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Alabama-Georgia rematch to decide national championship Monday

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Kirby Smart, left, has achieved much as head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, but two things have eluded him so far: winning a national championship and defeating his former team, Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. (Kent Gidley / University of Alabama Athletics)Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban Photo by Kent Gidley

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

You’d think Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are putting on helmets and going head-to-head Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

That’s what happens when the pupil is 0-4 in his four prior meetings against the teacher.

Scratch that. Saban isn’t just a teacher. He’s the master and his Crimson Tide has mastered Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs.

“I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that,” Smart said, citing the impact of players making meaningful plays. “That determines the outcome of games, not he and I.”

That said, the sequel is set for 7 p.m. Monday at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on ESPN. At stake is Alabama’s 19th national championship and its seventh under Saban, who has a seventh from LSU.

“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us to play against, I think, one of the best teams – or the best team – in the country in terms of consistency and performance and how they’ve played all year long,” Saban said. “Georgia’s got a really good team. They’ve got great balance on offense, defense, special teams. They’ve got really good specialists. This is a really, really good all-around team.”

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Across the field, the former Tide defensive coordinator will again bid for his first national crown and Georgia’s first since Herschel Walker led them to one in 1980.

While Georgia was more consistently impressive during the regular season, Alabama won a decisive victory over the Bulldogs in last month’s SEC Championship Game. Georgia gets another shot at the Tide, and the national title, on Monday. (contributed)

Four times, Smart and Georgia have faced Saban and Alabama. Four times, the Bulldogs have failed to taste victory. To date, the tally is:

  • Jan. 8, 2018 in Atlanta: Alabama 26, Georgia 23 OT
  • Dec. 1, 2018 in Atlanta: Alabama 35, Georgia 28
  • Oct. 17, 2020 in Tuscaloosa: Alabama 41, Georgia 24
  • Dec. 4, 2021 in Atlanta: Alabama 41, Georgia 24

The most recent meeting is likely the most pertinent. The Bulldogs came into the SEC Championship as the undefeated and unquestioned No. 1 squad in the land. Conversely, there were questions aplenty for the Tide team, which had been pressed by Florida, beaten by Texas A&M and taken to four overtimes before outlasting Auburn.

But as they say at the Securities and Exchange Commission – the other SEC – past performance does not necessarily predict future results.

That day, Alabama came from behind and left no doubt who was the best team. Only 37 days will have passed since that meeting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That leaves each team weighing whether it should make changes or stick with what worked.

Saban said the Tide will evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

“I think there are some subtle changes that you need to make so that you put your players in the best chance to be successful,” he said. “They’re always going to see something new and different, so players are going to always have to adapt in the game.

“I don’t think you do everything the same, but I also don’t think you can make a lot of changes that the players are not going to go out and be able to play and execute with confidence,” Saban continued. “The changes you need to make are sort of relative to the things that you did well or didn’t do and some of the things that they were able to take advantage of that you need to make sure you make adjustment to.”

Is Alabama’s string of successes against Georgia because it is better than its Southeastern Conference rival to the east? Or has the Tide (13-1) taken residence in the heads of the 13-1 Dawgs, creating a mental block the size of China’s Great Wall?

Not so, says Smart.

“As far as the mental mindset of our guys, they’re excited,” he said. “They earned another opportunity to go play a really good football team and we’ve got a really good football team. Our guys are physical, excited and looking forward to this opportunity on the biggest stage there is.”

Saban said his team had perhaps lost its respect for winning prior to playing Texas A&M. Losing to the Aggies had Bama get that respect back.

“I think it made people realize the importance of leadership, setting a good example, holding each other accountable,” the Alabama coach said. “I think there were a lot of internal lessons that actually helped this team mature and grow.

“Most of the time when people don’t have success, they learn from it more readily than when they have success,” Saban said. “I think that was certainly the case for our team.”