The 2018 CFP National Championship drips with Southern flavor and familiarity
This is how the South prefers football, and the nation will get to watch it with a title on the line
ATLANTA -- If this College Football Playoff National Championship were any more Southern, it would be played in a Waffle House.
Southern pride, Southern fried.
Nick vs. Kirby. Teacher vs. Student. SEC vs. SEC. Brother against brother squaring off the what is already assured -- the Southeastern Conference's 10th national title since 2003.
Hold up a mirror and make sure not fog it up hyperventilating. Georgia's starving (for a title). Alabama's dominating (four titles in the last eight years). This one might go down to the last biscuit, er, minute.
The SEC remains the only conference in the BCS era (since 1998) that has twice had its teams play for a national title. The last was LSU and Alabama in 2011 when Nick and Kirby got revenge on the Tigers. This time, Kirby tries to get the upper hand on his old boss.
You could almost see the participants at Saturday's media day squirming in their seats. They would prefer this game not take place, at least this soon.
Just 27 games into his head-coaching career, Smart is within one step of the mountaintop. Now 285 games into his career, Saban is trying to stiff arm the he taught everything he knows.
"I like my chances playing against [Saban] in pickup basketball sometimes better than I would in a game possibly because I know who he is, I know what he does," Smart said. "He knows everything that I do and that we do. There's a lot of similarities between the two programs."
The defenses -- both 3-4 alignments -- trace their roots back to Saban's mentor Bill Belichick. Both defensive coordinators in this game -- Georgia's Mel Tucker and Alabama's Jeremy Pruitt -- trace their roots back to Saban.
Both teams will attempt to run and stop the run. It is a game to played the game in a phone booth because that's the way God intended life to be lived down here -- along the line of scrimmage.
"They do a lot of the same stuff that we do," Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
You practically need a football version of Ancestry.com to keep track. There's so much cross-pollination, you need a beekeeper.
There's Kirby and Nick. For eight seasons, Smart was Saban's top lieutenant and CEO of some of the best defenses of the modern age. When Smart took over at Georgia in December 2015, there was always sort of a faraway dream that student could one day meet teacher.
But in the current 14-team SEC configuration, Georgia and Alabama are guaranteed to meet only once every six seasons and twice every 12 seasons. Never in back-to-back seasons. That's what conference expansion has done to one of the oldest rivalries in the South. The teams last met five years ago in the SEC Championship Game. But that was before Smart's expertise moved up the timetable on Nick-Kirby I.
"I knew it would happen at some point in time," said Georgia assistant Kevin Sherrer. "At what time frame, I wasn't real sure. Coach Saban has been at Alabama for several years. I don't know how much longer he's going to be there."
Sherrer is in the odd position of coaching against Pruitt, who just hired him as his defensive coordinator at Tennessee. The pair coached together for two seasons at Southern power Hoover (Alabama) High School in suburban Birmingham. For three years (2010-12), they were together at Alabama. Once the gun sounds Monday night, they will head to Knoxville where part of the mandate will be to beat the butts of the teams they just left.
Smart made Glenn Schumann his first hire, taking him away from Alabama in December 2015 to coach Georgia's inside linebackers. Schumann was reportedly one of only three coaches in the defensive game-planning meeting at Alabama along with Smart and Saban. He then became the youngest on-field assistant in the SEC at age 26.
If there is ever a guy who knows both programs' secrets, it's Schumann. He started coaching at Alabama as a teenager, spending nine years coming up as an analyst, graduate assistant and director of player development.
"The relief comes after the game is over," Schumann said, "if you're successful."
If there is a best story to come out of this, it's Smart. He is poised to become the third coach this century to win it all within two years of becoming a head coach for the first game. (Bob Stoops and Larry Coker are the others.)
"Kirby has spent as much time with Coach Saban as anybody," Alabama co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "The blueprint of how we do things, not only does Kirby know, but I'm sure he was part of developing some of it."
The latest to leave, Pruitt calmly answered questions for an hour at Saturday's media day, steering inquiries away from Tennessee and toward Monday night.
The last three weeks or so have been spent recruiting and assembling a staff that he hopes makes him the Smart or Saban of Tennessee.
"The fact that he had to deal with a signing day while there, I wouldn't wish that [on anybody]," Smart said. "Mix in a signing day while you're practicing at another place, that's unfathomable. ... He's not doing it because of the loyalty to Nick; he thinks it's the right thing to do for those players."
That sort of dual role beats last year at this time. Lane Kiffin basically was fired as offensive coordinator the week before the CFP National Championship. Steve Sarkisian took over, then took off for the Atlanta Falcons.
Not that this coaching talent drain has mattered. Saban remains 11-0 against his former assistants. Next season, Pruitt will make it three former Saban assistants in the SEC alone. (Smart and Jimbo Fisher are the others.)
Excuse all of them if they know what the other is going to do before it happens.
"Sometimes you could overthink it," Pruitt said. "If we do this, Kirby is going to know we're going to do this. I'm sure he's sitting there trying to do the same thing."
In the end, this game will be decided by sons of the South. There are 126 players combined in this game from Georgia and Alabama alone.
Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb (Cedartown, Georgia) and Sony Michel (Plantation, Florida) are the No. 2 and No. 3 rushers in school history. Alabama's newest offensive weapon is 308-pound noseguard Da'Ron Payne, who grabbed an interception and then nabbed a touchdown pass last week against Clemson.
"I thought it was a joke at first," Payne said. "But they ran it."
That would be Da'Ron Payne -- native of Birmingham, Alabama, which is the headquarters of the SEC, which owns Atlanta, the CFP, and once again, college football.
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