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Georgia Football

Nick Saban Leaving Changes Everything for UGA Football, the SEC

January 10, 2024
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ATHENS - Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, the person most responsible for much of Georgia's suffering in championship moments, has retired. Here are the final feelings from the Dawg Post crew on Saban, his legacy and what things will be like for UGA Football and the SEC without him in the future.

Matt’s Final Feelings: It’s hard to put into words the impact Nick Saban had on college football, but let’s give it a shot.

He’s the greatest college football coach of all time, and it’s not even close. If it weren’t for Nick Saban, the Georgia Bulldogs would have at least two more national championship trophies to display in Athens.

He helped rebuild Michigan State and led the LSU Tigers to a championship in 2003. Then he took over an Alabama program that was desperate to get back to their winning ways. Of course, Nick Saban did that and much more for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The man checked every box.

He was an incredible leader and had a tremendous football mind. A defensive wizard, Saban built some of the best defenses college football has ever seen. 

And when the game started to change, Saban adapted. He hired the right people, and turned Alabama into a place where they had both an elite defense, and an elite offense.

He molded the minds of some of college football’s best current coaches, including Georgia’s Kirby Smart. Nick Saban was a consistent thorn on Georgia’s side, but he mentored and helped Kirby Smart become the coach he is today.

Nick Saban was an ace recruiter, and elite developer of talent and got the best out of every player that came through his program. He knew how to push each player to their max. He demanded excellent, and more often than not, that’s what he got.

He built a powerhouse football program and kept them in the national title picture just about every single year he was there. He passed Bear Bryant on his way to the top, and it’s going to take a lot for any coach, Kirby Smart included, to get to Nick Saban’s level as far as career achievements. 

But if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Kirby Smart.

But this isn’t about Kirby. This is about paying respect to the greatest coach in the game. He’s the Michael Jordan of college football coaches. The ultimate competitor. An amazing leader. A genius on the practice field and on the gridiron. 

He was the best to ever do it, and now he’s called it a career.

Will there ever be another Nick Saban? Time will tell. Maybe he’s in Athens. That’s certainly possible.

Georgia fans may not have liked him, for obvious reasons, but you have to respect him. There was never any “off the field” red flags with Nick Saban. He did his job and ran his program with an iron fist. He’s the best of the best, and he has the rings to prove it.

This may be a great day for Georgia Bulldog fans, but it’s a tough day for college football.

Ryan’s Final Feelings: Nick Saban has dominated college football for as far back as my memory goes. He is the college football GOAT. 

When I was a kid, I couldn’t stand Alabama, and it was his fault. If the Tide were on the schedule, then you were at least a little bit freaked out. All they did (and still do) is win. 

His final team that he coached was arguably his worst at Bama in a long time. Even with that, you saw what Michigan’s reaction was to drawing a matchup with Saban and the Crimson Tide. The idea of playing them is nerve wracking.

And that “bad” Alabama team managed to beat a Georgia team in the SEC championship that far and away looked like the best in the country. I have to give a lot of that credit to Saban, who just seemed to have Kirby’s number. 

It turns out that the 2023 SEC Championship was Saban’s last win. I’m glad I was there for it. The result was not what I wanted, but I knew Saban’s coaching days were extremely limited. I decided at the very last second to attend his press conference after that game. He seemed tired. Not in the way that Kirby seems tired sometimes. Saban just seemed old - there’s not a better way to put it. 

Kirby Smart matched up against his former boss and mentor six times and only managed to win just once. That win meant everything to Georgia, but that was the only time Smart and the Dawgs could pull off a W against him.

In two at least two of those games where Georgia lost to Alabama (2021 and 2023 SECCGs), Georgia had a better team. In both of those, they got outplayed and outcoached. You have to give a lot of the credit to Saban on those games. 

We’re getting close to the midway point of this decade and Georgia has only lost to TWO football programs: Alabama and Florida. The Dawgs have beaten everyone else. Oregon, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, TCU, Clemson, Florida State - none of them have been able to beat Georgia recently. 

What does Saban retiring mean for Georgia? You have to wonder if this is the last domino to fall in what has been a transition of dynasties. Yes, I’m throwing out the word dynasty for Georgia because that’s on the table. 50-4 in four seasons with two national championships and a 29-game win streak without sign of letting up warrants the discussion of a brewing dynasty.  

I don’t know where Alabama looks next for a replacement. Dan Lanning and Lane Kiffin jump off the page, but Lanning said he was staying at Oregon on Thursday

I think Lanning made sense. Is he ready for that? Would he want to be the guy to replace Saban? I wouldn’t, and I don’t really know why you’d leave Oregon. At the end of the day he didn’t. 

