Mark Bradley: Georgia's final mission is to beat college football's GOAT

By Mark Bradley

ATLANTA — Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 3, 2007. At that moment, he was considered a good college coach who, like other good college coaches, had fared less well in the NFL. Over five seasons at Michigan State, he hadn't won the Big Ten or taken the Spartans to a major bowl. Over five seasons at LSU, he had won one BCS title and two SEC championships. At that moment, the nation's best coach was Urban Meyer.

Steve Spurrier bettered Saban's LSU numbers while at Florida — one national title, SEC championships. At Georgia, Vince Dooley did the same. It was reasonable to expect Saban to succeed at Alabama, even though post-Bear seasons had seen the Crimson Tide bank only one national title, that under Gene Stallings. If nothing else, Saban came to town with better credentials than Ray Perkins or Bill Curry or Stallings or Mike DuBose or Dennis Franchione or Mike Price or Mike Shula.

Saban was considered a fine hire. He would become the hire to end all hires.

Bear Bryant won six national titles and 11 SEC championships at Bama. His winning percentage was .824. Saban needed 14 years to match those six national championships; his latest Tide team is set to play Georgia for another. His winning percentage is .880, and that's with five wins from 2007 being forfeited because of NCAA sanctions. It took Saban one year to get it going. Every team of his after 2007 has won at least 10 games. Only the 2010 crew has lost more than twice. (Some who follow Bama believe that was Saban's most gifted bunch.)

Alabama from 2008 through today is 176-18. That's a winning percentage of .907. Since 2008, the Tide's longest drought between national titles is three years. Saban has taken Alabama to nine SEC Championship games. It has won eight. Bama has reached the College Football Playoff seven times in eight seasons. Its record therein is 9-3. If we count the SEC title tilt as a de facto playoff, Saban is 17-4 in championship-level games with Bama. That's a winning percentage of .810.

It's not as if Saban landed one transcendent talent — a Herschel, say, or a Cam Newton — and rode that player to multiple titles. The list of Bama quarterbacks who've won the national championship with Saban: John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Jake Coker, Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa in the same game and Mac Jones.

The SEC was different in Bryant's day. (So was the world, but let's save that discussion for another time.) There was no conference title game. Bryant had to play Auburn and Tennessee every year, but he faced Dooley's Georgia only six times — and went 4-2. Monday's CFP final will mark the fifth collision of Alabama and Georgia in four years and two days.

We wonder what it will take for Kirby Smart's team to get past Saban's. Once upon a time, we wondered similar things about Georgia under Mark Richt and LSU under Les Miles and Auburn with Gus Malzahn. The answer: Nobody in the SEC gets past Saban often, or for long.

He has had five defensive coordinators — Smart held the job for eight years — and eight offensive coordinators over 15 years. He has had four Heisman Trophy winners and five other Heisman finalists. He has coached 39 Tide players who became Round 1 NFL draftees. He recruits the best talent, and that talent wins titles. That's not always the case.

We've collected these factoids because we've run out of adjectives. Regarding Nicholas Lou Saban, there's nothing new to say. There will never been anything new to say. Where do you go after proclaiming him the greatest college football coach anyone has seen. Every time we think his Tide might be slipping — this was such a season — we're found guilty of wishful thinking. Only once since the playoff began has the Tide had no chance win it all. That was in 2019, when LSU had Joe Burrow and Tagovailoa broke his hip.

The belief remains that, from stem to stern, Georgia has the better team. Alabama, however, has the better quarterback, and nobody has had a better coach. After the Bulldogs thrashed Michigan in the Orange Bowl, this correspondent wrote a little something bearing the headline: "There's nothing left for Georgia except to beat Alabama." The catch is that almost nobody beats Alabama in a game that matters.

Clemson did it twice, but that's where the list begins and ends. When playing for a national title, Saban's Bama has beaten Texas, LSU, Notre Dame, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State. We keep thinking he can't keep this going forever, but he turned 70 on Halloween and hasn't missed a trick. All Georgia has to do to win it all is beat Alabama, which means all the Bulldogs have to do is beat the GOAT.

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