Alabama has trailed for three snaps and 70 seconds this season. That came Sept. 15, when Ole Miss completed a 75-yard touchdown pass on its first play. The closest any opponent has come beating Bama wasn’t close – Texas A&M lost by 22 points on Sept. 22. The Crimson Tide opened as a 10.5-point favorite over Georgia, the nation’s No. 4 team, and within hours the line jumped to 13.
Over the course of a regular season, Alabama has – let’s be honest – been better than Georgia, which itself has been stellar. Alabama this season has been as domineering as any collegiate team ever. Such is its eminence that it could lose Saturday and still stand a chance of making the College Football Playoff, although – more honesty – nobody expects it to lose. Full disclosure: I count myself among that raging consensus.
That said, Georgia isn’t chopped liver. It has played 12 games, winning 11. Of those victories, the closest was 17 points. In an alternate universe where there was no Alabama, the Bulldogs would be considered no worse than the nation’s second-best team. If I’ve learned one thing over four decades of doing this, it’s to beware of a team this good that’s being afforded no chance.
On the day before unbeaten Texas played unbeaten USC for the BCS title in January 2006, I asked Longhorns coach Mack Brown how it felt to be such a massive underdog. He bristled, albeit politely, and insisted he believed in his team, thanks very much. The next night, Vince Young proved the point. The Trojans, who’d been anointed the greatest team ever, were beaten 14 miles from their campus. Had it been a best-of-seven, USC would surely have prevailed. Football doesn’t do bests-of-seven, and in a match of near-peers anything can happen. (See: Ohio State 62, Michigan 39.)
Do I believe Georgia will win Saturday? No. Do I believe it can? Yes. Here’s why:
1. Not being tested is, in the long run, not a great thing. Georgia can cite chapter and verse. It rode into Auburn last season No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and left a 40-17 loser. It arrived in Baton Rouge last month as the nation's No. 2 team and left a 36-16 loser. The Bulldogs used both flops as springboards. Alabama has had no flops. But let's say Georgia gets ahead early. Let's say D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield make enough yards and Jake Fromm completes enough passes off play-action to control the clock and keep Tua Tagovailoa off the field. Let's say the Bulldogs carry that lead into the second half. Would the Tide begin to sweat? Would even Nick Saban dare to change quarterbacks again?
2. Comparative scores aren't always the best indicator. Bama beat LSU by 29; LSU beat Georgia by 20. That's the only one that resonates. It's true that the Tide dismissed the other common opponents – Missouri, Tennessee and Auburn – by wider margins, but the Bulldogs didn't exactly flail. They won all three by more than two touchdowns. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Alabama ranks No. 2 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency; Georgia ranks No. 3 and No. 4. FPI assigns the Bulldogs a 36.3 percent chance of winning Saturday, which isn't a coin flip but isn't a no-chancer. Pittsburgh is given a 4.3 percent shot at upsetting Clemson in the ACC title tilt. That's a no-chancer.
3. If it comes down to kicking, Georgia has the edge. You'll recall that the Tide missed two field goals, one that would have won at the end of regulation, on Jan. 8 in last season's national championship. Their kickers are 13 of 18 on field goals this season, the longest make being 49 yards, and have missed eight extra points. Rodrigo Blankenship is 19 of 22 on field goals, his longest make being 53 yards. He hasn't missed a PAT. Alabama hasn't punted much, but it's 118th in the nation in net punting; Georgia is 46th. Oh, and Mecole Hardman is among the best returners in the land.
4. The Bulldogs know they can stand in against the mighty Tide. They led 13-0 and 20-7 in MBS 11 months ago. Many of their coaches used to work in Tuscaloosa, so this team isn't apt to be surprised by anything Alabama does, and it was the first opponent to get a long look at Tagovailoa. Granted, that game had an unhappy ending, but still: The shock and awe most opponents feel when facing Bama won't register with Georgia. These guys have seen it already.
5. Georgia is the underdog, which is something it hasn't been this season. The pressure's on Alabama, which isn't to say the Tide can't handle it. They've been handling it for a decade, but even they can throw a wobble. As grand as this program is, it has finished unbeaten only once under Saban, that in 2009.
6. Maybe the Bulldogs are just due. The only thing that separated these teams in the 2012 SEC championship was a tipped pass caught by Chris Conley on the Tide 5-yard line as time expired. The Tide didn't lead in January until the final play, when Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith on second-and-26. For Georgia, the best-case scenario is to keep it close, which nobody has done against Bama this season, and hope Rodrigo the folk hero wins it at the end. I'm not saying that will happen -- Alabama could well prove impregnable -- but I am saying it could.
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