5 things to know about the latest Alabama-Georgia showdown

For the fourth time in the last five years, the Georgia Bulldogs will be running onto the field to face Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. Ranked No. 1 this year, the Bulldogs (12-0) are looking for their first win over Alabama since 2007. (Photo by Skylar Lien)

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For the fourth time in the last five years, the Georgia Bulldogs will be running onto the field to face Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. Ranked No. 1 this year, the Bulldogs (12-0) are looking for their first win over Alabama since 2007. (Photo by Skylar Lien)

ATHENS – Of the founding members of the original SEC, Georgia has played only Tennessee fewer times (50) than it has Alabama (70). But it seems like they’ve been making up for lost time here lately.

The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide will meet for the 10th time in 20 years and fourth time in the past three calendar years when they square off in the SEC Championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

ExploreGeorgia-Alabama: TV, online, radio information

The No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC) have won six games in a row over the Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0), who enter this one as the No. 1-ranked and favored team. Most of Georgia’s losses have been of the excruciating variety. It led the past three matchups at halftime, only to see Alabama come from behind to win in the second half. The losses in the 2017 season’s College Football Playoff Championship game (26-23, OT) and in the 2018 SEC Championship game (35-28) were particularly painful for the Bulldogs.

Those encounters also earned Alabama’s respect.

“Every game that we’ve had has been a great game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Thursday. “I have the utmost respect for Kirby (Smart) and his staff in those games, and I certainly have it in this game.”

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Here are five storylines to follow Saturday:

Vanquishing the ‘beast’

How badly does Georgia want to beat Alabama? CBS Sports college football analyst Gary Danielson, who will be on the call Saturday, believes the Bulldogs are obsessed by it.

Danielson said the motivation to finally vanquish the beast of Bama ultimately could be the edge Georgia needs. In an interview on The Fan radio station Thursday, Danielson compared it with the Oakland Raiders obsession with taking down the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. He compared Alabama’s “Second-and-26″ with the Steelers’ “Immaculate Reception.”

The Raiders finally took down Pittsburgh in the 1976 AFC Championship game on the way to winning the Super Bowl. Oakland included the score of that game -- not the Super Bowl score -- on their championship rings.

“I really feel this Georgia team is so focused on (beating Alabama),” Danielson said. “I know Kirby won’t talk about it, and I don’t blame him. But I think since January these Georgia players have been hungry to get a shot at Alabama.”

It’s not about past results for Georgia’s players. But they’ve known all year that the path to “the natty” likely would go through Bama by way of The Benz.

While the national narrative is Bulldogs will be in the College Football Playoff even if they lose to Alabama, that’s not what the players are thinking.

“Definitely, no,” redshirt freshman wideout Ladd McConkey said. “We’re trying to make a statement, going out there and competing to the best of our ability, really letting it all out. We’re not approaching this game with the mind-set that, ‘Ah, if we lose, we’re still getting into the playoffs.’ We’re trying to make a statement and keep this thing going.”

The Pickens’ factor

One looming question heading into the contest is how, if at all, George Pickens will figure into the game plan for Georgia. The junior wide receiver returned to the field for the first time all season Saturday against Georgia Tech. But Pickens played only a handful of plays and caught one 5-yard pass.

Rehabbing since knee surgery in April, Pickens was Georgia’s top receiver the past two seasons, with 85 catches for 1,240 yards and 14 touchdowns. But the Bulldogs have been getting along pretty well without him, averaging 240 yards per game passing and distributing the ball primarily to tight ends, flankers and backs out of the backfield.

Would inserting Pickens at split end in any way risk the Bulldogs’ offensive chemistry, which has been exceptional and improving over the previous 12 games. Quarterback Stetson Bennett doesn’t think so.

“I guess there’s always that question of the unknown with anything,” said Bennett, who has 1,985 yards passing and 21 touchdowns in 11 games played this season. “But the way our team is molded and shaped from the top down, starting with coach Smart and (offensive coordinator Todd Monken), we let them take care of that. Us, the players, we just work on chemistry on the field and let them make all the strategic moves like that.”

Bama’s running game

The status of Alabama’s star running back Brian Robinson is up in the air. The Tide’s leading rusher (1,016 yards, 14 TDs) appeared to suffer a hamstring injury during the Auburn game Saturday. Saban called it a “lower-body muscle pull” and said Robinson is “day-to-day.”

If Robinson can’t go, the Tide’s running game will fall on the shoulders of Trey Sanders. A 6-0, 214-pound sophomore, Sanders finished the four-overtime win over Auburn with 10 carries for 23 yards. He comes to Atlanta as Bama’s third-leading rusher with 221 yards and two touchdowns on 50 carries.

Bama lost Roydell Williams, its No. 2 back, to a knee injury in the New Mexico State game Nov. 13 and two other backs earlier in the season.

Bringing pressure

Alabama is bringing the nation’s top pass-rusher into the contest in outside linebacker Will Anderson and one of the country’s top pass-rushing teams.

Robinson, a 6-foot-4, 243-pound sophomore from Dutchtown, has piled up 14.5 sacks (for minus-90 yards) and 30.5 tackles for loss (minus-128). So, the Bulldogs will be well-advised to know where No. 31 is at all times, and they plan to.

But Anderson is not the only Alabama player who can pressure the passer. In fact, the Tide has 18 players who have recorded at least a half-sack in their official stats. They have 43 in all as a team, which ranks No. 3 in the country.

Georgia’s pretty good at getting after the passer, as well. The Bulldogs have collected 41 sacks as a team, which is one spot behind Alabama in the national rankings.

However, Georgia’s pass rush is a bit more unpredictable. Adam Anderson, who was indefinitely suspended after eight games because of a rape charge, continues to hold the team co-lead with 5.0 sacks. Inside linebacker Nakobe Dean also has 5.0 sacks.

Behind them are three players with from 4-4.5 sacks, and they all play different positions: Outside linebacker Robert Beal (4.5), inside linebacker Channing Tindall (4.5) and defensive end Travon Walker (4.0).

Cover 2

Cornerback play, one of the Bulldogs’ biggest question marks coming into the season, has been solidified with the work of senior Derion Kendrick and redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo. But they’ll be tested like they haven’t been all season by Alabama’s wideouts.

Juniors Jameson Williams (105.1 ypg, 13 TDs) and John Metchie (87.1-7) average nearly 200 yards per game between them. The Bulldogs had trouble covering Alabama wideouts DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Metchie with future NFL corners Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes in a 41-24 loss last season.

“Both guys have improved throughout the year,” Smart said of Georgia’s corners. “They’ll be going against two of the best in our conference in this game. And they also have a distributor that is elite in getting the ball to them (QB Bryce Young). So it’s a big challenge.”

What’s next for UGA?

After the Georgia Bulldogs’ first loss of the season to Alabama, what happens next?

The Bulldogs fell from No. 1 to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are set to face No. 2. Michigan (12-1) in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Journalists from the AJC are providing complete coverage of the SEC Championship and the decisions on Sunday about the College Football Playoffs.

Readers will find updated coverage in print and ePaper editions, the AJC app and on ajc.com.

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On Twitter: Follow UGA reporter Chip Towers @ctowersajc, @AJCSports and @ajc

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