When Alabama and Georgia meet for the national championship Monday night, expect both teams to be prepared.
No, seriously, expect them to be seriously prepared. Prepared, prepared, prepared. If Alabama's Nick Saban is the No. 1 most prepared coach in the country, then Georgia's Kirby Smart is No. 1A.
Smart spent 11 years as a Saban assistant at three different places, including a year at LSU, a year with the Miami Dolphins and nine at Alabama. There's an old story from the 2011 season when Alabama faced LSU for the national championship, and the Crimson Tide had probably college football's best defense in two decades. Smart was Saban's defensive coordinator at the time. Michael Casagrande of Alabama Media Group wrote a fantastic piece recently about that game, and like everything else Casagrade writes, it's a great read.
The Tide defense had trouble only once all season — against Georgia Southern, then an FCS school, which ran an old-fashioned triple option. Georgia Southern rushed for 302 yards in a 45-21 loss to Alabama, which was nearly half the rushing yards the Tide allowed in its other 12 games that season.
LSU had not run the triple option all season, but Alabama prepared for it anyway, guarding against the idea that the Tigers could've installed it just for the Tide. The Tigers didn't run the triple option and wound up losing 21-0 to Alabama in the championship game. Even so, the Tide was prepared for the unexpected.
That game was a rematch, with LSU winning the first meeting.
Alabama and Georgia will be a rematch, too, which should drive game preparation into an even higher gear. The Tide won the first meeting 41-24 in the SEC Championship Game. These are two exceptionally good teams, so how will Saban and Smart prepare to win the second meeting, which has even higher stakes?
Expect a trick play or two. Both coaches have proven they're willing to line up and slug it out with opposing teams, with no tricks or gambles, but both always carry a little something extra in the game plan if they need an edge. It's always the result of preparation.
In 2009, when Alabama beat Texas for the national championship, Saban planned to run a pass by the punter on the first opportunity. Alabama noticed that when defending the punt, Texas didn’t closely cover the gunners, who split out wide on either side of the line.
The Tide did it when it faced fourth-and-23 at its own 20. It didn’t work.
Alabama planned to insert All-America receiver Julio Jones into the game as one of the gunners. Saban said Jones was hurt during that offensive series and was replaced on the punt team by then-freshman defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick, who didn’t run the route correctly. Texas intercepted punter P.J. Fitzgerald’s pass 17 yards downfield.
Even if it didn’t work, every time after that Texas was forced to take two people out of its punt rush to cover the two gunners tightly.
When Alabama lost to LSU in their 2011 regular-season matchup, the Tide had first-and-10 at the LSU 28 in the fourth quarter and ran a wide receiver pass by Marquis Maze. Tight end Michael Williams appeared to catch it at the LSU 1-yard line, but the Bengal Tigers’ Eric Reid wrestled it away for an interception.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad call. Williams was open. He would’ve caught it and scored easily, but Maze, throwing off a bad ankle, tossed a sky pass that took forever to come down.
But, hey, not all gambles fail. When Alabama beat Clemson 45-40 for the 2015 national title, the turning point in the game was an onsides kick that the Tide recovered in the fourth quarter when the two teams were tied 27-27. Alabama had scouted and saw that the front line of Clemson's kickoff return unit was bunched together too tightly. It left an obvious gap on the sides.
In practice, that onsides kick almost never worked, but it did that night in that game.
Saban also ran an onsides kick on the first kickoff against Tennessee in 2007, his first year in Tuscaloosa. It worked. Alabama got a quick field goal and never let up in a 41-17 win. The Tide had lost 10 of 12 to the Vols but that win started a streak in the series that's up to 15.
Smart tried a gamble against Alabama in the 2018 SEC Championship Game with a little more than three minutes left and the two teams tied 28-28. On fourth-and-11 at the 50-yard line, Smart had Georgia lined up to punt but inserted backup quarterback Justin Fields into the upback position. He would take the snap and try to make a play for a first down … or more.
It failed miserably, as Fields ran and was tackled 9 yards short of a first down. Five plays later, Alabama scored the winning touchdown.
Georgia had another player who wore No. 1 like Fields did, but that guy wasn't the upback on the punt team. In addition, Georgia lined up in a different formation than it usually used when it punted.
Alabama wasn't fooled. The Tide left its regular defense on the field, except it did drop back Jaylen Waddle to receive, just in case Georgia did kick.
Neither team has had to gamble or dip into the trick-play bag often this year, but expect it this time.
Still, it's probably a good bet that particular fake punt is permanently barred from the Georgia play card.