INDIANAPOLIS — Georgia’s 33-18 triumph over Alabama in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship was undoubtedly bitter for Florida fans. The rival Bulldogs’ four-decade title drought is over, and with how well Kirby Smart is recruiting, the next championship might not be far away.
But somewhere deep in the bitterness sits a morsel of hope. If the Bulldogs can do it with their version of the Saban way, so can the Gators. And maybe Miami, too.
“The proof’s in the pudding,” new Florida coach Billy Napier said. “I think the two that played for the championship game last night, there’s evidence relative to the way that they’ve created their organization.”
Those comments came a day during Napier’s introductory news conference, a day after Alabama and Georgia met in the SEC title game. But they seem even truer today. The proof is even stronger.
Though no one questions Nick Saban’s dynasty and the way he runs Alabama, his coaching tree hadn’t flowered enough outside of Tuscaloosa. Yes, there have been plenty of notable branches. Mark Dantonio took Michigan State to a College Football Playoff (but lost handily to Saban). Lane Kiffin led Mississippi to the first 10-win regular season in program history (but lost handily to Saban). Jim McElwain won a pair of SEC East titles at Florida (but lost handily to Saban).
Until Monday, however, only one former Saban assistant had won it all: Jimbo Fisher at Florida State in 2013.
And Smart makes two.
Smart built his Bulldogs in the ‘Bama image, from the top-down structure to the year-round focus on recruiting. In 2018, his Bulldogs snapped Alabama’s streak of seven top-ranked recruiting classes (according to the 247Sports composite). The last team to have a No. 1 recruiting class before then: Florida.
Saban is not judged on recruiting classes or division titles. He is judged on national titles. His coaching tree should be judged the same way. And it had been coming up empty.
Not anymore. Smart’s victory was a triumph for himself, of course, and his ultra-talented players, star-crossed program and long-suffering fans. But it was also a triumph of sorts for Saban’s Process. With the right coach, the right resources, the right administration and enough time, an Alabama-like team can win at the highest level. It can out-Alabama Alabama.
It can build a roster teeming with the talent necessary to go toe-to-toe with a modern juggernaut and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. It can stockpile speed and size and strength to outscore a superpower 20-0 in the final 10 minutes. It can pound a proud defense to 4.7 yards per carry and rack up eight tackles for loss against a line that dominated the first meeting in Atlanta. It can build so much depth that its quarterback doesn’t have to be a future NFL starter — something that hadn’t happened for a national champion since 2015 Alabama (led by FSU transfer Jake Coker).
That 2015 Crimson Tide team still resonates in Florida today. Its head coach, obviously, was Saban. Its defensive coordinator was Smart, who has now joined Fisher as the only two Sabanites to beat ‘Bama. Two other assistants on that 2015 title team? Napier (receivers coach) and Cristobal (offensive line).
As if Smart’s triumph alone wasn’t enough proof to show that Saban’s Process could work at Florida or Miami, look back at one of the game-changing sequences in the second half.
Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter reached up to get a piece of an Alabama field goal. Carter is a former five-star recruit from Apopka, less than two hours from Gainesville. On the next play, James Cook exploded for a 67-yard rush that ignited a stagnant offense. Cook is a former top-50 national recruit from Miami and the younger brother of former FSU star Dalvin Cook. The state’s Big Three let them get away, along with Bradenton IMG Academy’s Nolan Smith (seven tackles, two for a loss).
The top priority for Napier and Cristobal should be to keep the next Carters, Cooks and Smiths home — and away from Saban and Smart. Both have already pulled some encouraging recruiting coups to make that seem possible; Cristobal flipped top-100 IMG tight end Jaleel Skinner from Alabama to Miami last month, and Napier beat Georgia for five-star IMG safety Kamari Wilson.
Now they must do it again, and again, and again, while beefing up their personnel and facilities until their programs look like sunnier versions of the ones that met at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night — including the one at Georgia that finally broke through and showed just how sweet that pudding can taste.
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