Perception Is Everything, And That’s Why Kirby Smart Needs To Beat Nick Saban This Time Around

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Here we go again.

The national championship game has presented Georgia another opportunity to knock off the giant that is Alabama. We’ve been down this road four times now, and the last meeting came in the Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta just over one month ago.

It’s the fifth time Georgia coach Kirby Smart will face off against his mentor, Nick Saban. This one’s for everything on Monday in Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium. Many predicted we’d see this after ‘Bama stomped the Bulldogs in Atlanta.

You know the old Ric Flair saying, right? “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And thus the question still looms: Can Smart finally beat the guy who has the college football world in the palm of his hand? Perhaps even more than who’ll  win the title, it’s the topic everyone’s talking about.

It’s time for Smart to put the Saban talk to bed.

Smart reminds you of that guy who has held all the belts but the Big One. He’s been through wars, but has never delivered the knockout punch, even when he’s had the better team. And fairly or unfairly, the noise will only get louder if Georgia, a 3-point favorite, can’t deliver on Monday.

Let’s also be honest: How many coaches wouldn’t be in this position?

“Other than they’ve also been a problem and a thorn for any team they’ve played besides ours,” Smart said this week. “We have that in common with a lot of teams. They have a really good football team, really good coach, really good program. It starts with really good football players. And they’ve done a good job recruiting those. And the I think when you look at the skill set of some of the guys they’ve had come through there, and I know myself, just looking at the last two or three times we’ve played them, I think somebody said either six or seven first-round wideouts have all played.”

That may have been an awkward way to put it, but Smart did a great job of deflecting from the true question. And to that, there are many players who can command a storyline, whether that be Bryce Young or Stetson Bennett, Will Anderson or Jordan Davis, something that Smart also pointed out this week.

“It’s been games of momentum,” Smart said. “[Alabama’s] done a good job at momentum in the second half. Each game has been different. And it will never be about [Saban] and I. I know he won’t make it that, and I won’t make it that. Because that’s for you guys to do that. It’s about the players. It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that, the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions — the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games, not he and I.”

Still, this keeps coming up for a reason. The landscape of college football might be shifting, but Saban still has his finger on the pulse of the game better than anyone, and that’s not changing any time soon. Look, folks can talk till they’re blue in the face that Smart isn’t thinking about finally beating Saban. And that’s OK. Smart doesn’t want to give off those type of vibes around his program.

But it’s still a lie.

Smart maintains this is about the players and not the coaches. The assistant coaches who have worked with him in the past currently know the truth. I spoke with one former Smart assistant, who talked about him finally finishing the job against Saban.

“Kirby, man he would love to put that to rest. If he could just take care of business on Monday, then it’s like that monkey jumping off your back,” he said. “He needs to get this one.”

Back to the players for a moment. As great as Alabama is, we’ve seen better. The ‘Tide are down John Metchie and even with him and Jameson Williams, it didn’t approach several Saban receiving corps, and certainly not last year’s. Brian Robinson Jr. is good, but he’s not Derrick Henry. And Anderson aside, it’s certainly not Vintage Alabama on that side of the ball.

In other words, playing Alabama probably won’t be easier next year, or the year after.

Sometimes the matchup creates the storyline of how the game will be perceived by most folks. Some are agitated that two SEC teams are facing off again for the championship. Some won’t care at all who’s playing; they’re either casual gamblers or the average SEC fan tuning in to see whether Saban will take a loss.

And then there are those who’ll tune in to see if Smart can finally put Saban down for the 10-count.

So, make no bones about it. Smart and Saban are the headliners, and most folks are tuning in to see whether the younger contender can finally throw the knockout punch to the longstanding champ.

It’s time for the younger fighter to finish the job. And if not, folks might start losing interest in the fight.

Written by Trey Wallace

Wallace started covering the SEC in 2012, as the conference landscape was beginning to change. Prior to his time in Knoxville, Wallace worked in Nashville for The Read Optional, where he first produced content that garnered national attention. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football’s biggest stories. His social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of SEC’s most trusted sources.

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  1. As an alumni and big fan of the Bulldogs I am hoping against hope that Georgia is able to finally get over the hump. Georgia is due and Kirby has done a great job getting us to the Championship final for a second time in five years. Kirby is right that our struggles against Alabama and Saban are not unique to the Bulldogs. But if you want to be the champion you have to go through Alabama and this is a great opportunity to gets some revenge. We have the team to do it this year and we will not play as poorly as we did in the SEC Championship. I am calling it for Georgia 34-20.

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