Is Kirby Smart the new king of college football? Time will tell, but you have to beat Alabama now, and UGA will have a chance very soon.

Saban will always be tied to Kirby’s legacy. Between the head-to-head matchups (which have been legendary) and the time they spent together - their stories are intertwined.

By the time Kirby Smart decides it is his turn to retire, I don’t think there will be much that he has not accomplish as a college coach. One thing that won’t be on a list of accomplishments was success against Saban.

Why does that matter? All but one of those games has been terminal. They’ve been or led to national championships. Paul Finebaum said something the other day about Georgia having to beat Alabama to win the national championship. He wasn’t totally wrong because Alabama has been in Georgia’s way. 

I really believe Kirby Smart should have led Georgia to four championships at this point. The other two possible championships were prevented by Alabama.

So, maybe it is finally over. Alabama should take a step back. I doubt it will be a gigantic one, but replacing Saban is a guaranteed downgrade. 

I’ve said over and over that I think it is going to be much harder to win at a high level in college football with all of the new elements to it. There will be more games and more games against good teams. Smart and the Dawgs are the best equipped to win right now, and Saban’s retirement has to make you feel even better about that.

I’ll say something bold to round this out:

If Kirby Smart and Georgia can extend and sustain the level of play and success that it has in the 2020s into this next chapter, they won’t need as many rings as Saban for it to be a more impressive feat.

Dean’s Final Feelings: It isn’t an understatement to say this changes everything. Nick Saban’s departure from Alabama will shake the sport. Saban all but owned college football from 2009 to 2020. We’ve see legendary, and it was what Saban did at Alabama. 

His final win, which game in an upset of No. 1 Georgia in Atlanta, capped a legendary career that won’t be passed anytime soon. Its hard to one up Bear Bryant - Nick Saban nearly made it look easy. I remember having a conversation with a longtime Alabama insider sometime around 2014, and I made the case to him that Saban was better than the Bear even then. 

Bama folks spent most of 1982 until 2009 talking about the Bear... they are going to talk about Saban at least that long going into the future. The legend of Bear Bryant isn’t easily defeated in those parts. Still, Saban did it, and left the stage before college football changed in a way that he wasn’t comfortable with. Then again, college football changes; always has; always will. 

Unlike when Bear prowled the sideline, the Iron Bowl isn’t played in Birmingham. The SEC title isn’t determined with a six-game schedule; the national title is determined on the field. Unlike when Saban coached at Alabama (amazing to type that sentence), in 2024 the SEC has 16 teams, and the College Football Playoff now has 11 games and 12 teams. 

Dawg Post
ATLANTA - UGA coach Kirby Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban before the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 30, 2018. (Dean Legge / Dawg Post)

Things change, and this will certainly change the SEC. 

Saban and the Tide may have upset No. 1 UGA in December, but his Alabama had been passed by his most-successful protege some time ago. Kirby Smart holds the last two national titles the SEC has won - that hasn’t been the case for any head coach in the league since the Urban Meyer, who Saban put out of business. And Wednesday’s news means more titles are likely in Athens, and fewer should be expected in T Town - that’s not hate... it just is what it is to borrow a phrase Saban used often years ago. 

That’s not to say Saban didn’t get the best of Georgia early and often. He seemed to save Alabama’s (and sometimes LSU’s) best performances for the Dawgs and Auburn. Poor Auburn... that program has the Kick Six and the Camback, but suffered losses in all but three other contests between in Saban’s 17 seasons of the Iron Bowl. Gravedigger didn’t lead to another Bama title - but it was just enough to turn the knife one final time in the heart of the Tigers.

There was no paper thrown in trees that night, but there was Wednesday (Auburn is going to Auburn). 

Against the Dawgs, Saban’s wins were more painful (if that’s possible) and meaningful than against nearly any other program. LSU’s win over Georgia in the 2003 SEC Championship Game was the first of many title moments between Saban and the Dawgs - with nearly all of them going for Saban in the most painful and bitter of ways for those supporting Silver Britches. 

(Dean Legge/Dawg Post)
ATLANTA - Mark Richt talks with Nick Saban after No. 3 LSU's 34-13 win over No. 5 Georgia in the 2003 SEC Championship game at The Georgia Dome on December 6, 2003.

In 2012, Saban, Kirby and Alabama survived Aaron Murray’s frantic sprint towards the end zone at the old Georgia Dome. The Dawgs were set to complete an improbable comeback against Alabama and we are talking peak Alabama, but it was not to be. 

