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Familiar foes: No secrets between Tide, Dawgs

Before they went on stage for the cameras, there wasn’t a word said between them Sunday morning. University of Alabama coach Nick Saban and his former assistant coach, Kirby Smart, would be very complimentary during their final news conference prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, but when they posed with the trophy their body language said otherwise.

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They were rigid, almost uncomfortable.

This after Saban said, “What you all don’t understand is this guy was on our staff for, I don’t know, 10 years. [My wife] Terry was there when his babies [were] born. I mean, you become a part of a family. That’s what you do when you’re together for a long time.”

This week has been anything but a vacation or a chance to catch up for the former colleagues turned foes. This is a business trip, through and through, with a lot more than a trophy on the line. Another suitor has arisen to challenge Saban’s status atop college football, and the outcome of the title game on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) could have extensive repercussions — especially if the Bulldogs win.

This one has the most familiarity for Saban. Smart took Saban’s process to Georgia to not only build up the Bulldogs but also to try and take down his former boss and mentor. Being in the same conference is one thing, and recruiting many of the same players another, although that has led to some friction.

However, the Bulldogs are so much like Crimson Tide that Athens could be called Alabama East.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot (of differences),” said outgoing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who might soon have Alabama North at Tennessee. “I think both teams are very similar. They’re both committed to running the football, playing good on special teams and playing good defense.”

Same system. Same style. Similar schemes. Plus, a lot of familiar faces on both sides.

“The foundations are the same,” said Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who also used to work for Saban.

When asked for a difference, Sherrer stated: “Kirby is probably a little more personable, approachable.”

The coaches have been the focal point leading up to this showdown, and with good reason because of their history. Saban used to say that Smart and he had worked so long and well together that all he had to do was think something and his defense coordinator was already doing it.

Yet now he’s on the other side, trying to become the first former assistant to beat the master. Saban is 11-0 when facing his first assistant coaches, having defeated them by a combined score of 427-111 (average of 39-10).

“Yeah, the 11-0 he’s won, I would venture to say he’s been favored in all 11,” Smart said. “He’s got really good players.”

That’s true, but one has to go back 38 games to find the last time Alabama didn’t open in Las Vegas as a clear favorite. Ironically, it was at Georgia in 2015, when the Crimson Tide was initially considered a slight underdog by most oddsmaking services, but by game time that had changed. Regardless, Alabama crushed Georgia, 38-10, and went on to win the national championship.

It snapped a 72-game streak in which Alabama was considered a clear favorite, dating back to the 2009 SEC Championship Game against Florida. The Crimson Tide won 32-13, and the changing of the guard was complete.

As of Sunday night, oddsshark.com had the Tide at -3.5 against the Bulldogs, so it’s 111 out of 112 games — just shy of the sun rising in terms of consistency. 

But the overlapping relationships in this game go way beyond Saban and Smart, and how they might influence the outcome is the giant question mark looming over Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Two staffs with some great coaches,” Alabama co-defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

Football fraternity is small one

When Smart returned to his alma mater in 2015, he hired Crimson Tide defensive backs coach Mel Tucker to be his defensive coordinator and Alabama staffer Glenn Schumann as inside linebackers coach. Among his in-house moves was to retain Sherrer, Alabama’s former director of player development (2010-12).

“It’s interesting for sure, especially when you throw in the fact that Kevin Sherrer is on that staff,” Pruitt said on Saturday. “We talked last night for a little bit. I gave him a hard time. We were working a little bit late. I told him I was going to call Kirby and tell him we were out-working you all tonight.”

The two have known each other for 20-odd years, going back to when they played together at Alabama. Sherrer was a tight end from 1993 to 1995; Pruitt was a defensive back who transferred from Middle Tennessee State for his final two years (1995-96), then began coaching as a student assistant with the 1997 Crimson Tide.

Smart also tried to hire away high-profile strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran. Not only did he get a significant raise of $105,000 to stay (his salary is now up to $535,000), but in Alabama state employees are vested after 10 years on the payroll. He reached that in 2016.

“I still have a great relationship with the Cochran family because my kids are best friends with theirs,” Smart said.

Yet that only begins to describe all the staff ties.

For example, Tucker began his coaching career in 1997 as a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State. He’s since worked at Miami (Ohio), with Saban again at LSU, Ohio State and three NFL teams before landing at Alabama in 2015.

“I was a graduate assistant with Mel,” Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “We’ve played each other for years when he’s been at Chicago, Jacksonville and Cleveland.”

When Alabama won at Georgia in 2015, Pruitt was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator. The score could have been a lot worse, but the damage was done. Georgia lost the next week at Tennessee and then at Florida. Even though it bounced back to win four straight games, Mark Richt was let go after 15 years and a 145-51 record.

