Kirby Smart Is the Biggest Threat to Knock Nick Saban, Alabama from Atop SEC

May 5, 2016

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Had there been a glass of water involved, University of Georgia coach Kirby Smart could have done a spit take earlier this week when asked about a comment he made during national signing day.

“I said it would be fun?” he blurted about recruiting against his former boss, Nick Saban, during the Southeastern Conference spring coaches teleconference with reporters. “Oh man, I hope I didn’t say it would be fun.

“I don’t look forward to that because I know Nick does a great job in recruiting. He’s very relentless. He does a really good job, and they have a great product to sell, so it’s a tough one.”

Actually, the same could have been said the other way around, as for years Smart has had the reputation of being one of college football’s best recruiters. He had the advantage of doing so for arguably the sport’s best coach and helped create Alabama’s ongoing dynasty but now brings the same enthusiasm to his alma mater.

That’s going to be a problem for Alabama, the reigning national champions and first repeat SEC champions in nearly 20 years.

While Saban likes to say, “I sort of end up driving the bus” to describe his program, Smart was the closest thing he ever had to a co-pilot. At minimum, the new head coach was in the front seat for most of the past decade after having initially been hired to be someone who could be developed and move up the ranks. 

Smart definitely did that, having signed on at LSU in 2004 as a defensive backs coach and followed Saban to both the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and Tuscaloosa in 2007, where a year later he became the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator.

In 2009, he won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, and three years later, he earned a similar honor from the American Football Coaches Association.

But of all the assistant coaches Saban’s had over the years, Smart’s the one who came closest to thinking the same way, which was a big reason for Alabama’s consistent defensive success during an era that saw radical changes to the game.

Anyone who wants to understand Saban’s attention to detail only needs to go back and watch the final couple of minutes of the 2011 title game against LSU, when Alabama was ahead 21-0 and reserve linebacker Alex Watkins jumped offside. Even though the outcome was no longer in doubt, he went ballistic along the sideline.

About an hour after the game ended at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a reporter asked Saban if the competitive fire still burned as hot as when he was a player or graduate assistant. What do you think?” he deadpanned, drawing laughter from the room.

“To me that’s probably the greatest feature I’ve learned or will take with me when I become a head coach, is you have to be demanding,” Smart said just before Alabama destroyed Notre Dame for the 2012 title. “You have to be able to confront people if they’re not doing their job or not doing it the way you want it. It’s hard sometimes. Just like asking these players to be leaders to go in front of their peers and challenge a guy, that’s tough, and these guys have done it. 

“Coach Saban does it and it flows down into our organization. He’s been a great asset to me, and I’ll take a lot of things with me if I ever get the opportunity.”

Put those traits together, and there’s only one final ingredient needed for a college coach to be successful, and that’s location, which applies to both name recognition and recruiting.

Even though it hasn’t claimed a crown since 1980, Georgia is on the short list of programs that could, if not should, be in the title hunt every year. Moreover, the state has such an impressive level of talent that if Smart is able to lock down the borders and keep more of the top prospects from going elsewhere, he’ll have an instant national power.

According to the NFL, during opening weekend of the 2015 season the most players on active rosters were, in order, Florida (204), California (203), Texas (181) and Georgia (114). Georgia was also third on the list of NFL players per capita (one per 84,979 residents).

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had 34 players in the league, which was impressive but nowhere near the program’s potential, as the majority of top prospects had gone elsewhere. Via the 247Sports’ composite rankings, Georgia landed just two of the top 10 in-state players in its most recent recruiting class, which is typical.

When Alabama visited Sanford Stadium during the 2015 season, and left with a resounding 38-10 victory, the Crimson Tide roster boasted 14 players from the Peach State, including Kenyan Drake, Dillon Lee, Geno Matias-Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, Dakota Ball and Adam Griffith

Granted, Smart wasn’t considered the primary recruiter for all of them, but he was considered Alabama’s front man in the state and seemingly had connections everywhere. It helped lead to signing Blake Sims, Austin Shepherd, Nick Perry and Shawn Burgess-Becker.

Some of his best in-state signings have included Reuben Foster, Marlon Humphrey and Rashaan Evans. 

“It’s not me against him,” Smart said about Saban. “It’s very rare that Georgia and Alabama are the only two teams recruiting a kid. If we’re on a kid, everyone on the SEC is. It’s never me against Saban, and I have too much respect for him to say that anyway. I never felt that way.”

Nevertheless, the two programs went head-to-head over numerous players in the 2016 class, and from here it’ll probably only get harder for Alabama to pluck players from across the border. Saban considers anything within a five-hour drive to be prime recruiting territory, and both Atlanta and Athens are well within that radius.

That’s why Smart’s the coach Alabama should be the most concerned with—maybe not this year but definitely down the road—and helps explain Saban recently telling CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd: “Personally, Georgia, if it’s not the best job in the conference, it certainly should be.”

Yes, LSU’s Les Miles won a national championship and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn did as an offensive coordinator. Yet until proven otherwise, Saban clearly has the upper hand against them.

Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss has won two straight against Saban. However, the Crimson Tide bounced back and won the SEC West in both cases.

Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has already shown he’s a very good coach at Florida, which, like Georgia, is annually among the top programs in the nation when it comes to football revenue. But Smart’s the better recruiter.

Even though Smart has yet to be a head coach during a game and Saban’s still undefeated against his former assistants, that’ll make a difference over the long haul and at least in part come at Alabama’s expense.


Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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