All those things that the sport has sorely missed during the height of the pandemic will be on full display when the two best teams from the nation’s best conference meet in what’s become the sport’s capital city in the last decade or so.
It’s top-ranked Georgia and third-ranked Alabama facing off in the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this!
Weathering stormy Tides
Alabama has been the dominant force in college football for the last dozen years. The Crimson Tide have won six national championships and seven SEC titles under legendary coach Nick Saban.
A tremendous 106 of their players have been drafted into the NFL in that span — 38 of them in the first round. Six of those first round picks came from last year’s squad, which steamrolled its way through a 13-0 season on its way to another national title.
Losing all that talent to the NFL might cause some teams to rebuild, but not Saban and the Crimson Tide. They just reload.
Alabama was the nation’s top-ranked team and the national title favorite again as 2021 began, with a new quarterback under center in Bryce Young and a new offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien.
After a 2-0 start, they got all they could ask for in their first true road game at Florida. The Gators rallied from an 18-point deficit and had a chance to tie it with three minutes left but failed on a two-point conversion. ‘Bama hung on for the 31-29 win.
The Tide were 5-0 when they went to Texas A&M, and that’s when their unbeaten run came crashing down — Seth Small’s last-second field goal giving the Aggies a shocking 41-38 win.
Crimson Tide players were left wondering if their dreams of a national title were now over as they waded through the sea of A&M fans that had stormed the field celebrating the upset. But you can never underestimate the heart of a champion and that’s what Alabama showed the rest of the way.
They won five straight games, including a pair of narrow wins over LSU and Arkansas, to secure another SEC title game berth. But they wouldn’t have stayed in the national title hunt without a comeback for the ages against in-state rivals Auburn.
After struggling the whole game, Bryce Young led the Tide on a 97-yard touchdown drive in the final minute and 43 seconds to tie the game at 10.
Young wasn’t going to be denied in overtime. His two-point conversion pass broke the deadlock in the 4th extra period, giving ‘Bama a win that seemed unlikely the first 58 minutes of the game.
Young’s performance led many to consider him a top contender now for the Heisman Trophy and helped his team weather yet another storm.
“Over the course of the season, I think sometimes when things have gone poorly, players have responded very well,” Saban told reporters after the Crimson Tide’s win over Auburn. “It’s great to have the resiliency to overcome it, but you’d like to be able to sustain (it) with consistency, so you don’t get in those situations.”
They’ll need to find that consistency as they face their toughest challenge of the year against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Dawg days are over?
After winning a fourth national title in seven years as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart decided to leave his mentor and friend Nick Saban and take the head coaching job at conference rival Georgia in early 2016. The Bulldogs had been a good team (19 straight bowl appearances) but now they wanted to be great.
Georgia’s last national title was in 1980 and they’ve only won the SEC twice since 1982, but they believed Smart was the man that could take them to the promised land.
Kirby brought his mentor’s blueprint for success with him to Athens: a powerful defense, a solid running game and an efficient passing attack — and it paid dividends right away.
Georgia got to the national title game, but fell, in Smart’s second season. And that loss to end the 2017 season was a painful one, as it was against — you guessed it — Alabama.
The game was in Atlanta and the Bulldogs led 13-0 at halftime. ‘Bama’s star QB Jalen Hurts was struggling, so Saban decided to start freshman Tua Tagovaiola in the second half.
Tua led an epic comeback, capping it off with a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith, giving the Tide a 26-23 overtime win. It was their fifth national title under Saban and his first without his top assistant, who had to find a way to overcome the sting of that defeat and move forward.
Georgia made some big-time bowl games the next three years but none of them were in the college football playoffs, and fans were starting to get a bit restless.
But 2021 has been a different story. The Dawgs have forged a perfect 12-0 record, outscoring their opponents by almost 34 points a game.
They lead the nation in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed per game and their closest win was a 10-3 victory over Clemson in the season opener. That’s the kind of season Alabama’s used to having, not Georgia.
The Bulldogs have been No. 1 in the country ever since Alabama’s loss at Texas A&M and roll into the SEC title game with a ton of confidence and even a bit of swagger.
“This team has responded to all the things we’ve challenged them with,” said Smart after beating Georgia Tech on Saturday. “We hit them with different things each week, things we want to really focus on — accountability from their standpoint of holding other players accountable from week to week for different things. And they’ve done it each and every time.”
What’s at stake?
So for the first time since that national title game meeting almost four years ago, Alabama and Georgia meet again. And it’s in Atlanta again, this time for the SEC crown.
Both teams feel as though they need this win but for very different reasons.
For Alabama, which enters No. 3 in the college football playoff rankings, the chances of a seventh national title in the Nick Saban era are on the line here: no team with two losses has made the college football playoff since the four-team format began in the 2014 season.
A lot could happen in other conference title games on Saturday which could allow the Crimson Tide to sneak in with a second loss, but they can’t count on that happening.
Georgia’s No. 1 in the playoff rankings and with a loss, they’d still secure a top-four spot, even if it isn’t as the number one seed.
But for this team, it’s about beating Alabama. Kirby Smart’s 0-3 against his former boss and the Bulldogs have lost six straight in the series overall — their last win coming in 2007, which was Saban’s first season with the Crimson Tide.
“Every year is independent of the previous,” Smart said. “Our job is to go play the best possible game we can. That’s what we’ve been trying to build towards this year. We haven’t played our best yet, and we think our best is still out there. That’s the goal.”
Another Georgia team, the Atlanta Braves, had to get past a Los Angeles Dodgers team which had haunted them for years on their road to a first World Series title in 26 years. In order for the Bulldogs to win the national title which has eluded them for the last 41 years, they’re going to have to climb over their own boogeyman: Alabama.
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