ATLANTA – Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have faced sporadic challengers during their long reign of the Southeastern Conference.
Auburn will show up every few years to compete against the greatest dynasty in college football. Joe Burrow led LSU to a national title at the expense of Alabama. Florida showed in a flash how it was glued to the tide.
None of them had stamina.
Georgia could be different.
Kirby Smart and the Senior Bulldogs look like a long-haul program capable of being on par with Alabama annually.
In one tumultuous season, Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC, # 1 in CFP) has stood above everyone else and appears to be a stunner for a place in the college football playoffs no matter what happens in the league on Saturday- Championship game against the Crimson Tide.
“Georgia is number one in the country for good reason,” said Saban. “They’re probably the most consistent and dominant team week after week.”
No. 4 Alabama (11-1, 7-1, No. 3 CFP) likely needs a surprise from Georgia in order not to miss the four-team playoff for the second time in its eight years of existence, although there are certainly scenarios where Tide could be the first team to enter with two losses.
“Our players just need to focus on one move at a time and win as many games as possible,” said Saban. “Don’t worry about the scoreboard and what the result means.”
While Georgia has rarely been challenged or even left behind this season, the Tide have won four games with less than one touchdown.
Alabama managed to escape the Iron Bowl with a win over Auburn last week and recover from a 10 point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 24-22 in four overtimes.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett paid no attention to the close calls from Alabama.
“Football is such a crazy sport and there are so many different aspects that go into a single game that determine a score,” he said. “We have too much respect for who the Alabama team is this year to allow us to do that.”
Smart, a former defense coordinator under Saban, has not beaten his mentor in three games since taking office in Georgia – including a devastating overtime defeat in the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season.
This is a hurdle that Smart naturally has to overcome in order to really be on a par with his ex-boss.
“You appreciate the work he’s done more when you go,” Smart said of Saban. “If you keep going, you’ll appreciate that he’s working really hard. He doesn’t ask any assistant to do anything he doesn’t. He keeps everyone to a high standard. “
In total, Alabama has beaten the Bulldogs six times in a row since 2007.
“This year is this year,” said Smart. “I don’t think there is any overlap between the two. I know people want to do it so that it overlaps, but each year is independent of the previous one. “
Saban lost to one of his former assistants for the first time this season when Jimbo Fisher and the Texas A&M Aggies gave The Tide their only defeat.
Now Smart has a chance to join Fisher in this exclusive club.
Bennett vs. Young
The quarterbacks form a striking contrast.
Alabama’s Bryce Young was one of the best-recruited players in the country and lived up to the hype in his first season as a starter.
Stetson Bennett, on the other hand, went on at Georgia, left for a year to get playing time at a junior college, and started that season as the third team player before starting the job after injuring JT Daniels.
Despite their different backgrounds, both have played a big part in their team’s success this season.
Young was mentioned as a contender for the Heisman Trophy, throwing 3,901 yards with 40 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Bennett threw 21 TD passes with just five picks and demonstrated the ability to add to games with his running skills.
Freshman Brock Bowers was one of Bennett’s favorite targets, the size and speed of which caused all sorts of matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Bowers leads the Bulldogs with 37 catches for 652 yards and 10 touchdowns, setting a school record for a close finish.
“It’s probably as good a close finish as we’ve seen all year,” said Saban. “He’s a good size, very athletic, great hands, good distance runner. It is very difficult to guard. “
Two of college football’s best defensive players will have a chance to shine on Saturday.
Georgia’s Jordan Davis is a massive nose guard that anchors a defense that has allowed only 6.9 points per game.
Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is tied in the national lead with 14.5 sacks, while his 30.5 tackles behind the line are far more than any other player.
Anderson said it was challenging to contain Bennett.
“He is very fast. He has great feet. He’s really good at getting out of the bag, ”said Anderson. “We can’t let him run all over the field and make long trips with his feet.”
Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. ranks third in the SEC with 1,016 yards of rushing, but his status is uncertain due to a left leg injury.
Given Alabama’s lack of depth in this position – Trey Sanders is the only other scholarship running back – Robinson’s health is critical to the Crimson Tide’s chances of creating a surprise.
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