Nick Saban, Kirby Smart making playoff cases shows conference title games will never be this important again

Written by on December 3, 2023

ATLANTA — Kirby Smart was trotting off the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf Saturday night trying to leave one of the most gut-wrenching games of his career, literally, behind him.

It had hardly settled in that Nick Saban had done it again, beaten his one-time top lieutenant and defensive coordinator by 3 points with — at least at that time — a College Football Playoff berth in the balance. Gone were multiple weeks as the No. 1 team in the country, a 29-game winning streak and — at least impacted — a dynasty that was rivaling the one Saban has created.

Then Smart stopped in his tracks as he headed toward the tunnel and turned around. Georgia’s coach started shaking players’ hands as they came off the field, thanking them and whispering sweet football nothings in their ears. The game had ended in the most brutal of ways, but the pursuit was not over. Smart had convinced himself — and his players — of that.

“We gonna be there,” Georgia wide receiver Rara Thomas said to himself as he limped off the field on crutches.

No translation was needed. There was the College Football Playoff after No. 1 Georgia fell 27-24 to No. 8 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. It wasn’t so much that the CFP had been decided at that point. It’s that Smart, Georgia’s coach, had made his players believe it their ultimate goal was not yet lost.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock uncharacteristically painted the system into a corner earlier this week when he said the four-team bracket should contain the “best teams in order.”

“‘Most deserving’ is not anything in the [CFP Selection Committee’s] lexicon,” Hancock added.

Smart appropriated that revelatory statement in speaking to CBS Sports following the loss.

“If that ain’t [one of] the best four teams out there … I don’t believe any man or woman sitting on that committee doesn’t believe that that’s not one of the best teams,” he said in reference to Georgia.

Smart’s got a point. By any measure, Alabama (and Georgia) should be considered among the four best teams after Saturday’s back-and-forth SEC title game. But for the decade of the CFP’s existence, it has fudged the qualifications enough that even the Strength Everywhere Conference considered itself being in danger of being left out.

In fact, the second-most asked question in the press box after “What kind of food are they serving in the postgame?” was “Is Georgia in?”

There was no definitive answer.

All of it was brought by the prospect of four undefeated Power Five teams at the top going into the weekend. Logic should dictate, if those four major-conference teams won their respective championship games, they shouldn’t lose ground to other such teams with losses.

“I don’t think that’s the real world of college football,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “If you look at high-level college football teams, you just saw it. The committee has its criteria. I said that’s not the real world to me. And there is not a team that would be in that would want to player either of our teams. Period.”

It was a crazy weekend in these parts. Expansion to a 12-team playoff has made sure it will never be this crazy again.

It will never be this intense in the greatest conferences with the greatest championship games. There will never be this much at stake.

The tension was ramped up this week as a game of musical chairs evolved. Saban and Sankey spent equal time stumping for their team and conference in front of any camera with a red light on. At one point, Sankey invoked an old “Sesame Street” routine where children were taught “one of these things is not like the other.”

Again, no translation needed. The one was the SEC, which at least reputationally, deserves a spot. But the CFP is not about reputations. It shouldn’t be, unless you’re in the Deep South cocoon of this league. It shouldn’t be, especially when — truth be told — the SEC was down this year, if ever so slightly.

Texas went into Bryant-Denny Stadium in Week 2 and dominated Alabama. You can’t just forget about that. The ACC and Big 12 went a combined 8-5 against the SEC. Suddenly, the prospect of an unbeaten Florida State in a Power Five conference became a discussion point.

Florida State!

Next year, the likes of Alabama and Georgia — even Texas, whose fortunes were hanging in the balance Saturday night as well — will be playing these league title games for seeding. There will be first-round byes at stake for the champions.

Nothing like the do-or-die nature of Saturday. The expansion from two to four to 12 teams has even somewhat diminished those conference championships.

It’s all about the playoff, just in a different way. The commissioners, who 11 years ago assembled the CFP, knowingly did so realizing there were four spots for five power conferences. Some one was always going to be left out. The SEC never has been to this point. In fact, it hasn’t been left out of any championship chase since 2004 when Auburn went 13-0 in the old BCS system.

Why, when the league appeared to be so vulnerable, shouldn’t it be so … vulnerable?

So, as Saturday night edged into early Sunday morning, the only birthright was Saban’s in this city. The man is now 18-1 as a coach in Atlanta with 17 straight wins, including a 9-1 record in SEC title games (no losses since his first appearance in 2008). In so-called rematch games across his career, Saban is 23-2. That last time these teams met, Georgia won the 2021 national title with a fourth-quarter comeback against Alabama.

The Bulldogs hadn’t lost since … until Saturday.

With the win, the indomitable 72-year-old coach once again proved this is his best coaching job at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won despite seeing defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry sidelined with a concussion. The Tide averaged 2.8 yards per rush. They were able to force a turnover near the end of the third quarter that resulted in a field goal that may have been the difference in the game.

The season started with the post-Bryce Young era as a giant question mark. Saban tried to land bigger quarterback names in the transfer portal but ended up with Tyler Buchner. Holdover Jalen Milroe, who engineered last week’s “Nightmare at Jordan-Hare,” has gotten steadily better.

Will the 3-point rock fight and subsequent hand-wringing be good enough to define Alabama or Georgia was one (or two) of the four best? If Saban misses out, this would be the first time in CFP history he will go three consecutive years without a national title.

The loss kept Georgia from becoming the ninth team to win at least 30 in a row. The achievement was so significant that the Dawgs would have had a look at tying Oklahoma‘s all-time record (47) at some point next season.

In the moment, Sankey, the SEC and Georgia had to figure out how that vague CFP language gave the Dawgs a chance. It states, in the event a team doesn’t win its conference, it has to be “unequivocally” better than the competition.

As he celebrated his team’s championship, Alabama right tackle JC Latham was asked about Georgia’s chances.

“If they’re in there, we’ll do the same thing twice,” he said.

It was that close on the field and off.

“We’re not the same team we were when we beat Texas,” said Saban, stumping until the end. “We weren’t the same team when we played South Florida. I don’t think we should be considered as that team right now.”

Sorry, but that’s not the way the game is played. Best teams meet body of work. From the time the BCS debuted in 1998, the same basic rule applied: You lose a game, you don’t have room to argue.

Undefeated is undefeated at the Power Five level, and ultimately, both these teams had enough flaws where they dropped games — to the point they had to resort to rooting for Louisville and Iowa on Saturday night.

“I’ve been through a few of these eras,” said Saban, whose head coaching career goes back to when the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll decided national champions. “When we have 12 teams, y’all will still make a case for 12 more. That’s kind of your job. Just like the basketball tournament, how many teams they put in 68? Then they have a two-hour show on who else should have gotten in.”

More may be better, but it just won’t be the same going forward with this crazy weekend behind us. Almost. There’s still Selection Sunday.

“The committee is going to have to consider two of our teams,” Sankey emphasized. “This is about football teams, not just about ratings. It’s never about undefeated teams. It’s about a full evaluation of the season. It’s never been about one week.”

After Saturday, the SEC would have you believe that birthright is forever.

The post Nick Saban, Kirby Smart making playoff cases shows conference title games will never be this important again first appeared on CBS Sports.


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