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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

Kirby Smart has a chance to become Nick Saban's one true peer

It's coming, and we can't wait. It's the College Football National Championship Game and so much more. It's Georgia, the reigning champion, the big dog back in the house, against TCU, the hypnotizing underfrog, the team no one saw coming. It's the last dance for UGa quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, the most clutch player in the playoff era, against the doubters and haters who've yet to give the man his due.

It is his last dance, isn't it? Bennett's longevity has surpassed mockery, and his stature has grown into an inevitability when it's win or go home.

There is one more compelling game within the game of particular importance around here, where it still takes getting used to when Alabama is absent from the festivities. This matchup is mythical, but it will have the locals taking it in and breaking it down long after the final blast of red or purple confetti.

It's Kirby Smart vs. Nick Saban. The protege has an unprecedented opportunity Monday night. He can surpass his mentor without facing him and go where even the GOAT has not gone.

No one has won back-to-back national championships in the four-team playoff era. No one has survived two playoff games in each of two consecutive seasons. Georgia, with Smart fully in charge, can be that someone. Fun fact: If they get it done, the Dawgs will be the only ones - ever - because next season is the final year of the four-team playoff.

Not long after it started in 2014, this playoff era quickly became an extension of Alabama's unprecedented era of excellence. Now it's almost totally gone to the Dawgs. Or it will if they can step on the Frogs.

No offense to Sonny Dykes and his tremendous debut with TCU, but Smart looks up at only one coach at work today, and Saban has only one true challenger. From the standpoint of history, Saban's place in that pecking order is secure now and likely forevermore. He is the consensus greatest college football coach of all time, and nothing that happens Monday night will recalibrate that equation.

From the perspective of who's the boss now, however, the scoreboard will tell all. A Georgia victory will elevate Smart like none of his previous 80 triumphs as a college head coach. Win this game, complete this undefeated season, put the cap on back-to-back titles, and the ground shifts beneath us. Maybe, with the San Andreas Fault nearby, it actually may quake.

Georgia wins, and Smart will own as many national championships since leaving Saban as Saban himself in this seven-year span. The count will be 2 and 2, 1 and 1 in head-to-head national title matchups, but recency bias tilts the argument toward Smart.

In some ways, Georgia going back-to-back would be more impressive than the last team to accomplish that feat, which, of course, was Alabama in 2011 and 2012. With Saban running the organization and Smart coordinating the defense, the Crimson Tide still needed some good fortune because they lost a regular-season game each season. They didn't have to play in the SEC Championship Game in 2011, and the "playoff" each year consisted of a single BCS Championship Game.

Still, stacking 13-1 upon 12-1 to capture two straight big rings is a memorable feat. So what does it say that Georgia went 14-1 last season and is 60 minutes away from 15-0? What does it mean that Georgia didn't lose a regular-season game during either run and its only defeat during the impending repeat will have been to Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship Game?

Read more of Kevin's contemplation of two great coaches. Only in The Lede.

Current college football coaching greats, party of two: Nick Saban (r) and Kirby Smart.



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