’s elite is higher than it has ever been.
Each of these schools has suffered different afflictions, so it’s impossible to paint with a broad brush except to say that they have massive recruiting and resource advantages that they haven’t used well to win games. This sort of incompetence requires catastrophic failure at all levels, from the administration down to the coaching staff. There’s some evidence this is changing with new hires at USC (Lincoln Riley), Miami (Mario Cristobal), and Florida (Billy Napier), but plenty of great hires have run into the same hurdles trying to return to the top shelf of the sport. When this happens, we say a program is “back,” but it rarely, if ever, happens these days. Texas is not back. Miami has not been back. Florida State has a long way to go until it can even jokingly proclaim to be back.
“In theory it should be easier, but in practice it’s harder,” said Elliott of moving up to the top of college football. Part of this is because of the vicious cycle that teams get trapped in. Elliott says his numbers indicate that the attrition rate of a first recruiting class signed by a new coach is “astronomically high.” This is in part because the early signing period, enacted in 2017, leaves limited time for a new coach to evaluate prospects who are already signed and to recruit new players. In short, these coaches don’t have time to get to know their recruits. There’s also the transfer portal, implemented in 2018, which allows players to change schools without losing a year of eligibility (this is a good thing for players). Combine these factors and it’s easy to see how a new coach might end up with a small percentage of the class he started with. If and when he gets to Year 3, which is often considered make-or-break for a new coach, he’s left with a group of juniors who are either at other schools or weren’t that great to begin with. For a struggling program, this means death. Frequent coaching turnover makes any continuity impossible—rosters rinse and repeat and programs remain mired in mediocrity.
It’s a hard cycle to break. Petagna paints a picture of modern football that looks like a land grab: Georgia and Alabama, he said, have been taking advantage of Florida’s, Florida State’s, and Miami’s inability to lock down their in-state talent. LSU’s recruiting faltered after it made a coaching change and Texas A&M capitalized by picking up some recruits who would probably have been Tigers in another year. Petagna thinks teams’ ability to time these raids perfectly—the ability to rush into a rival’s recruiting area and take advantage as soon as there’s a hint that a team isn’t recruiting their home area efficiently—is an underrated part of modern recruiting. It’s also something Alabama and Georgia do very well.
What’s developed is fairly obvious to see: a handful of schools that conceivably could compete are stuck in the mud, stopping and starting with every new coaching hire, while the select few run up the score. In many instances, those down programs are in recruiting hotbeds, which means the haves can run in to raid their talent, increasing the disparity even more. You should not be surprised when Georgia and Alabama play in the national title game—you should be surprised when they don’t. That’s what we had Monday.
“Money is great, resources are great, but tools without a function or a vision or a plan are obsolete,” Petagna said. “You can say all you want about Georgia or Alabama being self-sustaining in recruiting areas, but they weren’t like that before Kirby Smart and Nick Saban. These guys had everything to do with it.”
Petagna cites the use of data for recruiting evaluation as an example. He said that in the past few years teams started to get more data than ever on prospects. Sometimes it comes from third parties that would run combine-style camps for high-schoolers and share athletic measurements. Programs also obtain it when they run their own camps. Georgia reportedly puts GPS trackers on visiting campers. Petagna thinks most schools are getting this data to “check a box” and don’t really care all that much. Not the top ones. “You’ve taken what has been a very generalized process and added a lot more details to it, and the teams operating at a high clip have found a way to use it.”
That infrastructure includes a massive staff that can evaluate and recruit any player. That means assets such as player evaluation specialists, digital media staffers who impress recruits on social media, and resources that help players maximize marketing opportunities, which is important now that players are able to sign endorsement deals in the NIL era. Saban’s staff has employed famously successful college “general managers” like Ed Marynowitz, who helped put together Alabama’s vaunted recruiting classes while other schools were grappling with the concept of such a role.
The only school that has kept pace with Alabama, Petagna said, in resources, vision, recruiting, and staff investment is Georgia. In a study, it was the only school to spend more money on recruiting. According to NCAA financial documents, in 2019 it became the first team to surpass $3 million in recruiting spending. This helps. College football, Petagna says, is filled with minutiae, and if you don’t have a big enough staff, you’ll get buried under it. A director of player personnel at a lower-tier SEC school might have to deal with marketing or producing graphics to send to recruits or organizing hotel logistics for visiting recruits and their families. In Tuscaloosa, there are many more specialized staffers to accomplish the same tasks. Alabama usually employs nearly a dozen “analysts” who don’t count against the NCAA’s limit on staff sizes. Many of them are accomplished coaches who want to spend some time around Saban’s program. Steve Sarkisian, who currently coaches the University of Texas, spent one season as a Crimson Tide offensive analyst in 2016.
“The game is changing and it’s changing rapidly, and I think the coaches who have shown an ability to adapt and evolve are the ones that are benefiting from that,” Petagna said. “I think there’s an awareness now that if you have playoff aspirations, you have to demand a coach who is going to reevaluate the changing landscape every year.” No one has done this like these two coaches.
So what happens next? Well, the same thing that happens every year: Alabama will be back. Yahoo Sports posted its “way too early” top 25 for 2022 just after the game and the Crimson Tide were no. 1, no surprise given they’re returning the Heisman winner at quarterback and the fact that this season, when they led the national title game in the second half, was supposed to be a reloading year. Georgia is no. 2. At ESPN, Alabama is no. 1 and Georgia is no. 3, behind Ohio State, which is returning star quarterback C.J. Stroud. The Buckeyes, another blue blood, will be a threat to win the national title, and that’s more of the same in college football, because this is the world the best teams have created. This has always been a sport of haves and have nots, and the only difference now is it takes years and literally dozens of things to go right for you to even approach the haves category.
But as the Georgia fans exited the stadium into the cold Indianapolis night, they did not care about next year. They cared about Ringo (a five-star, by the way). They cared about Bennett, and Smart, and that they will never have a sinking feeling in their stomach when they think about playing Alabama ever again. Building this recruiting machine was worth it. Everything was worth it.