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How Kirby Smart & Georgia Solved Nick Saban

The Alabama boss entered the season undefeated against his own coaching tree. In the end, it was a former pupil that bested him for the national championship.

Every dog is supposed to have its day. But in the world of college football, that came to feel untrue.

In the last 10 seasons, there were only five different national champions. In the College Football Playoff era, there have only been four — and Nick Saban’s Alabama had been the main reason for the lack of parity.

The Tide have taken home six national titles since the 2009 season, a run unrivaled in major Division I men’s sports since John Wooden’s UCLA basketball days and similar in nature to women’s basketball runs of Geno Auriemma’s UConn and Pat Summitt’s Tennessee.

The University of Georgia Bulldogs have an impressive college football history, but you may have heard they hadn’t won a football title since 1980. And like many schools, especially in the cut-throat, king-making world of the Southeastern Conference, their chosen solution was adding to the Saban coaching tree, hiring former defensive coordinator and Georgia alum Kirby Smart as head coach following the 2015 season.

And after falling to the Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship in overtime, Smart and the Dawgs finally broke through and knocked off Bama, taking the national title 33-18 on Monday night thanks to a foruth quarter for the ages.

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UGA had been ranked No. 1 for a majority of the season, but Bama still had their number come last month’s SEC Championship — and no one could deny it. In a rivalry dating back to 1895, Georgia hadn’t beaten Alabama since 2007, losing seven straight contests — including four under Smart.

In a 41-24 victory in for top conference honors on Dec. 4, Alabama vaulted Georgia in the rankings, establishing itself as once again the team to beat in the parity-free world of college football.

But led by former walk-on quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and a smothering, high-flying defense bound for the history books, Alabama looked mortal in defeat.

And for the first time with national title on the line, it came against not just an SEC opponent, but a Nick Saban pupil.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and his star-studded offense kept stalling in the Red Zone, settling for field goals and building Georgia’s confidence. Top wide receiver Jameson Williams left early in the 2nd quarter with a knee injury, sidelining him alongside wideout John Metchie, who tore his ACL against Georgia in their previous meeting.

During a game where offensive fireworks were expected, a defensive struggle broke out. Trading field goals and field position, Georgia took a tenuous 13-9 lead into the fourth quarter. But two plays changed the game.

And the Bulldogs’ football fortunes.

After a bizarre fumble by Bennett (that just about nobody thought was a fumble) was casually recovered by Bama’s Brian Branch and allowed to stand following a lengthy and questionable replay review, Young found Cameron Latu to go up 18-13 with 11:29 left.

Bennett responded, finding Adonai Mitchell on a twisting, acrobatic 40-yard TD pass to take the lead with 8:09 left.

Down 26-18 with 69 seconds left and driving at the Georgia 44, this was normally where Young and Alabama would tie the game steal the momentum and win the national title. But Young, who was off all game, sailed a throw that Kelee Ringo took 79 yards to the house, sealing the game and starting a raucous celebration from Indianapolis to Athens and around the world.

The student had finally defeated the master with the biggest prize on the line, and Smart and Georgia didn’t simply steal it — they completed a campaign in which they were truly the nation’s most dominant team.

Yes, Georgia was favored in this matchup, yet it seemed pre-ordained that Alabama would somehow find a way to win just like in December and just like four years ago.

But on this night, Georgia flipped the script, kicked Alabama’s ass in the fourth, as Saban put it to Smart, and took home a championship more than four decades in the making.

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