ATLANTA — Tonight’s national championship game will be peak Nick Saban.
Not just because an Alabama victory will give the coach a sixth national title, tying him with the legendary Bear Bryant for the most in college football history.
Not just because his Crimson Tide will be competing against Georgia — a program built like ’Bama and run by his former assistant, Kirby Smart.
The real reason: This might be the best coaching job Saban has ever done.
Alabama had a school-record 10 players drafted from last season’s runnerup team. Four went in the first round (including Bucs TE O.J. Howard), and seven went in the first 55 picks — a feat no program had ever accomplished in the draft.
The exodus of elite talent continued during the season that’s as injury-riddled as any Saban can remember. Ten different defensive starters have missed a combined 47 games, with the linebacker unit absorbing 39 of them.
"I can’t even tell you the number of guys that we have out," Saban said, "but it’s a pretty significant number."
It grew in the Rose Bowl win over Clemson, when the Tide lost LB Anfernee Jennings and RG Lester Cotton.
Every team sustains injuries, and Saban’s famed "Process" is designed to withstand attrition through elite recruiting and development. But this year has been a challenge, even for the Tide, which makes its shot at a fifth championship in nine years even more remarkable.
"I don’t think people appreciate what he’s been able to do in the most competitive college football league for a long time," Smart said. "And when you start talking about what he’s been able to do, I think it’s pretty incredible."
Two other stories to watch
• Can Georgia out-Alabama Alabama?
Smart hasn’t only built his program in a Saban-esque style. The teams are built similarly, too — with an emphasis on the run game and strength and physicality along the lines.
"They are as big and as physical as we’ve faced," Smart said. "We’ve got to match the physicality."
Georgia could do that against anyone else, but very few, if any, teams have done that against Alabama.
The programs that have beaten Saban either run versions of the spread offense, have running quarterbacks, or both. Georgia has neither.
The Bulldogs offense relies on Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, the most prolific rushing duo in Division I-A history. They helped Georgia lead the country with 46 rushes of at least 20 yards. Maybe the Bulldogs can continue doing that against Alabama, but the Tide’s defense has allowed only seven such rushes all year (No. 3 nationally).
Instead, Georgia and true freshman QB Jake Fromm might have to pass to win. Four of the last five starting quarterbacks to beat the Tide threw at least 31 passes in the win.
Fromm hasn’t thrown more than 29 in a game all season.
• Bucs fans should keep an eye on Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior is a Swiss army knife in the secondary — a rough equivalent to Florida State S Derwin James. Both are expected to be first-round picks in the spring, and Fitzpatrick seems like a possible match for the Bucs at No. 7.
Fitzpatrick has a school-record four interceptions returned for touchdowns over his career, and his 55 tackles this season ranked fourth on the team. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the top overall defensive player.
Given the Tide’s defensive attrition, Fitzpatrick might have to play an even bigger role tonight. If he does, look for him to keep popping up high on NFL draft boards.