What people forget about that game is how Alabama outplayed Georgia (outrushing UGA 350 to 113) on a few different levels, but the game came down to the final play of contest because of clutch plays from the Dawgs. Georgia scored touchdowns on a blocked field goal and on a drive that involved a converted fourth down on a trick play as the Dawgs lined up to punt. Alabama threw an interception in the end zone. It was not a great day for details for the Tide. Those three plays nearly cost them a national title - and gave one to UGA. 

Georgia’s 21-10 lead more than halfway through the third simply set the stage for an epic Bama comeback. Two drives after UGA’s 11-point lead, Bama took a 25-21 lead themselves. UGA then answered to go up 28-25. The game, watched by a near-record TV audiance for an SECCG, was becoming a classic.

Late in the fourth, it looked like Georgia might salt the game away, but Bama converted a 3rd and 5 at midfield. A play later AJ McCarron hit Amari Cooper for a 45-yard touchdown. The two teams exchanged punts before Murray sprinted the Dawgs from one side of the Dome to the next only to see the national title slip away on the final play of the game - completing a pass inbounds with no timeouts. 

Five years later Kirby and Saban met in what would be the first of five championship games. The 2018 national title game still stands as the six most-watched college football game of this century. It was probably the most climatic - or second most behind 2005’s Texas-USC. 

(Dean Legge/Dawg Post)
ATLANTA - Alabama WR DeVonta Smith makes the game-winning 41-yard TD catch in overtime during No. 4 Alabama's 26-23 OT win over No. 3 Georgia in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 8, 2018.

Georgia went to the half up 13-0… once more setting up an epic Alabama comeback - the most significant one of Saban’s career. After switching from Jalen Hurts to freshman Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama rallied to get to overtime. A 51-yard field goal from Georgia meant Bama had to match or beat that score. But on the first play of Alabama’s overtime, Tagovailoa had taken a horrid sack to back the Tide out of field goal range, and into a 2nd-and-26 situation. The rest is history - it is the only overtime win in College Football Playoff National Championship Game history.

"I could not believe it," Saban told reporters after the game. 

No one could.

But Kirby was resolute after the game - telling a small collection of reporters in the post-game press conference: “I think everybody can see Georgia is a force to be reckoned with," Smart said following the loss. “We're not going anywhere.”

Two SEC Championship Game losses later, the Bulldogs met up with the Tide in the CFP NCG once more - this time in frigid Indianapolis. Georgia and Alabama kicked field goals all first half - slogging along against one another. First downs were a struggle for both teams. 

But deep in the third quarter Alabama’s 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Afrer a TV timeout, James Cook’s 67-yard run seemed to break the game open. A few plays later Zamir White plunged into the end zone, and Georgia took a narrow 13-9 lead. Alabama scored on back-to-back drives that pushed the Tide’s advantage to 18-13. 

Dawg Post
INDIANAPOLIS - Georgia coach Kirby Smart celebrates during No. 3 Georgia's 33-18 win over No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 10, 2021. (Dean Legge / Dawg Post)

This time the comeback would be UGA’s. The Dawgs then scored three straight touchdowns - including Kelee Ringo’s legendary 79-yard interception. Kirby had finally bested Nick Saban. Tears streamed down the faces of the tens of thousands of UGA fans in attendance. For the first time since 1980, the Georgia Bulldogs had won it all. Kirby and the Dawgs followed that up a year later with a 15-0 season. 13 games after that No. 1 Georgia was upset by the Tide in Atlanta to end UGA’s championship hopes in 2023. 

Saban’s Tide lost a month later in the Rose Bowl Game to Michigan on the final play of the game in overtime. Saban, as it turns out, was done, but not without accomplishments the rest of college football will find hard to match. 

Often Alabama under Saban saved its best for the Dawgs - 2012, 2017, 2018 and 2023 serve as great reminders of just how good Alabama was under Saban. And, to be frank, those games show what we will miss in the future. There is no telling how much fun Georgia’s clashes with the Tide would have been in the 2024 College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Atlanta. 

A big game in Atlanta without the Dawgs and Nick Saban’s Tide? Seems hard to fathom. 

We won’t get that now. The angst, the fun, even the fear - that’s all gone now. And it is too bad. 

Perhaps what Saban’s departure means is best encapsulated in what happened in the betting markets the moment Saban’s announcement broke. Alabama’s home game with Georgia looms in September. It is a primetime affair between college football’s two biggest brands of the last ten years. On Wednesday morning, Alabama was considered a one-point favorite to beat Kirby’s Dawgs. 

By Wednesday night, Alabama had become a 2.5-point underdog. That swing means Nick Saban is worth half a touchdown as a coach.

History shows he’s worth a whole lot more than that.

 
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