The bombshell news came three days and change before college football’s biggest regular season game of the year.
No. 2 Alabama’s 68-year-old coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference showdown with third-ranked Georgia.
Barring negative tests leading up to the game, for the first time since arriving in 2007, Saban’s scowling presence will be absent from Alabama’s sideline during a game. And it just happens to be a top-5 matchup between the SEC’s only teams to emerge unbeaten from the first three weeks.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges this year,” Saban said. “Our guys have showed great maturity in how they’ve handled all these challenges. I’m sure they’ll handle this in a very positive way as well.”
Saban was still scrutinizing practices, presiding over meetings and sticking to his normal work routine ahead of the game. Just from home.
He left offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian at least nominally in charge within the football building. As of Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t clear who would be running the show from the sideline. Sarkisian, a former head coach at USC and Washington, will still be calling the plays regardless, Saban said, keeping things as normal as possible.
Sarkisian already had his hands full. He’ll lead the nation’s top scoring offenses against one of college football’s best defenses. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a former Alabama defensive coordinator and has built a talent-rich roster that rivals Saban’s and a defense that resembles the Tide’s old dominant groups.
“This is what college football is all about, so we are looking forward to the matchup,” Smart said.
Alabama is coming off a 63-48 win over Mississippi, giving up the most yards in program history. The Tide face a different style of offense from the Rebels’ fast-paced system.
Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett makes his first start on the road in a huge game, but offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer feels he has the mentality to pass that test.
”Stets is going to go out there and compete, and he’s going to give you everything he’s got on every play, and he’s not going to fold on you when things get tough,” Salyer said.
Tide quarterback Mac Jones and his array of playmakers are averaging 51 points a game and include one of the nation’s most dangerous receiving groups. But Georgia presents the biggest test by far with the nation’s top run defense and No. 2 scoring defense. The Bulldogs counter with players like safety Richard LeCounte, linebacker Monty Rice and pass rusher Azeez Ojulari.
Saban is 21-0 against his former assistants-turned-head coaches, though it remains to be seen if this will be counted toward that total. But Smart’s teams have put up quite a fight both in the SEC championship and national title games, and his program is farther along than most of the others.
“We have an established program, they have an established program,” Saban said. “There’s two pretty good teams gonna go at it.”
In a game that appears very evenly matched, special teams could be the difference. Alabama has one of the nation’s most dangerous return men with Jaylen Waddle, but he seldom gets the ball delivered his way. “He is as dynamic and electric as I have seen,” Smart said.
Georgia has the nation’s leading punter Jake Camarda and Jack Podlesny has fared well in replacing Lou Groza Award winner Rodrigo Blankenship. Also, Georgia special teams coordinator Scott Cochran was a longtime strength and conditioning coach under Saban.
BEATING THE EAST
Alabama has won 27 consecutive games against teams from the SEC East, but has been pushed to the brink in both matchups against Smart’s Bulldogs. The Tide rallied to win the national championship game in overtime in January 2018 and came back again to win the SEC championship game the following season. Both comebacks were led by backup quarterbacks in Atlanta (though those QBs were Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa both times).
Alabama tailback Najee Harris is leading the league with 347 yards and 10 touchdowns, and faces a defense allowing just 38 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs haven’t given up a rushing TD. They also have a strong runner in Zamir White, who has run for four TDs and could be key to keeping the ball from the Tide offense.
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