Nobody recruits better players on a more consistent basis than Alabama, but in Monday's national championship game, the best player on the field will be wearing a Georgia uniform.
This isn't an indisputable fact -- Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, among others on both teams, is in the conversation in a game filled with top talent -- but Georgia's best weapon against the nation's most talented team is its superstar junior linebacker, Roquan Smith, the Butkus Award winner who was named Sports on Earth's national defensive player of the year.
We saw why last week … at least in the second half. After Oklahoma's offensive onslaught behind Baker Mayfield in the first half of the Rose Bowl, which allowed the Sooners' prolific offense to build a 31-14 lead, the Bulldogs settled down, adjusted and came out of halftime with perhaps the most impressive defensive performance of the season in the third quarter. With the Heisman winner leading an offense that ranks No. 1 in yards per play by a wide margin, Oklahoma scored just one offensive touchdown in the second half plus two overtime periods. The Sooners gained a total of 37 yards on their first five possessions of the second half, with four punts and an interception. After one touchdown drive, they punted twice more in regulation, then made a field goal and had a field goal blocked in overtime.
It was an impressive all-around defensive effort by the Bulldogs to allow the comeback from down 17 points to happen. Lorenzo Carter blocked the field goal. Dominick Sanders intercepted Mayfield. Players like Jonathan Ledbetter and Reggie Carter chipped in with key plays.
As always, though, Smith was the centerpiece, the extension of Kirby Smart on the field at linebacker, and the all-around star of the Georgia defense.
"He's a relentless guy," Oklahoma tight Mark Andrews told reporters before the Rose Bowl. "He doesn't stop until he gets to the ball. He sheds blockers very well. And he gets to the ball."
Andrews' description proved to be an apt assessment of what Smith brings to the table. Through 14 games, Smith has 124 tackles, 11 ½ tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. His numbers don't appear to be overwhelming dominant, but the 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior is instinctive with nearly unparalleled closing speed.
The relentlessness was on full display in Pasadena, too, including the fourth-quarter play in which he bounced off a pair of blockers and blew up a run on the perimeter.
So it went as Georgia's defense gained confidence and increasingly frustrated Oklahoma, which was particularly unsuccessful on outside runs against Smith and the sideline-to-sideline speed of the Bulldogs' defense.
On a third-and-two in the first overtime, Jordan Smallwood took a jet sweep around the left side of the line. He was met by Carter and appeared to escape, only for Smith to physically stand him up, acting as a brick wall short of the first down, which forced Oklahoma to settle for a field goal.
In the second overtime, Smith put Oklahoma in an unmanageable third-and-long, blowing up a dump-off pass to Rodney Anderson for a loss of two, ultimately setting up the blocked field goal.
Smith showed flashes of stardom as a sophomore last season, leading the team with 95 tackles in 10 starts. He's built on that potential to become as impactful as any defender in the country, and as important as any player to Georgia's breakthrough season as a team.
"He's versatile because he's strong against the run, he can make plays sideline to sideline, he's good in coverage, he's a good blitzer, he's a good signal caller and he brings a lot of energy," Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told reporters on Saturday. "He can erase some mistakes that happen on the field just because of his ability to close and make plays in space and things like that."
It can be harder for a player like Smith to garner accolades, as he doesn't fill that stat sheet with sacks and takeaways. He does, however, make an impact on just about everything opposing offenses do, because he's perhaps the nation's surest tackler, he can track down ball carriers from behind and he has the quick-twitch athleticism that can blow up plays, even if he's not always the one who gets credited with the tackle.
It's why Smith was voted defensive player of the game in the Rose Bowl, with 11 tackles and a tackle for loss. It's why Smith as voted overall game MVP of the SEC championship, when he had 13 tackles, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
Smith, of course, will be a pivotal player on Monday in Atlanta. Although Derrick Henry won the Heisman in 2015, it's hard to argue against the notion that Clemson, not Alabama, also had the best player on the field the past two national title games thanks to Deshaun Watson. Smith's impact on the game will be much different, and the last time the presumed best player on the field in a national title game involving Alabama was an opposing linebacker … it went poorly.
Expect Smith's night to go far better than Manti Te'o's did. Smith will be the focal point of Kirby Smart's defensive effort against Nick Saban, his former boss. Alabama has nowhere near the passing game that Georgia just faced against Mayfield and Oklahoma; on Monday, the key is knocking the Alabama offense off schedule, which means containing the running of quarterback Jalen Hurts and a deep backfield that also includes Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. Smith is as important as anybody to making life difficult for Alabama's running game and trying to put Hurts in obvious passing situations.
Georgia LB Roquan Smith was a model of consistency in run defense this season - registering 70 total tackles and 37 total stops against the run - without missing a tackle.— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 10, 2017
Both were most in the FBS without a single missed tackle. pic.twitter.com/0C1s2UXFBl
Smith can't lift Georgia to the national championship quite like Watson did for Clemson. But if Smart is going to beat Saban at his own game, it starts with a player like Smith, who would have fit in as a star on any of the national championship Alabama teams built by Saban and Smart together.