Kirby Smart is building a powerhouse using Nick Saban's playbook

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Editor's note: This story initially ran before the College Football Playoff. It has been updated to reflect Monday's results.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Late in the day on Dec. 20, after his program had signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the inaugural early signing period, an SEC head coach walked the halls of his team's facility and warned his staff against complacency. There was no time to celebrate, he preached to anyone who would listen, not with a College Football Playoff semifinal game to play in only 12 days.

And, no, it wasn't Alabama's Nick Saban, who once complained about how winning a national championship took time away from his team's recruiting efforts.

"I kept telling everybody, 'Hey, guys, everybody is congratulating us about this recruiting class and telling us how great we are, but we're practicing for Oklahoma,'" Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "Oklahoma isn't hearing about how great their recruiting class was. They're getting ready for us. We had coaches running around with cellphones talking to recruits. I told them, 'Shut it down. Get your [rear] in there and make sure this practice is right, or none of this is going to matter.'"

If Smart sounds a lot like Saban, there's good reason. From 2004 to 2015, Smart spent every season but one as a member of Saban's coaching staff. Now, in only his second season as Georgia's coach, Smart has his alma mater two victories from winning its first national championship since 1980.

After the Bulldogs defeated Oklahoma, 54-48, in double overtime at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual and Alabama knocked off Clemson, 24-6, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, they'll meet in the Jan. 8 CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T. Smart now has opportunity to try to dethrone his mentor a lot sooner than anyone expected.

"I think Kirby has done a great job there," Saban said. "They play with discipline. They're really sound. They've got a good coaching staff, and they're doing a good job with recruiting. I think he's done a fantastic job."

We might not get the all-SEC national championship game featuring teacher versus pupil, but it's evident Saban was an important influence when it came to designing the blueprint of a Georgia program that might now be his biggest threat in the SEC.

"I worked for him for 10 years and never realized how hard that seat is until I did it," Smart said. "You take it for granted when you're working for him. When you did your job and did your job to the fullest, he wasn't ranting and raving at you. He was driven. He wanted to win. We had that in common."

It would be easy to label Smart, 42, as another Saban clone and assume his former boss will cast him off as he has done to every single former assistant who has faced him as a head coach. After all, Alabama has won each of the 11 games against teams coached by Saban's former assistants by an average score of more than 28 points.

But there's also reason to believe Smart might be different. He spent nine seasons at Alabama, many as Saban's top assistant, and helped the Crimson Tide win four national championships.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage was a member of the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff when Saban worked as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator 1991-94 and now works as a radio analyst for the Crimson Tide. He sees similarities in the relationship between Belichick and Saban during their time in Cleveland and Saban and Smart's time at Alabama.

In Savage's recently published book, "4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama's Relentless Pursuit of Perfection," Savage wrote that Saban and Smart "had a dialogue on the sidelines during a game that was in a language all its own. ... An outsider would have no idea what they were talking about if he was standing between the two."

As an in-demand assistant, Smart spurned several opportunities -- often on Saban's advice -- to wait for the right job. When former Georgia coach Mark Richt went shopping for a new defensive coordinator in January 2014, he naturally targeted Smart, a former Bulldogs defensive back.

When Smart informed Saban that he was considering an offer to return to his alma mater, Saban's message was pretty clear: Why would you go back there for anything other than the head-coaching position?

"I think sometimes guys get a little too enamored with titles," Saban said. "I think the most important thing is: Can you win? Are you going to win? Do you have stability and the opportunity to do that in whatever job you're in?"

Smart decided to remain at Alabama, where he would become the highest-paid coordinator in the FBS with an annual salary of $1.5 million. When Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity fired Richt after the 2015 season, he quickly zeroed in on Smart to replace him.

"Sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don't," Saban said. "Sometimes things just work out for the best. Guys that stay in places where they have a chance to be successful, I think that's what helps them get opportunities, more than what [their] title is. I give Kirby a lot of credit for that. He was loyal; he stayed here and did a great job right until the end."

At Georgia, Smart has the financial resources and recruiting base to be successful, and he's working for an administration that seems motivated to compete at an elite level. In February, the Bulldogs completed construction of a $30.2 million indoor facility that was already in the works when Smart was hired. Sanford Stadium is undergoing a $63 million renovation that will include a new locker room and entertainment areas for recruits.

Under Smart, the Bulldogs have also expanded the size of their support staff, which includes off-field analysts. According to a survey by the Baton Rouge Advocate, Georgia spent more than $4 million on support staff salaries in 2015-16, which was more than any other SEC school and about $1.5 million more than Alabama.

"We had to learn what it meant to compete at that level," McGarity said. "We needed some direction, too. We needed help in understanding what it took to compete at the highest level. He hadn't been in the chair [at Alabama], but it was pretty doggone close to the head coach's chair. I think Coach Saban had allowed him to learn and to be a part of the inner workings of his program."

In many ways, Smart is following the same game plan Saban used to construct the Alabama juggernaut over the past 11 seasons. From a run-heavy, pro-style offense to a fundamentally sound and physical defense, the Bulldogs are starting to look -- and sound -- a lot like the Crimson Tide.

"Just about everywhere you turn, there's some systematic similarities," Saban said. "I'm not talking about offense or defense, I'm talking about overall program."

True to their nature, both coaches are loath to talk about the other's program in the runup to the CFP semifinals. They remain cordial, but the competition between them in recruiting and in the SEC will only increase in the coming years. When Smart landed the Georgia job, he hired away Alabama defensive backs coach Mel Tucker as his defensive coordinator, which bothered Saban.

Before the 2016 season, Smart and Saban butted heads over Tide safety Maurice Smith, who left Alabama for Georgia as a graduate transfer. Saban didn't want to allow Smith to transfer to another SEC school, but Smart challenged the SEC rule and received a conditional waiver that allowed Smith to play for the Bulldogs immediately.

"I don't take stuff like that personally," Saban said. "I really don't. Kirby did a good job for me for a long time. I think he's doing a really good job now. I think he's taken the situation there and really done a great job with it. I respect the [hell] out of that."

In the most recent recruiting cycle, Georgia has signed seven of the top 30 prospects in the ESPN 300, including No. 1 overall player and dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields, No. 1 running back Zamir White and No. 1 guard Trey Hill. The Bulldogs also flipped safety Nadab Joseph, who had previously committed to Alabama.

"I think we all have the same structure in recruiting, but we've got a good sell," Smart said. "We've got a great education; we have a great location; and we won, which was the biggest difference. I think it was a little bit of a perfect storm for us. We had a huge game in the SEC championship game [a 28-7 victory over Auburn on Dec. 2], which built momentum for us. I think people wanted to come to Georgia, but they just wanted to see that we could win. Once they saw that, things fell into place."

The question now is whether Smart can continue to build on what he has started and sustain the success. No one in college football has done that better than Saban, whose teams have won at least 10 games in every season since 2008.

"It's hard to maintain what we're doing," Saban said. "You've got to keep doing a great job of recruiting. You've got to keep getting good players. You've got to keep developing good players."

It's a lesson Smart learned well from his former boss.

"That's probably why you hear my voice is hoarse right now," Smart said. "I'm trying to make sure they understand that you can't acknowledge the pats on the back. You can't embrace that. You can't feel good about yourself. Winning the SEC championship is a great honor, and they'll have that for a long time. It will be on these walls for a long time, but they can't be satisfied."

Sound familiar?