Heresy alert: If I’m Georgia, I’d rather face Alabama

Georgia’s game at Bobby Dodd Stadium is set to begin at noon Saturday. On the bus ride back to Athens, the Bulldogs – via the wonders of WiFi and streaming video – can watch as the identity of their next Atlanta opponent is revealed. Alabama plays at Auburn. Iron Bowl winner gets UGA.

Today’s question (which technically I’ve broached before today, but bear with me): If you’re UGA, for whom do you root? The kneejerk response is to say, “Not Alabama.” This might be a time when knees deceive.

Alabama has the aura, yes. Alabama has Nick Saban, who never loses, which isn’t quite true but is close enough. (Bama is 123-13 over the past decade, the losses being so few I can name them off the top of my head.) Alabama is No. 1, which is no shock because Alabama is always No. 1. For all that, Alabama could be the better matchup.

You know this already: Kirby Smart, long Saban’s aide-de-camp, has built Georgia in his master’s glowering image. Georgia is 10-1 because it runs the ball and plays defense. (Old-time hockey!) Mirror images: Bama is No. 9 among FBS programs in rushing offense, Georgia No. 10; Bama is No. 1 in total defense, Georgia No. 5.

Having been doing this stuff a lot longer than Georgia has been doing the same stuff, Alabama figures to be a tad better at it. Still, seeing Bama across the line would supply no great shock to the Bulldog system. In a way – I know I’ll regret saying this, but here it is – it’d be like G-Day. The Bulldogs would have an idea what’s coming. The trick, duh, would be in stopping it.

Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker worked in Tuscaloosa. So did assistants Kevin Sherrer and Glenn Schumann. If anyone has an insight into Saban’s dark magic, those men do. When you win as much as Saban, forewarned isn’t necessarily forearmed – but it can’t hurt.

Auburn is different. On offense, Auburn doesn’t resemble Georgia at all. The Tigers run Gus Malzahn’s stylized spread – quarterback often but not always in the shotgun, three receivers, two backs, lots of motion, constant threat of a jet sweep. Auburn just hung 40 points and 488 yards on the defense of Smart/Tucker, so anything that happens a second time in three weeks wouldn’t be an utter surprise. Then again, the change-up thrown on Auburn’s fifth touchdown – a throwback screen to Kerryon Johnson – wrong-footed the same coaches who’d faced Malzahn many times before.

The Gus Method doesn’t always work. Auburn was 11-13 in SEC play over the three seasons prior to this. Last year saw the Tigers lose to Smart’s first (and not very good) Georgia team 13-7 on a day when the Tigers managed 164 yards. They had only 117 in a dire showing at Clemson on Sept. 9. But they’ve gotten it going, and when the Gus Bus gets rolling, it’s hard to stop.

There’s also this: Alabama’s lofty defensive numbers mightn’t reflect current reality. Bama has lost three linebackers to injury, though Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis are close to returning. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick missed part of the game at Mississippi State and skipped the walkover against Mercer. As ESPN’s Brad Edwards notes, a defense that has limited opponents to an average of 87.4 yards rushing yielded 151 and 172 in less-than-dominating victories over LSU and State.

Meanwhile, Auburn held Georgia to 46 yards rushing. If the Bulldogs can’t run the ball, they’re not winning the SEC title. Words I never thought I’d type: Due to attrition, Auburn’s defensive front seven might be better than Alabama’s.

No, the dynamics in Mercedes-Benz Stadium wouldn’t be the same as at Jordan-Hare. The crowd would be split. There’d be no chill under the unmoving roof. Always a fount of knowledge, Edwards recalls two 2001 conference championships that were rematches yielding different results. Colorado, which lost 41-7 in Austin, beat Texas in Dallas for the Big 12 title; the LSU of Saban, which lost 26-18 in Knoxville, beat Tennessee in the partially demolished Georgia Dome.

In September, Vanderbilt fans closed an upset of Kansas State by chanting, “We want Bama.” Alabama came to Nashville the next week and won 59-0. Anything involving Saban carries the strongest possible caveat: “Be careful in thy wishing.” That said ...

The belief is that Auburn is playing better than Alabama, and the memory of Malzahn’s raging offense down the stretch in 2013 is palpable – 43 points, albeit seven on the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, against Georgia; 34, albeit six on the Kick Six, against Bama; 59 against a good Missouri team and then 31 against unbeaten Florida State, the best national champ of the past decade. Had Gus had any sort of defense that year, he’d have been national champ. He has a defense now.

I know it’s heresy. I know it’s Alabama. I know he’s Saban. But if I’m the Bulldogs, I’m pulling for the Tide.