When Smart was hired, Saban brought back Pruitt, who had worked for him from 2007 to 2012 and rose from director of player development to defensive backs coach. When he was initially added to the coaching staff in 2010, Smart switched from handling the defensive backs as a position group to linebackers.

Consequently, Smart helped recruit a number of key players on the Crimson Tide, as Pruitt did for Georgia, and the others. A lot of them have stayed in touch over the years such as junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tucker, who was his position coach as a freshman.

“I could talk to you about him all day,” Tucker said. “He’s a great player. He’s an even better person.”

“He’s somebody that challenged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone everyday,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, (I) definitely got better from him being my coach.

“It’s really cool just seeing the success that they’ve had. I’m kind of not surprised by it.”

Does familiarity favor one team?

Although the teams have only had a week since playing their bowl semifinals, the staffs started eyeing each other a month ago after both made the College Football Playoff as the third and fourth seeds. They knew this showdown was a possibility, so contingency plans were made.

Since Alabama has always run Saban’s defense, Smart might be able to snuff out some plays beforehand. But, with his experience, he could do that with just about anyone.

What about play calls and signals? Would they need to be changed?

“You do think about those things,” Lupoi said.

Yet, none of that benefited Jim McElwain the three times he faced his former boss, twice with Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Nor did it help Mark Dantonio in two meetings, including the 2015 playoff (Cotton Bowl semifinal); or Will Muschamp or Jimbo Fisher earlier this season.

Alabama was also paying attention to Georgia long before the playoff announcement, in part, because of the schedule. The Bulldogs played some of the same teams, so the Crimson Tide were able to get a head start on how opponents might play them, and their adjustments.

“We actually followed the defense,” Pruitt said. “And we all still talk now. We talk during the … Heck, I talk to Auburn, talk to Kevin Steele. Talked to Kirby a few times. We still share ideas.”

As for the film study, it removes a lot of the personal aspect just because of the sheer volume. While going over everything from formations to trends, the coaches don’t have time to think, “Hey, I know that guy, I recruited him,” on each of the hundreds of plays they’re examining. Plus, they’re not the only ones going over everything.

While searching for tells, weaknesses and things such as the adjustments Georgia made at halftime against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl (“We didn’t sprinkle any dust on anybody at halftime,” Tucker said), there just are no secrets.

Consequently, when weighing how much to stick to the team’s strengths and possibly being predictable versus trying to think outside of the box at the risk of making more mistakes, coaches on both sides are concerned about going around in circles mentally.

“It’s interesting, because sometimes you could overthink it because you say, ‘OK, if we do this, Kirby’s going to know we’re going to do this,’” Pruitt said. “’So, they’re going to try to do it this way.’

“And I’m sure he’s probably sitting there doing the same thing. So, it’s kind of, probably going to be hit and miss in the game.”

Smart agreed: “It’s not like we play Alabama does this or Alabama does that. Sometimes you can talk yourself out of things that you should do because you know what the other team does, and I think you’ve got to be careful of that.”

That makes this the ultimate test.

Georgia has the edge over Alabama in simulated games

In Las Vegas, Alabama is a clear favorite over Georgia. In the world of college football simulations … not so much.

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We used NCAAGameSim.com to pit the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs head-to-head 100 times. The engine featured up-to-date rosters — including current injuries — and individual box scores. It also had a clear preference between the teams that will play for the national championship on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Georgia won 67 of the 100 matchups, boasting an average output of 24.5 points against Alabama’s 21.1.

Here are a few specific aspects we tracked:

  • (Number of times) Alabama won by 10-plus points: 22

  • Georgia won by 10-plus points: 37

  • Alabama won by 20-plus points: 10

  • Georgia won by 20-plus points: 12

  • Alabama won by 30-plus points: 1

  • Georgia won by 30-plus points: 2

  • Alabama won in overtime: 0

  • Georgia won in overtime: 1

  • Jalen Hurts topped 300 total yards: 17

  • Hurts topped 100 rushing yards: 7

  • Damien Harris topped 100 rushing yards: 16

  • Harris topped 200 rushing yards: 1

  • Bo Scarbrough topped 100 yards: 1

  • Calvin Ridley topped 100 receiving yards: 14

  • Alex Pappanastos missed at least one field goal: 42

  • Jake Fromm threw for at least 200 yards: 24

  • Fromm threw for at least 300 yards: 2

  • Fromm threw at least 2 touchdowns: 21

  • Fromm threw 3 touchdowns: 4

  • Fromm attempted at least 20 passes: 62

  • Fromm attempted at least 30 passes: 2

  • Nick Chubb topped 100 rushing yards: 46

  • Chubb topped 200 rushing yards: 2

  • Sony Michel topped 100 rushing yards: 23

  • Michel topped 200 rushing yards: 0

  • D’Andre Swift topped 100 rushing yards: 5

  • Two Georgia running backs topped 100 rushing yards each: 11

  • Rodrigo Blankenship missed at least one field goal: 37

Alabama-Georgia anomalies

There were bound to be some weird box scores over the course of 100 simulations. Here were the most notable moments:

  • In a 36-6 Georgia win, Nick Chubb (258 rushing yards) and Sony Michel (172) combined for 430 on the ground. Even if Georgia plays an outstanding game, those numbers seem more like one in a million than one in a hundred.

