The Alabama Crimson Tide defense has been one of the most dominant forces in college football for the past several years. The Tide boasted the No.1 defense last season, which included four future NFL draft picks.
Much of the glory of Alabama's dynasty has gone to head coach Nick Saban, who turned a 6-7 (2-6) team into the most dominant program in college football. However, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has continued to gain notoriety with each passing season.
Smart is the reigning AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year and the 2009 Broyles Award winner, which is also given to college football's top assistant coach. He enters his seventh season in Tuscaloosa with expectations as high as ever.
The former Georgia defensive back began his coaching career as an administrative assistant with his alma matter in 1999. Following stops at Valdosta State and Florida State, Smart joined Saban's staff at LSU in 2004, working as a defensive backs coach.
He returned to Georgia as a running backs coach in 2005 before being reunited with Saban as a safety coach for the Miami Dolphins. Smart would ultimately follow Saban to Tuscaloosa when Saban infamously spurned the Dolphins to rebuild a desperate Alabama football program.
After three national championships and two SEC titles, both coaches were given contract extensions making them the highest paid head coach and assistant in college football. However, as his name continues to surface each offseason amongst head coaching vacancies, could the 37-year-old defensive coordinator be interested in a much larger role?
With his new contract, Smart seems even more likely to be Saban's eventual successor. During a BCS championship press conference, the Alabama assistant admitted to participating in an interview with arch-rival Auburn, a position that was ultimately filled by Guz Malzahn.
Rumors also swirled that Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart's ties to the Alabama program would lure Smart to Knoxville. This proved untrue as the Vols eventually found their man in Butch Jones.
Smart's loyalty to Saban and the Alabama program is both respectable and safe. Yes, he most certainly deserves credit for the outstanding Tide defenses over the past few seasons, but how much?
Nick Saban is an extremely hands-on, defensive minded coach. Doubters may speculate that the Alabama defense is more a product of the head coach and less of the defensive coordinator.
Then there's recruiting. The prestige of Nick Saban was enough to immediately give the Tide a boost in 2007 as 15 players committed before national signing day following his January 4th hire. Since then, the Tide have ranked within the top-5 annually on Rivals.com, only failing to capture the No. 1 class in 2010.
The Tide will continue to receive commitments from top prospects as long as Saban is leading the staff. This is a luxury that Smart will not have should he choose to take the reigns of another program.
It's not to say that Smart cannot succeed without Saban, but the coach is definitely in a safer position as the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator. Alabama remains the top program in college football and is unlikely to lose momentum in the near future.
Should he decide to stay as Saban's successor, Smart will likely have a long wait before taking over. Saban has the stability, power and financial backing to stay with Alabama for a long time.
Only time will tell if Smart will choose to do the same, rather than seek his own head coaching opportunity.