ATLANTA — Alabama began a tradition Saturday night inside of a cramped, bustling and celebratory locker room, its 35–28 victory over Georgia in the SEC championship game minutes old.
“Bomb Squad!” one player shouted.
“Booomb Squaaaaad!” another responded.
“Booooomb Squaaaaaaaad!” a third replied.
This is a nod to world heavyweight champion boxer Deontay Wilder (aka “the Bronze Bomber”), the Tuscaloosa native, leader of “Bomb Squad Nation” and avid Crimson Tide fan who had a scheduled bout in Los Angeles on Saturday night. Hours before Wilder’s clash in the ring with Tyson Fury, Alabama and Nick Saban absorbed the repeated blows of Georgia and former assistant Kirby Smart without going down, and in the final round, with two bloody, bruised sluggers staggering across from one another, Saban—backup quarterback and all—landed the haymaker. Down went Georgia, the fourth-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings playing for a spot in the semifinals, and down went Smart, another ex-Saban apprentice who came up short against the master.
Saban is now 16–0 against his former assistants after rallying twice from 14-point deficits to take down Smart for a second straight year in similarly demoralizing fashion. They duked it out for a full 10 rounds of entertainment in the same ring in which they fought a year ago for the national championship. This one was a quasi-national quarterfinal and a potential season-ending affair for the loser that came down to the final play, a jump ball tipped out the back of the end zone with the Bulldogs 39 yards from pay dirt.
The SEC and Smart can lobby all they want, but the Bulldogs are likely toast; they should be left out of the College Football Playoff. Saban denied Smart a national title a year ago, and this year he kept him from playing for another. Georgia led the first seven rounds of both bouts before epic comebacks, each conducted by a different Crimson Tide backup quarterback. Tua Tagovailoa landed the critical jabs in last year’s games, and Jalen Hurts planted them on Saturday night. After Tagovailoa left Saturday’s game for good with a banged up right ankle (after injuring his left ankle in the first half), Hurts led the Tide on two scoring drives—one to tie it at 28 with 5:19 left and the other for the game-winning touchdown with 1:04 remaining.
He called his own shot, too. Hurts scored the go-ahead and eventual winner on a 15-yard quarterback draw that he picked himself. “It was a called run, and it was a run he requested,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. Saban improved to 8–1 in SEC title games dating back to his LSU days, and he extended that perfect mark against his old employees turned head coaches, a group of eight former assistants who haven’t figured out how to beat the master. The familiar heads on his wall include Derek Dooley (three times), Jim McElwain (three times), Mark Dantonio (twice), Will Muschamp (twice), Jimbo Fisher (twice), Billy Napier (once), Jeremy Pruitt (once) and now Smart twice in the same calendar year.
Afterward, defensive back Shyheim Carter wasn’t sure how to describe his coach’s dominance, aside from saying that on weeks when facing his old assistants “he can get very intense about it.” When Smart left Saban’s side after nine years in Tuscaloosa, the last eight as defensive coordinator, he was expected to build his alma mater into an SEC East behemoth to rival Alabama. Saban got some a gift from his apprentice in the form of a failed faked punt on fourth-and-11 from midfield with 3:04 to go, a play that Smart claimed afterward was open if the Bulldogs had snapped the ball faster. The Crimson Tide got great field position at their own 48 in a tie game and drove for the game-winning touchdown.
Alabama’s latest escape isn’t a product of some magic potion Miss Terry gives her husband. It’s coaching. It’s halftime adjustments. It’s whiteboard scribbling. It’s the scheming behind the yelling and screaming. Alabama players said afterward that Georgia used offensive formations they were not expecting, which contributed to the three touchdowns and 227 yards the Bulldogs posted in the first half. “They were doing a lot of things, eye candy on us,” defensive back Shyheim Carter says. “They were trying to … the stuff we focused on this week at practice, really wasn’t the type of stuff they ran in the game. The formations were foreign to us.” Linebacker Jamey Mosley described UGA’s formations as “funky.” They were “odd,” cornerback Patrick Surtain says.
The Bulldogs put four receivers to one side, and they moved their normal outside receivers inside, Surtain says. At halftime, Bama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi hit the dry-erase whiteboard, jotting down defensive adjustments to combat these new looks. He stressed to his team to communicate better and louder on said formations, and the Tide secondary disguised coverages in a way they did not in the first half, said cornerback Saivion Smith. “We tried to get the quarterback to look at one thing and [we] played another,” Smith said. “They schemed well for us. Coach Smart is a very detailed coach. He knows what to do. He had them boys right.” Up front, defensive linemen Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis, facing constant double teams, made minor changes to their approach. “We had to sit in there and be more physical,” Williams said.
The result was another Saban assistant on the mat, the victor standing over him with arms raised in the air.