NEW ORLEANS — There are obvious differences between Alabama and Georgia. One wears a red-hued helmet and uniform combination. One resides in the Southeast. One plays in the Southeastern Conference. One is led by a head coach with deep ties to the Crimson Tide.
OK, so there are similarities at play in the College Football Playoff national championship game. The matchup of Alabama and Georgia is the equivalent of a spot-the-difference picture quiz: There are subtle and some not-so-subtle contrasts between the two programs, if you know where to look, but at first glance the Tide and Bulldogs could pass for duplicates.
Begin with what make the two programs near-mirror images of each other, an inevitable consequence stemming from the ties between the head coaches. It will be sensei against star pupil, the master against the former right-hand man who knows all the tricks.
Nick Saban invented the process, installed it at Alabama and taught it to his crew of loyal assistants. Chief among this group is second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who initiated his own foundation-laying exercise with the Bulldogs to familiar results.
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Alabama won seven games in Saban’s debut. Georgia took eight wins in Smart’s debut a year ago. Saban’s second team knocked on the door of a national championship before falling to Florida in the SEC title game. Smart has the Bulldogs one victory away from the program’s first championship in decades heading into the final game of his second season.
“It’s no surprise to me that his role expanded to be a head coach,” Saban said of Smart. “He’s a good football coach, a very bright guy. And he took over a program that has been successful and was actually fairly successful when he took over the program. And he’s done a great job of taking it to the next level.”
Smart and Saban have built their respective teams on defense, both with a base formation of three linemen and four linebackers that is equally effective stopping the run and defending the pass.
Of course, the dominant tie between the two programs is conference affiliation. Six years ago, the all-SEC title game between Alabama and LSU was the death knell for the Bowl Championship Series. At least this year’s one-league pairing won’t be a rematch — a small victory, though not one that will pacify the masses.
“I think sometimes people try to put a little hate on the SEC because of some of the success that we have,” Saban said. “And I don’t think that is really fair because I think it’s a great competitive league with a lot of great coaches and a lot of great institutions.”
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The ties that bind together Alabama and Georgia will be the defining story line of the next week. But while hard to ignore, the similarities between the pair are dwarfed by the differences. One looms above the others: Alabama has been here before.
It’s a key dynamic to consider. For all the program’s gains since Smart’s arrival, Georgia is still a newcomer to this stage. The Rose Bowl was a solid introduction, but it’s impossible to equate a matchup with Oklahoma with facing off against the most dominant program in the sport. Alabama is a different animal, hardened by countless trips under college football’s bright lights and equipped — physically and mentally — for the strain of the championship push.
That might be the biggest separator between these two specific teams. Yet it could also be overblown, especially when given Smart’s big-game experience. There’s also one positive to take from the comeback win against the Sooners: Georgia learned the danger of falling behind early on a major stage, and realizes that doing so in the matchup with Alabama could be fatal.
“Our kids are so resilient. They never stopped chopping wood. They kept fighting. They believed,” Smart said. “We didn’t play the way we were capable of, but the best news is we get a chance to play again. So I’m really proud of the fight, the resiliency of our seniors and our fan base.”
Another difference comes on offense. Georgia has streamlined its scheme to fit true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who while capable of winning games with his arm has taken a back seat to a brutally efficient running game. There are new concepts embedded within the Bulldogs’ offense, but the system as a whole is fairly traditional. It looks like the Alabama offenses of the recent past, in fact.
The Tide have adopted a more unorthodox offensive style, or at least one that differs from the meat-and-potatoes approach of the first handful of Saban-coached title teams. Quarterback Jalen Hurts isn’t a traditional passer, so the Tide have adapted. This isn’t to say the Tide can’t and won’t get dirty: Alabama’s win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl was a sort of throwback to an older time.
The odds are each team gauges the other early in Monday’s championship game, sparring for a series or even a quarter, before the matchup evolves — or devolves, depending on your point of view — into a classic SEC pairing. You know what that means: tough defense, a commitment to the running game, ball control and field position will be the key factors.
That may seem boring, because it is. But it’s also pure SEC, and a style that not only laid the foundation for Alabama’s dynasty but provides the framework for Georgia’s burgeoning run among the elite programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“I think it speaks volumes of the quality of programs that we have, especially to have two programs, two teams that are in the national championship game,” Saban said.
IMAGES FROM THE 2018 ROSE BOWL
Featured Image: AP Photo/File
Inset Image: Getty Images