If you want to understand what the relationship between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart was like when they teamed up with Jim McElwain at Alabama’s 21st Century Dynasty premiere, one must definitely ask. There was only one problem pursuing that course.
“I don’t know,” McElwain said. “I was never a good enough golfer to be in their quartet.”
McElwain was the offensive coordinator when Alabama, in 2009, won the first of six national championships in a 12-year span. Smart is the defensive coordinator. Saban, then, was the head coach whose talented eye and organizational genius brought the Crimson Tide back to the platform Bear Bryant built for them in the 1970s.
The near-instant success of that trio – Tide won two national titles and three games post-season and set a 48-6 record in four seasons together – had a lasting impact even after when McElwain left in 2012 to become head coach and Smart followed three years later to take over at Georgia.
And that brings us to Saturday’s SEC championship, when Smart will take his fourth hit to beat Saban – and a significant first, with the Bulldogs currently ranked No. 1. No one of the previous three went the way Georgia wanted, including the 2017 College Soccer League championship game won by Alabama in extra time, by the margin of a single goal.
This will be Saban’s 26th time coaching with one of his former assistants. His programs have produced a number of successful adult coaches, except when they competed against their former boss. Saban has won 24 of the previous 25 times.
It’s rare for one of Saban’s Alabama teams to be in a position to be significantly underrated, let alone go into such a result-packed game with very few expecting his Tide to stand a chance. festival. It was Saban, however, who emphasized to McElwain and others on his staff the unsurpassed importance of talent in building a successful program, and advantage within the department. That year belongs to the Bulldogs.
“The very first year I got in, after his first season in Alabama (when Tide won 7-6), going through spring practice, he said, ‘Be patient, because we have great players coming,” McElwain told SN. “That, apparently, happened on its own. He has a plan for everything, and it’s not just a short-sighted plan. It is a long term plan. And Kirby, you’re seeing how Georgia has evolved in so many different ways. “
The Bulldogs have three defenders predicted in Sporting News’ most recent simulated sketch, led by quarterback Jordan Davis and defender Nakobe Dean. So far, they have won 12 matches with an average of 33.8 points.
This is 2021, the 6.9 points per game that the Bulldog defense allows to make a much deeper impression than what is happening when their teammates have possession of the ball.
“The team that we are coaching here every day, they have been through some adversity. I can assure you of that,” Smart told reporters this week. “We perform adverse situations on a daily basis in practice. We challenge them every day to the extent that they can. They go against each other every day, and they go compete.”
That’s right, with only a single match decided under 24 points, no opponent surpassed the 20-point mark against Bulldogs through dozens of matches, Smart had to approach the team’s daily practice sessions to give an example. example of “adversity”.
Defensively is Smart’s specialty, and this team seems to be his masterpiece, even more so than the 2009 Alabama team that won 14-0, placed second in D, holding off five major opponents or less and features future experts Rolando McClain, Marcell Dareus, Kareem Jackson and Mark Barron.
Now head coach at Central Michigan and awaiting a botched assignment after the 8-4 season, McElwain is amazed by exactly what Smart is achieving at UGA.
“I know the coach has a lot of faith in Kirby, let him do what needs to be done,” McElwain told SN. “Their relationship is really good. Coaches are really good at that; He has a good relationship with all his assistants.
“Kirby was competitive in everything he did. I think one of the things he can do is bring a lot of qualities and things in the organization that the Coach can promote and tailor them to his needs right now. More than anything, you see in both cases, it is: Let them do their job, get out of the way and good things will happen. “
McElwain saw that in Smart’s approach to recruiting, which was essential to establishing Georgia as a contender in a league that features talented competitors like LSU 2019 and Alabama 2020.
McElwain said: “Once we hit the target, he didn’t stop working.
Saban knows better than anyone that this team doesn’t reside in the same neighborhood as last season’s squad led by defender Mac Jones, Heisman Trophy recipient DeVonta Smith and full-back Najee Harris. However, the players are proving to have a sense of pride and confidence, perhaps stemming from defending Alabama tradition as they develop. Their comeback from a 10-0 second-half loss to Auburn is a recent prime example, but there are also narrow wins over Arkansas, LSU and Florida that are easily interpreted as a lack of dominance. but that can also be read as the will to win.
“The players have to have the right mindset to keep playing: Play the next game, try to win the next game, everyone do that, stay ready, make the adjustments that we have. needs to be done,” Saban told reporters. “Don’t look at the scoreboard and look at it like: I’ll play differently when I’m 14 points off, and I’ll play differently when I’m 14 points ahead. Really, you should try to do the best you can in any of those situations. “
As they were developing the Crimson Tide game plans back in the day, McElwain said that there were times when the nature of the opposition would dictate a more aggressive attacking approach, others when more ball possession would be. prioritized.
It’s not really a contest between the two coordinators to see which side of the ball will prevail – except in the spring game. During those meetings, Saban wants the two sides to improve their competitiveness.
“He has each side of the ball doing things based on the problems that are going to come up during the season with certain types of errors or defenses,” said McElwain. “You can actually practice for some looks that you might find that might be unique to a certain opponent, so when that comes in the off-season, you’ve got experience with it. and has developed a plan in its season study. It goes from year-round planning. It’s not just: Hey, we’re playing against this team this week, now you’ve got three days to put some stuff together.
“It’s very competitive during the spring, but that’s part of it. What we could do for each other to help each side succeed, we did whatever it took.”
McElwain insists he still doesn’t know how, while working as an attack coordinator at Fresno State, he was identified and hired by Saban to run the Tide attack. But while he wouldn’t say he foresees Tide going into one of the great dynasties in college football history, he knows he’s working under an extraordinary coach.
“You’re too busy working to never really look to the future,” says McElwain. “But I know this: One great thing is the consistency he sets and expectations for any given part. It’s not just the football part. It’s the facilities. It’s recruiting. It is nutrition. It’s weight training – all different things. Whatever touches his desk, no detail is too small. It was really interesting to see that. ”