  • In a 35-24 Alabama win, backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rushed three times for 81 yards (on top of Hurts’ 348 total yards) and the top four Crimson Tide receivers were Hale Hentges (89 yards), Jerry Jeudy (86), Henry Ruggs (65) and Najee Harris (39).

  • In a 44-20 Alabama win, Hurts absolutely silenced his doubters with a monster performance. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 389 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. His pair of first-quarter touchdown strikes to Ridley helped the Tide run away early.

National championship fireworks

NCAAGameSim.com generates play-by-play accounts of each game. The details aren’t perfect — especially in regard to situation-based strategy — but it does the trick. Here are a handful of interesting endings:

  • Alabama 19, UGA 16: Facing a 16-12 deficit and having not reached the end zone the entire game, Alabama took over at its 20-yard line with about 2 minutes remaining. On third-and-7, Damien Harris ripped off a 68-yard run — an odd call, certainly — and Hurts punched in the winning 4-yard touchdown two plays later.

  • UGA 34, Alabama 31: An MVP-type performance from Hurts (284 total yards and 2 passing scores) was cut short when he threw an interception on first-and-10 from the Georgia 14-yard line with seconds remaining.

  • UGA 34, Alabama 31: One Georgia drive after tying the score with a 33-yard field goal, the Bulldogs had the ball again on their 40-yard line and plenty of time to win. But seven plays yielded just 26 net yards. Forced to gamble, the Bulldogs sent out Blankenship for a 51-yarder, and he nailed it as time expired.

  • UGA 13, Alabama 10: A huge kick return got Alabama to the Georgia 35-yard line on the final drive, but the Crimson Tide stalled, and a 49-yard field-goal attempt by Pappanastos was no good at the final gun.

  • UGA 27, Alabama 23: A 42-yard field goal by Pappanastos put the Tide ahead 23-20, but the Bulldogs countered with a long kick return and Fromm found Terry Godwin for the winning 13-yard touchdown pass with no time remaining.

  • UGA 37, Alabama 34: Hurts tied the score with a 1-yard run on the final play of regulation, but — following a 41-yard overtime field goal by Blankenship — threw a first-down interception on Alabama’s first OT drive that ended the game.

  • UGA 21, Alabama 20: On the final Georgia drive, Fromm (only 38 passing yards entering the possession) led the Bulldogs on a 16-play, 86-yard excursion that culminated in 3-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Riley Ridley.

  • UGA 36, Alabama 30: Instead of attempting a Hail Mary from its 42, Georgia opted to play for overtime and handed the ball to Chubb. Fifty-eight yards later, the Dawgs had a stunning victory.

  • UGA 33, Alabama 31: Needing a touchdown to win, Georgia drove 80 yards on 11 plays to take the lead in the final minute. Chubb’s 2-yard scoring run was the clincher, and Alabama had only two plays from its 20 before the clock ran out.

  • Alabama 27, UGA 23: Georgia took a 23-20 lead on a 42-yard field goal by Blankenship, but Alabama stormed down the field and Hurts hit Scarbrough for the winning 6-yard touchdown with no time remaining.

Mark Richt publishes heartfelt message to Georgia Bulldogs

Mark Richt weighed in on Georgia’s appearance in tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game, and he’s eager to deliver well-wishes to his former team.

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On Monday, the former Bulldogs coach used Twitter to write that he’s “happy for the players, coaches and the Georgia people” before the Bulldogs play Alabama to decide the national title on Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This is a nice move from Richt, who went 145-51 as Georgia’s coach from 2001 to 2015.

This is a classy gesture by the coach, who clearly still has feelings for his former program. He gave life to the University of Miami this season while leading the Hurricanes to a 10-3 record with an appearance in the ACC Championship Game and Orange Bowl.

It’s safe to say Richt will be watching closely Monday night with the Bulldogs on his mind.

FBI: Don't fly drones in downtown Atlanta through championship game day

As the country turns its eyes to Atlanta for the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, the FBI is pushing one important message: Keep those drones away.

>> Visit AJC.com for complete coverage of the national championship game

Any aircraft, drones included, are prohibited from flying near the venues used during the championship weekend and game day, including Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Centennial Olympic Park and the Georgia World Congress Center.

>> More coverage from DawgNation.com

Violators would face prosecution under federal law for “flying drones in restricted space,” FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said Sunday. “Temporary flight restrictions” are in effect.

