- Joe Drape The New York Times
This started as a Nick Saban column, an assessment of the best college football coach in the game and perhaps the best coach in all of American sports. His Alabama team punished the top-ranked Clemson Tigers, 24-6, in the Sugar Bowl late Monday, sending the Tide to the national title game for the third time in four years and offering Saban a chance at his sixth championship.
Then the “S-E-C! S-E-C!” chants rang out. Saban remains a worthy topic, but one that can wait another week. He and Alabama have become such a fixture of the national title conversation each year that fitting him with a crown before another championship trophy is in his hands feels a bit unseemly.
The Tide will meet Georgia next week in the title game, after the Bulldogs came back to beat Oklahoma in a thrilling, 54-48, double-overtime victory in the other College Football Playoff semifinal in the Rose Bowl.
“So Georgia came back? SEC Championship,” said Saban after his own team’s victory, allowing a rare smile.
Next Monday in Atlanta, Saban will look to the other sideline and see Kirby Smart, his former defensive coordinator now in his second season as the coach of the Bulldogs. It is the second time in the last seven seasons the SEC has had both teams in a title game; in 2012, Saban’s Alabama beat LSU.
This time, however, the title game transcends chest beating about how the SEC is the cradle of college football. Alabama might as well be the NFL’s 33rd franchise. It had 44 players on NFL rosters this season, according to the NCAA, and Saban, at $7 million-plus a year, is paid more than many of his professional colleagues.
The Tide not only dominated Clemson, the defending national champion, but also left the Tigers’ coach, Dabo Swinney, measuring his players against the Crimson Tide and finding them wanting.
“The lesson, again, is championship football is a few plays and a very small margin for error,” Swinney said. “You have got to be able to run the ball effectively and take care of the ball. And we didn’t do those things tonight. And you’re not going to beat a good team like Alabama when you don’t do that.”
But if Alabama is SEC — and college football — royalty, then the Bulldogs are the closest thing to a feel-good program that the conference can offer, something I learned firsthand as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I thought I knew college football: I had come from Texas after growing up in the Midwest in what was then Big 8 Country. The man who would teach me most of what I know in journalism, however, showed me everything that was important about football in the South.
Plott Brice was an Atlanta native and a Georgia graduate who liked to say that he “learned to read on my granddaddy’s knee by turning the pages of the AJC.” He was a voracious reader, an accomplished bluegrass musician and an expert of all things newspapering. He handled hot type, laid out pages, covered Wimbledon and, as national editor, dispatched young reporters on ambitious assignments from Cuba and Romania to South Africa and the Soviet Union.
On Saturdays, however, Brice’s heart and soul belonged to the Georgia Bulldogs. There was nothing more sacred to him than the 60-mile pilgrimage to Sanford Stadium in Athens to watch the Dawgs do battle “between the hedges,” a nod to the privet hedges that have surrounded the field there since 1929.
Brice shared each game day with his wife and sisters and Larry Munson, the voice of Georgia football for over 40 years and a homer’s homer if there ever was one. Brice wore a transistor in his ear when he went to games and tuned his stereo to Munson when he was watching at home.
He had a tape of Munson’s most famous call, a 92-yard touchdown reception from the cinematically named quarterback Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott that beat Florida and kept Georgia’s 1980 national title drive alive. Years later, he still could recite it word for word.
In the decades since Dooley stepped down after the 1988 season, his successors have won four conference titles and 18 bowl games — excellent perhaps, but not what Smart, groomed inside Saban’s annual bids for perfection, calls “elite.”
No one is surprised Alabama will be in Atlanta next week. Before the playoff started, the Crimson Tide was a 3-2 favorite in Las Vegas to win another title despite being the No. 4 seed. As soon as the semifinals ended, Alabama opened as 4-point favorite over third-seeded Georgia in the title game.
Saban said early Tuesday morning that he was looking forward to the game with his former pupil in Atlanta, and to the showcase the SEC will get in the national championship game. He and his colleagues are familiar with this time of year; Monday’s game, however it ends, will give the league nine of the past 12 national titles.
“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.”
If Brice were still alive, he’d be in Dawg heaven. Each college football weekend for nearly 20 years, he and I got on the phone with the point spreads and bet $5 a game on a dozen or so matchups. When it came to Georgia, I always bet against the Bulldogs, much to his delight.
Not this time. I’m betting Georgia is going to push that Saban column back a year.