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Georgia Football

Can Georgia Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart Catch Alabama's Nick Saban? Durability Will Matter

June 25, 2022

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ATHENS - Alabama coach Nick Saban is universally recognized (and with good reason) as the best college football coach ever.  The GOAT can, though, be second-guessed like everyone else when warranted. 

After Alabama’s National Championship loss to Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs, Saban blamed his young receivers for not buying in and being ready when given chances to make plays.  Certainly, player buy-in is important, but some blame must go to Saban if players did not have sufficient in-game opportunities to be ready when called upon.

To run the SEC gauntlet and win a national championship, teams must be super talented and deep at every position. Only a handful of teams have starter-quality depth in their two and three deep, and recent examples show how a lack of such depth can be a major factor in halting a championship run.  

In the 2017 SEC Championship Game, Auburn’s championship hopes ended, in part, because they had one (barely) healthy running back.  Meanwhile, Georgia had been rotating carries all season among Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and even sprinkled in doses of talented freshman DeAndre Swift.  When Sony got banged up, a fresh (and ready) Swift came in and had the game clinching long run. One year later, in the 2018 SECCG, Georgia had a great roster, that could go toe-to-toe with Alabama, but still did not yet have the required quality depth at every position group to overcome a key injury.  When defensive star DeAndre Walker went down late in the game, freshman Brenton Cox was clearly not ready for that moment.  (Admittedly, Cox is an odd example here given that years later, playing for Florida, he still was “not ready,” nor able to set the edge.  Perhaps in 2022, his 5th year will be the charm, and when his play matches his recruiting ranking.) 

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The question remains, though, how does a team “build” championship-level quality depth?  Besides recruiting at the highest level (as Alabama has done for over a decade and Georgia has done for the last five years), how does one get players ready for critical game situations – be it talented freshmen or more seasoned non-starters?  Obviously, things like strength and conditioning programs, practice time and film study are crucial, but also the ability to get players on the field during the season is of utmost importance.  

This is where two different approaches come to mind, which can be illustrated by how, and when, offensive players are deployed.  One approach, seemingly favored by Saban, features a few players who receive the lion share of the statistics and game repetitions, almost regardless of the game situation.  The other approach, the player rotation approach favored by Kirby, involves game snaps that are spread out among more players, and an offense that is throttled down much quicker in blowouts.  The wisdom of each approach was starkly on display in the 2021 National Championship Game.  

Saban’s pitch to running backs or receivers he recruits out of high school, or to players like Georgia transfer wide receiver Jermaine Burton, seems to be come to Alabama to be a featured star. At Alabama, those featured stars can put up big statistical numbers, which could help them earn a Heisman Trophy or other national award, on their way to being highly drafted by the NFL.  Kirby’s pitch, however, would seem to be more like come to Georgia and share the workload (e.g., in a running back rotation) with other great players, and still be highly drafted by the NFL, but with plenty of “tread remaining on your tires.”  Recent Georgia running back tandems, like Zamir White and James Cook, and Chubb and Michel, shared their carries (with each other and even with a third and fourth back), and all still were highly drafted.  

Many among the Alabama faithful and even some media members, point to the loss of Alabama’s top two receivers – John Mechie in the 2021 SECCG and Jameson Williams during the National Championship – as the reason Alabama lost to Georgia.  But why were these players indispensable?  And if they really were, then why did they play so often in the most meaningless moments of Alabama’s 2021 Season. 

According to a few outlets, Alabama had literally the most talented roster in College Football in 2021 (Georgia’s was second) and had multiple young blue-chip receivers waiting in the wings.  But therein lies the problem.  Alabama’s approach will be more likely to produce multiple 1,000-yard receivers (as it did with Metchie and Williams) and individual award winners, but compiling statistics among a few, means that many others do not get enough game repetitions.  As they say, football is a “collision” sport.  Given some bad luck, even the most talented roster in America, can stumble if back-ups have not been properly prepared to step in when needed to replace an injured starter.

In contrast, Georgia has not had one of their supremely talented running backs win the Heisman Trophy during the Kirby era, nor have they had a 1,000-yard receiver in some time, given the way they rotate players to keep many more fresh and ready.  As a related aside, many ignore the fact that Georgia played 2021 with their top pass catchers out, or severely limited by injury, all year long.  This list includes George Pickens, Dom Blaylock, Kearis Jackson, Darnell Washington and Jermaine Burton, who ironically was unable to stay healthy sharing playing time (and statistics) with freshman pass catchers yet transferred to Alabama to be featured more (and hopefully will be healthy all 2022).  By necessity perhaps, Georgia turned to numerous young receivers and developed them during the season. In the National Championship, it was true freshmen Brock Bowers and AD Mitchell that made game winning plays.      

So, the question remains: Why would any two players on Alabama’s roster be that indispensable given how many blue-chips sit behind those stars? And perhaps even more damning: “if” there are a few featured stars on the most talented roster in America, that are indispensable, then why worry so much about padding their statistics in “garbage time”?  As detailed in “Georgia Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett: Living in Reality About the Mailman,” during the 2021 season when Georgia’s games were in garbage time, it quickly throttled down its offense.  When Alabama built huge leads, its star quarterback Bryce Young continued firing the ball down the field much more often, including to its (apparently) most indispensable players.

To be sure, this is not Monday morning quarterbacking.  No, it is very easy to objectively question some decisions (even by the GOAT) in the moment.  Here are a few, arguably indefensible, examples of 2021 game situations where Saban and Alabama chose (again, as is their prerogative) to allow Bryce Young and Jameson Williams to stay in games that were blowouts against weak opponents to compile statistics. First, against FCS team Mercer, when Alabama was already winning 31-0 in the 3rd quarter, Young threw a touchdown pass to Williams to extend the lead to 38-0. Second, in Alabama’s game against New Mexico State, Young threw a touchdown pass to Williams (his third receiving touchdown of the game) to push the lead to 42-3. Finally, and probably the most glaring example, when playing the Southern Mississippi Eagles of the Sun Belt Conference, Williams was still returning kickoffs in the 4th quarter when Alabama was already leading by 35 points!  

As we know, Williams unfortunately succumbed to a non-contact knee injury in the National Championship Game.  To be clear, no one knows if he would have made it through the playoffs healthy had he been given more rest during the regular season, but he definitely could have been injured during meaningless, statistic collecting moments.  

Alabama is certainly free to play their lopsided games however they see fit, but Saban’s choice to feature star players well into garbage time ultimately did not serve Alabama well. Its biggest stars were unnecessarily put in harms way, rather than using garbage time to build depth in case, say, they lost their top two wide receivers.  

Both the player featuring, and the player rotation approaches can work, although now that Alabama must deal with another powerhouse like itself (i.e., Georgia), they must be more prepared than ever to overcome injuries to starters.  Georgia has proven in 2021 that its approach leaves more margin for error, by making it more likely that they are able to overcome bad injury luck. 

It takes years to build a deep championship-level roster. As we saw with Alabama in 2021, however, having the talent is only part of the equation when matched up against an equally talented foe.  A team’s back-ups must buy-in and be given enough game experience during the season, so they are ready if, and when, needed in the biggest moments.     

The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are two of the favorites to win the 2022 national championship next season, with the Bulldogs having +350 odds to repeat as national champions according to FanDuel.

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