Nick Saban's absence is obviously major, but let's not diminish what Saturday means for Georgia
I get why there would be an unofficial asterisk on a Georgia win this Saturday.
Finding out 3 days before the biggest regular-season game of the 2020 college football season that the greatest coach in the sport’s history won’t be on the sidelines will shape any sort of takeaway. That’s reality. Nick Saban’s COVID diagnosis changed how we’ll view Saturday’s showdown in Tuscaloosa.
If Alabama wins, it’s “the team won for their head coach.” If Georgia wins, it’s “of course UGA finally beat Alabama when Saban wasn’t there.”
Again, that’s reality. The likely reality at game’s end is that few people will ask the question “are we sure that Georgia wouldn’t have gotten over the hump even with Saban on the sidelines?”
All of that is understandable given the week that’s been. But don’t get it twisted; Saturday is still massive for Georgia whether there’s an unofficial asterisk or not.
Let’s start with the basic thing that’s at stake between Georgia and Alabama. By the time Saturday night fades into Sunday, only 1 SEC team will still be undefeated. That’s a wild thought. We’re only 4 weeks into this weird, unpredictable 2020 season, yet we’re already seeing the SEC cannibalize itself.
This is like when you’re in college and you live in a house with 4 of your buddies. All of them come down with the flu, and you’re keeping your fingers crossed that you somehow avoid catching it. You, for lack of a better word, quarantine and try to take all the necessary precautions to stay healthy. Then a week passes and you realize you pulled off the impossible task of not getting sick.
That’s like what Georgia is trying to do. This year is all about avoiding land mines.
Stepping on a land mine doesn’t necessarily make you a lesser team. Your land mine can be your head coach tests positive for COVID before the biggest game of the year, or perhaps you lose a star running back to contact tracing. Maybe your defense continues to look rusty after this atypical offseason, and it insists on stealing defeat from the jaws of victory (Florida and LSU know about that).
There are more land mines than ever in a year like this. That’s why the league has been so all over the place in the first 3 weeks.
Georgia, with a win Saturday night, wouldn’t just look like the team that tiptoed its way through the battlefield. It would look like the team who sprinted through it with its head on swivel.
With a win Saturday, Georgia would be sitting in perhaps the most enviable position in all of college football, including Clemson. The Dawgs would have a marquee win and a loss to give. Even if Georgia were to go 9-1 with a loss to Florida in Jacksonville, it could still have a legitimate shot at the Playoff without even making it to the SEC Championship.
Clemson can’t say that it’d be guaranteed a Playoff spot without an ACC title, and who knows how 1 loss would look if the ACC doesn’t have a worthy contender by season’s end. With Texas and Oklahoma now with 2 losses apiece, their sliver of Playoff chance doesn’t have any margin for error. Ohio State’s land mine is not being able to play a game or 2 with the Big Ten’s stringent COVID protocols and zero bye weeks.
Any Playoff contender would trade positions with Georgia if it were to win on Saturday. That’s true even though Saban won’t be there and some will want to dig into just how many points his absence swayed the outcome.
Let’s not diminish that while Saban began this Alabama dominance of Georgia in the 2008 Blackout Game, this is still about the Dawgs showing that they’re every bit as worthy of a contender as Alabama. It’s still a team with players that Saban developed, and this is still a game plan that Saban drew up. He won’t be there Saturday, but he still communicated with the team all week via Zoom.
Nick Saban will still be involved as Alabama finishes up its prep for Georgia and is looking to keep the rest of game week “as normal as possible.”
“I didn’t leave the country or anything. I’m just right down the street.”https://t.co/FjnmnbcWtU
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) October 15, 2020
In the 12 years since that Blackout Game, every matchup between these teams left us with the same takeaway — Georgia isn’t ready to beat Alabama yet. You can debate how fair that is when you consider that Alabama led for just 64 seconds of the last 120 minutes of football it played against Georgia, but the result has been the same. This is a results-based business.
Kirby Smart won’t come out and say “man, I’m bummed that now I don’t have a chance to be first former Saban assistant to beat him this Saturday.” But you’re crazy if you don’t think that finally taking down Alabama — with or without Saban — means a little more to Smart.
If he can’t accomplish that feat and it’s another Georgia loss to Alabama, Smart will be facing a different reality. Alabama is his Michael Myers. No matter what Smart does, Myers keeps coming back for more.
Bench the starting quarterback in a national championship game? Still alive. Lose the starting quarterback to injury in the 4th quarter of the SEC Championship? Alive and well. Play without the same head coach who led to all of that Georgia frustration? Never better.
In a strange way, this suddenly feels like a must-win game for Smart. If his team, with this historically good defense, can’t beat an Alabama team who doesn’t even have Saban on the sidelines, when will it happen? I mean, Georgia is even playing in a road venue with a reduced capacity crowd.
That’s not to say this should be an easy feat. Alabama has the No. 1 offense in America, and Mac Jones is playing as well as any quarterback in college football. Georgia knows all too well what can happen when you don’t cover guys like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith for an entire game.
Still, this is a prime opportunity. That was true before and after Saban’s COVID diagnosis.
It’s a shame that won’t get to see Saban vs. Smart Part III this weekend. If Georgia pulls out a win, Smart won’t care if the legitimacy of it is questioned. This is hardly the season to diminish a 4-0 start.
A potential land mine awaits Georgia in Tuscaloosa. Now seems like as good a time as any to avoid it.