PHOENIX — I’m in Sky Harbor, watching Clemson and Alabama fans — way more Clemson fans, though, as was evident last night at the game — walk past. I’m thinking about Kirby Smart, whose farewell to Alabama came very close to being a career nadir.
A year ago, Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff semifinal. The Buckeyes scored 42 points — seven on an interception return, it should be noted — and gained 537 yards. Smart said over the weekend that then-Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman “embarrassed us,” though Smart himself wasn’t too abashed to call Herman and ask how he’d done it.
On Monday night, Alabama yielded 40 points (all scored by the offense) and 550 yards to Clemson. If you’re a Georgia fan and you know Smart is your new head coach, you might be wondering, “Did we hire the right guy?”
Answer: Yes. You did. Stop worrying.
Smart’s defense was the nation’s best. It happened to be trumped by the nation’s best quarterback — heck, the nation’s best player. Deshaun Watson accounted for 478 yards by himself, 11 more than Vince Young managed in what’s widely considered the greatest performance in the history of college football.
Difference was, Young’s team won the national championship, edging Southern Cal in the final minute. Watson’s team lost, albeit narrowly. And the one turnover Alabama induced — Eddie Jackson’s second-quarter interception — was a key early turning point. (Come the second half, bigger moments would arrive in a flurry.) Watson was so splendid he made a great defense look terrible. But sometimes that happens.
Nick Saban, who knows a bit about defense, was wise enough to take the game out of Smart’s — and Watson’s — hands with 10:34 remaining. Saban ordered an onside kick. Alabama covered it. The subsequent touchdown put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay. Smart’s defense would yield 16 more points, but it wouldn’t matter.
That Smart’s defense couldn’t handle Watson will be of importance only if Georgia faces Clemson next season, which would probably come only in a playoff game, and if you’re Georgia and you haven’t played for a national title since 1982, you’ll take that matchup and glad. Smart lost no brain cells in University of Phoenix Stadium. This was one game, not a body of work.
Oh, and it should be noted that the last Georgia coach worked a national championship game as a coordinator before settling in Athens. His offense managed but 301 yards and scored no points. Florida State lost 13-2. Two years later, Mark Richt led the Bulldogs to their first SEC title in two decades.
Further reading: Is Nick Saban the greatest college coach ever? Yes indeed.
From Monday night: Deshaun Watson was beyond belief.
Also from Monday night: The great Saban thinks of something and wins again.
From Monday afternoon: Dan Radakovich: From Tech AD to Clemson’s guiding light.
From Sunday: Does Clemson have a chance against Bama? Yes, I say.
From Saturday: Kirby Smart would welcome a dual-threat QB at UGA.