>> Visit WSBTV.com for more Georgia Bulldogs news

>> Best of the best: The history of college football’s national championship game

Despite previous publicity about the law, officials spotted drones over some venues on Saturday, Rowson said.

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President Donald Trump is expected to attend the game, leading to an increase in security, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Wednesday. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms promised a "safe, smooth and secure" event for the more than 100,000 attendees, and police urged people to leave any firearms at home.

O.J. Simpson roots for Bills in Las Vegas

Former running back O.J. Simpson was spotted in Las Vegas on Sunday, rooting for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL playoffs, The New York Daily News reported.

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Simpson, who spent nine of his 11 NFL seasons in Buffalo, made an appearance at Naked City Pizza in Las Vegas, the city where he now resides, to show support for his former team, the Daily News reported.

Simpson, who was released on parole in October, was seen hanging out with Bills fans Sunday to root for the team he spent nine of his 11 NFL seasons with. An Instagram post showed him smiling and rooting with Bills fans.

Watch: Bill Cowher breaks table in two to honor Bills Mafia

Nobody has ever questioned the toughness of former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, but the former NFL linebacker went old school pro wrestling Sunday.

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On Sunday’s “The NFL Today” pregame show before Sunday’s wild-card game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars, Cowher was favoring the craziness of the fan-based Bills Mafia as he crashed through a long table while yelling “Buff-a-lo,” splitting the furniture in two with a two-handed spike.

Mind you, Cowher has a way to go before he can stack up with some of the WWE’s finest table smashers. But it’s a start.

Georgia couple hopes to cash in with cool product at championship game

Georgia couple hopes to score financially as the College Football Playoff National Championship Game comes to Atlanta.

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Aaron and Helga Thompson, of Covington, are owners of A&H Cool Cooler Creation, a home-based business that makes University of Georgia-inspired coolers from styrofoam encased in plywood and upholstered in vinyl.

Helga Thompson sews on the decals and does the upholstering and her husband does the rest.

It helps that both are also big Georgia fans.

The business began as a hobby. Thompson was messing around in his garage making something to carry on his Kawasaki Vulcan 1600, and said “it just developed from there.”

“I figured it was something the fan could take home as useful memorabilia instead of something that just sits on a shelf,” said Thompson, a retired federal worker and veteran of Operation Desert Storm. His wife is a retired nurse.

Prices for the  coolers range from $30 to $100.

>> Georgia Bulldogs prepare for title game

Thompson said he recently made one for an Alabama fan and has done some for various nonprofits and causes.

He and his wife plan to hit Dawg Country this weekend, and then camp out near Mercedes-Benz Stadium when Georgia meets Alabama on Monday night.

Although most of his coolers are for Georgia fans, in the end, Aaron Thompson just wants a good game and fans to be happy.

“I think they both deserve it,” he said.

Jon Gruden returning to Oakland to coach Raiders

The Oakland Raiders officially announced the hiring of Jon Gruden as their next coach Saturday night, The East Bay Times reported.

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The Raiders announced the hiring of Gruden in a news release shortly after he finished calling the Chiefs-Titans playoff game for ESPN on Saturday afternoon. The team called a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to introduce Gruden, who coached the Raiders from 1998 to 2001.

Gruden’s 10-year, $100 million contract is the richest in NFL coaching history and matches Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson (both with the Cowboys) for the longest, the Times reported.

Gruden began his head-coaching career in Oakland 20 years ago Monday, leading the Raiders for four seasons before spending seven as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach. He is the second-youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl in NFL history, winning a ring at age 39 in his first season with Tampa Bay.

He hasn’t coached in the NFL since leading the Buccaneers in 2008.

Gruden will replace Jack Del Rio, who went 25-23 in three seasons with the franchise.

Gruden's return to coaching ends his nine-year stint with ESPN.

"It's an emotional and bittersweet day for our ‘Monday Night Football’ family, as today we say goodbye to coach Gruden after nine very distinguished years coaching this ‘Monday Night Football’ group," ESPN analyst Sean McDonough said at the beginning of Saturday's game.

WATCH: Titans' Marcus Mariota throws touchdown to himself in first playoff game

It took three quarters, but the Tennessee Titans’ offense finally woke up in their Wild Card round game of the NFL Playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs after Marcus Mariota completed a touchdown pass to … Marcus Mariota.

>> Read more trending news 

That’s right, the quarterback caught his own deflected pass before diving into the end zone to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 21-10.

>> Watch the moment here

Tennessee added another score as Derrick Henry scored on a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Titans later pulled ahead with another touchdown pass from Mariota to Eric Decker. 

The Titans ended up winning 22-21.

– The Cox Media Group National Content Desk contributed to this report.

Photos: The scene as Georgia, Alabama prepare for national title game

Players, coaches meet the press, then teams practice, and fans take in some fun activities two days before the big game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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