Colleges

CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Alabama’s Nick Saban is a larger-than-life figure

If Alabama topples Georgia, coach Nick Saban will capture his fifth national championship with the Crimson Tide.
David Goldman/Associated Press
If Alabama topples Georgia, coach Nick Saban will capture his fifth national championship with the Crimson Tide.

ATLANTA — Some Alabamians who were dissatisfied with the choices in the state’s hotly contested and nationally covered Senate race opted for a more comfortable candidate whose leadership and record are above reproach in Alabama — unless you’re an Auburn fan. Alabama head coach Nick Saban got more than 400 write-in votes in the December election.

That total seems a little low, considering what Saban has done for the most hallowed institution in the state, Crimson Tide football.

It’s doubtful that Saban would have taken the job, anyway. Why settle for being a senator when you’re the indeposable strongman of college football? Saban’s imprint on the college game is undeniable and indelible. He is the coach that all coaches are measured against, and his program is the program — sorry, “organization,” as Saban refers to ’Bama — that all others are measured against. Alabama is to college football what the Patriots are to the NFL: admired, envied, despised, and imitated.

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Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game between Southeastern Conference titans Alabama and Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be yet another example of the far-reaching rule of college football czar Nicholas Saban.

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From a legacy standpoint, Saban can’t lose. If Alabama topples Georgia, he will capture his fifth national championship at Alabama and join true Alabama royalty, the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, as the only college football coaches to win six national titles. (Saban won his first title at LSU.) If he loses to Georgia head coach and Saban disciple Kirby Smart, then the Saban Way is sanctified as the gospel of college football coaching.

Like Bryant, John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Vince Lombardi, Mike Krzyzewski, and his good friend and onetime boss Bill Belichick, the 66-year-old Saban is a larger-than-life figure in his sport. His historical imprint can only grow after the national title game.

The saturnine Saban is the Emperor of the SEC. He has built Alabama into a Deep South Death Star. ’Bama has won four national titles since 2009 and is the only team to appear in all four College Football Playoff tournaments. The Crimson Tide are appearing in their third straight CFP national championship game. He has sustained this metronomic excellence while playing in the most football-obsessed and competitive conference in the country, the SEC, where football isn’t a sport, it’s a way of life.

“I don’t think people appreciate what he has been able to do in the most competitive college football league for a long time, and when you start talking about what he’s been able to do, I think it’s pretty incredible,” said Smart, who spent nine seasons at Alabama, seven as defensive coordinator, under Saban before taking the reins at his alma mater in 2016.

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There was some debate this year as to whether the Tide belonged in football’s Final Four after losing the Iron Bowl to archrival Auburn to end the regular season. It was the type of overthinking that only comparing college football teams can inspire. Alabama had been the clear-cut best team all year long. A one-loss ’Bama team was more deserving than a two-loss Ohio State team. The Buckeyes winning a conference championship wasn’t going to change that.

Belichickian master motivator that he is, Saban used the idea that some pundits felt Alabama didn’t belong in the playoff to fuel his team. He convinced Goliath that he was David. The Crimson Tide stomped top-seeded Clemson, 24-6, in the Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal, and they still feel disrespected as they pursue a second national championship in three seasons.

“I think my whole team definitely had a chip on their shoulder when everybody was saying we don’t belong here, we shouldn’t be in the playoffs, and everybody was trying to find reasons for us not to be here,” said standout Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. “So, we just had to really prove to them why we do belong here.”

The team standing in Alabama’s way should look familiar. Georgia is essentially Alabama Lite, a team molded in Alabama’s and Saban’s image. The teams both rely on a deep stable of running backs and dominating defense.

They are so similar that when Fitzpatrick, who had Smart as his defensive coordinator as a freshman, watched video of Georgia’s thrilling 54-48 double-overtime victory over Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl game, he noticed the Georgia defense uses the same hand signals as the Alabama defense.

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The All-SEC title game is fitting, considering the game is in Atlanta, which is the capital of SEC country.

The SEC once had a trophy monopoly. The conference produced seven straight national champions from the 2006 through 2012 seasons. Since that time, the conference has one national championship; Alabama won the 2015 national title.

If SEC champion Georgia is going to prevail in the Real SEC Championship Game and win its first national title since 1980, then Smart is going to have to do what no Saban apprentice has been able to do during his Alabama tenure: defeat the master. Saban is 11-0 against his acolytes, and the results haven’t been close. Maybe Smart is the Eric Mangini of the group.

If Smart’s plan is to out-Alabama his old team and boss, good luck. Alabama is the NFL’s 33rd team. Their players could give Patriot James Harrison a run for his money in the weight room.

Prepare for these two teams to dig in in the trenches. Alabama and Georgia play the Saban Way — with brute strength and will-breaking execution. This won’t be a game for souped-up spread offenses or hyper-speed no-huddle attacks with cute play-call cards featuring Demi Lovato and Donald Duck to signal plays from the sidelines.

Forget pace and space; these teams prefer blunt force and physicality. They play phone booth football in a world of smartphone attacks.

Alabama led the nation in scoring defense, total defense, and rushing defense, surrendering only 2.7 yards per carry. Georgia, which has rushed for a school-record 3,743 yards this season, leans on the best running back duo in the nation, seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They each topped 1,000 yards this season.

“We have to play physical football,’’ Michel said. “There’s not going to be no tricks about it. Hard-nosed football. It’s going to be physical. Physicality is the only way to describe SEC football.”

Saban didn’t get enough write-in votes to be Alabama’s next senator. (Lucky for him, since President Donald Trump is expected to attend the game.)

But another chapter in Saban’s legacy will be written on Monday night.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.