Opinion: After knocking off mentor, Kirby Smart's rivalry with Nick Saban may be just beginning

Dan Wolken

Nick Saban approached his former defensive coordinator amid the confetti at Lucas Oil Stadium with a smile and a simple piece of analysis about what just occurred in the College Football Playoff national championship. 

“You guys kicked our ass in the fourth quarter,” Saban leaned in to tell Kirby Smart, summarizing Georgia’s 33-18 victory that secured its first national title since 1980. 

The question now is whether this rivalry between two superpowers, two neighboring states and two great football coaches cut from the same cloth is in the fourth quarter or just beginning. Because at long last — and after plenty of doubts — Smart has built a program worthy of being a true rival for Alabama. And if the 70-year-old Saban has the energy, the good health and the desire to keep going, the next decade could see a back-and-forth battle unlike anything college football has seen since Florida-Florida State in the 1990s. 

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That’s the level Alabama and Georgia are operating at right now. That’s how much separation they’ve created with the rest of the sport. And with Georgia finally breaking through after Smart lost his first four meetings with Saban, that’s what’s at stake every time these two teams tee it up. 

“If we had to lose a national championship, I’d rather lose one to one of the former assistants who did a great job for us and has done a great job for his program and his team,” Saban said. “If any team deserves it, they deserve it. Kirby has done a really good job there. I’m really proud of him, and I’m proud of the way he’s been able to coach his team and the consistency they’ve played with all year."

Let’s face it: For the sake of the rivalry and the sport, Georgia desperately needed to win this game. The Bulldogs had the better season, and they had the more experienced team. Despite what happened a month ago in the SEC championship game, Georgia was supposed to win this one. 

But the entire notion of building a program at Georgia in the image of Alabama only works if you can beat them every now and then. And with each loss to Alabama, Smart’s efforts to match Alabama in recruiting, facilities and infrastructure started to look like a waste of potential.

Until Monday night, that is.     

“I told the guys in the locker room, just take a picture of this, because I think back to the '80 championship picture and seeing all those players and the Frank Walkers and the Herschel Walkers and all these people that have reached out and said things,” Smart said. “Our guys have accomplished that, something special, and as they say, they've become legendary, and I want that for them.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart embrace after the Bulldogs' win in the national title game.

It’s easy to say it was only a matter of time before Georgia had a night like this. But perhaps that was the problem with Georgia for the past 41 years. 

On paper, you could make the argument Georgia should be the best program in college football. Not only is the campus an hour away from Atlanta, which has arguably the highest-quality high school football of any metro area in the country, but there’s no in-state threat to recruit against. Add in the beautiful campus, great stadium, large fan base and unlimited resources, and there was no excuse for going four decades without a title. 

But when the school fired Mark Richt after the 2015 season, Georgia was no longer a modern SEC program. It wasn’t just behind the competition in bells and whistles, it often had to bus off-campus for practice when it rained because it didn’t have an indoor facility.

It’s hard to say whether the school didn’t understand the level of commitment it took to compete with Alabama or Richt just didn’t push hard enough after 15 seasons and a couple flirtations with the national championship.

But with Smart, a Georgia alum who had coached alongside Saban for his first nine years at Alabama, there would be no such settling. He knew the strengths, and the weaknesses, of Georgia’s administration. And because he was also intimately familiar with Alabama’s operation, he knew exactly how far Georgia had to go. 

“The thing that everybody needs to recognize is whenever you go into a league as a coach you want to build your program based on who the best team is,” said former Georgia coach Jim Donnan. “So whoever comes in here, whether it’s Jimbo Fisher (at Texas A&M) or Kirby, they have to try to do what Alabama does. And some of them are getting closer to doing it. Everybody’s trying to be Alabama in this league and that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win a national championship.” 

Of course, the task is still monumental with Saban around. And every now and then, even as cranes were constructing his $80 million training facility, Smart got some reminders about how difficult it is to copy Alabama’s success even if you have the blueprint. 

There was the heartbreak of 2017, when Georgia got within one play of winning the national title only to see Tua Tagovailoa snatch it away in overtime. There were humbling losses in the 2018 and 2019 SEC title games and a couple flat-out bad losses along the way. 

That brought some questions, especially as Alabama evolved into a program that won with offense and elite quarterback play. Smart, by contrast, seemed stuck in the previous decade. He built Georgia in the mold of Saban’s early Alabama teams with elite defense and lower-ceiling quarterbacks, like Stetson Bennett, who earned trust through their consistency and leadership rather than NFL-level throws. 

Was that enough to win a national championship in this era? Was Alabama in Smart’s head? Was his more conservative coaching style an anchor in big games? 

After all those losses to Saban, including that 41-24 shocker in December's SEC championship game, those were fair questions. Had Smart lost this one, too, it would’ve been difficult to talk about Georgia without an accompanying eye roll. 

But after the Bulldogs surged through the fourth quarter of this game, scoring on 75-yard and 62-yard touchdown drives in their final two possessions, the inevitable breakthrough is no longer abstract. It’s finally happened.

“I'm so happy for the Georgia people,” Smart said “I'm happy for the people that get this for so many years they've been without it.”

But the best news is, it doesn’t feel like a changing of the guard moment. Alabama was a young and injured team that was a quarter away from Saban’s seventh title at the school despite losing its top two receivers in John Metchie and Jameson Williams, who hurt his left knee early in the title game. Georgia is going to lose a lot of talent to the NFL draft, but Smart has stacked enough top-five recruiting classes on top of each other that the talent pipeline is fully flowing. 

In other words, get used to this. According to the very, very early Las Vegas odds, Alabama and Georgia are the two favorites for next year’s national title, too. With Georgia now validating its program as a worthy foil to Alabama, Saban and Smart could go back and forth a few more times before it’s all said and done. 

Monday night may have been just the beginning.