LOS ANGELES — College football, that kooky, coast-to-coast concoction, relies heavily on its occasional cross-regional, cross-cultural, nonconference matchups, and the way they foment all the arguments, envies, resentments, contempts, immodesties and other invaluable bad vibes.
When Southern California plays Alabama, or Miami plays Notre Dame, or Ohio State plays Oklahoma, it stirs into more than a meeting of players and coaches and recruiting strategies and X’s and O’s. It becomes an alluring clash of styles, cultures, voting records and even ways of life.
Somehow here in 2018, for its championship game, this wide and woolly sport has managed to distill itself, for the third year running, into half a day’s drive and a sole 66-year-old human being. Clemson played Alabama, and then Clemson played Alabama again, and now Georgia will play Alabama, all six rosters huddled in three neighboring states in one corner of a vast country.
It’s probably harmless in a little three-year window, but a decade of it probably wouldn’t be healthy.
If you drove the 74 miles from Clemson, S.C., to Athens, Ga., it would take you about 90 minutes if you drove responsibly, which on Interstate 85 would rule out some. If you then drove the 274 miles from Athens to Tuscaloosa, Ala., it could take 4½ hours even if, for the Atlanta part of the journey, it would be advisable to use a helicopter.
As for the sole 66-year-old human being, this whole, provincial, intra-regional run doubles as further testament to the caliber of Alabama Coach Nick Saban, and this third game only ratchets up that sense, which needed no ratcheting.
On Jan. 29, 2004, Saban hired 28-year-old Kirby Smart to coach his defensive backs at LSU, whereupon Smart issued a statement reading, “Coach Saban is known as one of the best defensive coaches in all of football, and to be able to coach alongside him and learn from him is something special.” It really marks that era, when Saban still had only one national title, that Smart used that phrase “one of the best,” which by now seems puny.
On Feb. 10, 2006, Saban hired 30-year-old Smart to coach safeties with the Miami Dolphins, just as Smart, then at Georgia, was about to go interview with the New York Jets for their job coaching linebackers and nickelbacks. If you would like to pause here, insert your favorite Jets joke and ponder how Smart avoided doom, you are, of course, free to do so.
On Jan. 9, 2007, Saban hired 31-year-old Smart and two other assistants to coach at Alabama, even though the new Alabama coach “hadn’t assigned them titles or duties,” as the Associated Press put it. For one season coaching defensive backs and then eight coordinating the defense, Smart would remain alongside Saban, through four national titles until December 2015, when the head coaching job at his alma mater, Georgia, sprang open.
Now, on Monday night, Saban will be able to gaze across the field — not that he would take the time — at 42-year-old Smart but, of course, also at himself.
Unwitting humor actually injected itself into the discussions Monday night after that furious blur of a Rose Bowl, which Georgia won, 54-48, in double overtime over Oklahoma. The excellent Lindsay Schnell of USA Today asked Smart how his heart handled his fantastic defense getting shredded by the Baker Mayfield brigade in the heaving early stages of the game. When Smart began by saying, “Yeah, I’m really disappointed and upset,” it sounded as if a winning coach might be committing sarcasm over an unwanted question.
Oh, he wasn’t.
He actually was disappointed and upset.
“I do think that the players fought, and [the Sooners] are a good offensive team, but man, we stunk it up and played really bad,” he said. On the coronary matter, he concluded, “But if it was a measure of a heart attack, I’d be on the Richter scale.”
While the cleverness of a Richter scale reference while in Southern California did show a keen sense of place, an ear that has heard too much college football chatter in life might have remembered a remark in greater Phoenix, two Januarys prior.
Then, Alabama had just fended off the Clemson Watsons, 45-40, for Saban’s fifth national title and fourth in Tuscaloosa. What mirth. Yet Saban’s poor headset had endured an impromptu collision with the turf that night, during the third quarter, as Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson roamed the premises in a giddy manner. In the postgame remarks, Saban not only expressed his appreciation and admiration for Smart, who was just then leaving for Georgia. He also went on about how he tried to convince Alabama’s players of “hard practice, easy game,” and “easy practice, hard game.”
“I told all the big guys, if you don’t rush and run to the ball every time and what we’re doing in practice, you’re going to die in the game, because this is the kind of game we’ve got to play,” Saban said. Then, with a sad, almost somber voice, he added, “So they got 40 points.”
In that voice, you might have heard a crusader in the battle against human imperfection, a voice that knows too well how in football, details matter, and details get left all over the afternoons and the evenings.
That Rose Bowl on Monday, with Smart’s team as its winner, had so many details tucked in there that you might discuss them for decades. On Georgia’s first offensive play after halftime, with the score 31-17 against it, the line opened up a boulevard, and Nick Chubb’s 50-yard touchdown run changed the definition of the game, straightaway. On a scary third and 10 with 1:04 left, with the score 45-38 against Georgia, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed a crucial CPR of a 16-yard pass across the middle to Terry Godwin, from the Oklahoma 23-yard line to the 7. There was the outer edge of Lorenzo Carter’s considerable hand, which in the second overtime became the first in history to block a field goal attempt.
Much and too much was made of Oklahoma’s botched squib kick before halftime, but the facts remain that to make that squib costly, Georgia’s Tae Crowder had to field the thing like a good shortstop 12 yards from its origin, and Fromm had to hit Godwin precisely at the sideline for nine yards, and Rodrigo Blankenship had to nail a — whoa — 55-yard field goal.
They, of course, practice fielding squib kicks in Athens, as they surely do in Tuscaloosa. They also recruit with enhanced detail in Athens, as screams Georgia’s No. 1 ranking after the December signing period, even if the idea that somebody could learn all the recruiting nuances from Saban, then possibly upgrade them by even a smidgen, seems mathematically implausible.
So here comes a next-door clash of oncoming bruises and escalating ticket prices.
If Saban’s 11-0 record against his former assistants is any indication, Alabama will win this. That outcome will bring, to many, a sameness.
That’s fine, because the game does benefit from its kingdoms, whether fans deem them gods or villains. It’s just that one of these days soon, even in all its raging success, the College Football Playoff might crave more regional variety.