Can Kirby Smart ‘rebuild’ Georgia like Nick Saban did in Alabama football?
Among the notable aspects of Saban’s dynasty is the way Alabama performs in years it doesn’t win the national championship. In addition to six national titles, Alabama has three national finalists under Saban, in 14 straight seasons with at least 10 wins.
A season can be derailed in any number of ways – injuries, projected stars that don’t pan out, poor team chemistry, inability to adapt to roster turnover, or coaching staff departures. Alabama is not immune to such challenges, but has nonetheless avoided a season being completely destroyed by them.
Saban raised his eyebrows last week when he dubbed 2021 “a year of rebuilding” during an interview with Birmingham radio station WJOX, but I don’t see the controversy in his assessment. Alabama has simply repositioned what a rebuilding season can look like.
ALABAMA FOOTBALL:Rebuild in 2021 or not, Crimson Tide has its work cut out in 2022
Ten players from Tide’s 2020 National Championship team have been selected in the NFL Draft. Entering last season, Alabama needed to replace its starting quarterback, starting running back, two star wide receivers, three starting offensive linemen and its top cornerback.
No one recruits and develops better than Saban, so of course we expected Alabama to keep going without a hitch. But Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. propelled a 21-year-old squad known more for its resilience than its overwhelming depth of superstardom.
Alabama won the SEC championship, but they weren’t the best team in the country. Georgia possessed that distinction and proved it by defeating Alabama in the national championship.
If Alabama was another team and Saban was another coach, going 13-2 would have qualified as a notable feat after losing so much talent from a historically great team in 2020.
For Alabama, it was business as usual.
Alabama is no longer rebuilding. Consider the rebuilt Tide.
Proven starters like Young, Anderson, Henry To’o To’o, Jordan Battle and Emil Ekiyor Jr. should make this a more cohesive team, and a few big-name transfers are fixing some past shortcomings.
Smart’s plan closely resembles the one he learned from Saban.
Georgia is the only team that has consistently challenged Alabama’s recruiting dominance in recent years, and Georgia’s 2021 defense has masqueraded as Alabama’s 2011.
Now, however, Georgia must adjust to leaving a record 15 NFL Draft selections. This included five defensive players selected in the first round, proof of the burden of the Georgian defence.
College football had moved in a quarterback-oriented direction before the Bulldogs won their first national championship since 1980 in throwback fashion.
Defensive lineman Jalen Carter, linebacker Nolan Smith and defensive backs Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith form the backbone of a still-talented Georgia defense, but it’s nonetheless a less-tested unit with rookies praised who rise in starting roles.
Amidst all the turnover, if the name on the front of Georgia’s jerseys said Alabama, the Bulldogs would be facing championship expectations, because Alabama constantly faces those expectations.
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The Tide’s on-court dominance was only topped by its pre-season poll reign. Alabama clinched the No. 1 ranking in the USA TODAY Sports Pre-Season AFCA Coaches Pollthe seventh time in the past 13 years it has won first place.
Georgia is ranked third, behind Ohio State.
Alabama also ranked No. 1 in preseason last year. In reality, however, Alabama was rebuilding then, just as Georgia is now — though Smart won’t say.
It’s pre-season coaching language that loosely translates to: Yes, we’re rebuilding, but I’m not going to say that, and I still believe in my team.
Smart clearly welcomes the expectation that Georgia is built to withstand roster turnover, but we’ve seen the toll that extreme roster turnover can have on the endurance capacity of teams not named Alabama.
After LSU’s 2019 team won the national championship, 14 Tigers were drafted. LSU went 11-12 over the next two seasons.
If Georgia wants to stay level with Alabama, it needs to “rebuild” like Tide’s rebuilds.
Saban is rebuilding by taking teams to the playoffs. This is Smart’s next challenge.
Blake Topmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this.