INDIANAPOLIS – As the Georgia Bulldogs prepare to take college football’s grandest stage once again, there are two overarching themes following them into Lucas Oil Stadium: Can they finally beat Alabama and will they finally hoist the national championship trophy for the first time in 41 years?

Everyone seems to agree that these two teams, which will meet in the College Football Playoff championship Monday night (8 p.m., ESPN), are indeed the two best in the land this year. The CFP got it right.

ExploreMore from the AJC on Monday's big game

But Georgia has lost seven in a row to the Crimson Tide. That includes the SEC Championship game a month ago in Atlanta and the national championship game in the same place now four years past. That Alabama coach Nick Saban was Kirby Smart’s boss for 10 years and remains so even after Smart left his employ adds to the Bulldogs’ angst.

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

But that anxiety lay only with the Bulldogs’ fan base, not with the players and coaches. That’s what we’re told anyway. Offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer indicated the players actually have embraced their history versus Alabama.

“It is what it is. It’s the truth,” said the senior from Atlanta. “You can’t really run away from the truth. That’s what it is. That’s our record. But we’re not trying to make it an emotional thing, where you go out playing with emotions. You want to be calm, collected, composed, attack and play our game.”

Smart is himself is 0-4 against Alabama. But during his tenure he has lifted Georgia to place it hasn’t been since Vince Dooley landed Herschel Walker in the spring of 1980 and won a national championship and three SEC championships in a row.

Smart has done that, admittedly, by adopting the organizational template he learned from Saban at Alabama and applying it to the considerable potential that UGA always has had. It has worked.

“As far as the way we organize and run the program, most of that came from my time spent with Coach Saban,” Smart said Sunday of his Alabama influence. “There was (also) a year at LSU, a year at Dolphins. You take a lot of things from the places you come from in your history. That’s certainly helped shape me as a coach.”

This 2021 Georgia team was Smart’s fifth straight team to finish in the top 10 of the CFP rankings, earn a New Years Six bowl berth and fourth to appear in the SEC Championship game. The Bulldogs, who were the nation’s consensus No. 1 team for eight consecutive weeks, logged their first undefeated regular season since 1982 and Smart was named the SEC coach of the year.

Then, Alabama.

Those are the two words that have punctuated every sentence about Georgia’s accomplishments during Smart’s six-year reign. The Bulldogs rolled into the conference championship game as 6.5-point favorites over Alabama and promptly lost by 17.

Credit: Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton/

That is not something about which Saban gloats.

“I think the University of Georgia, Kirby’s program, is probably one of the elite programs in the country,” he said next to Smart at the head coaches’ news conference Sunday at the JW Marriott. “He’s done an outstanding job making that program what it is. And we certainly feel like this is the best team in the country that we have an opportunity to play, the most consistent team all season long, in terms of how they played. And it’s a tremendous challenge for us, and really kind of an honor to have the opportunity to play against what we feel is one of the most elite programs in the country, and probably will be for some time in the future as well.”

Flattering, yes, but hollow words to the ears of so many in UGA’s fan base. It is them, the loyal season-ticket holders and donors, who have paid the freight for what Smart has done with the program. Since Smart arrived in December of 2015, that group has stepped up to fund more than $175 million of new facilities. The latest, an $80 million football operations addition to the Butts-Mehre Complex, won’t be 100 percent complete until later this month. That’s not to mention across-the-board increases in staff, payroll and recruiting budget.

With Georgia, everything still seems fresh and new. But not to those who have been invested in the Bulldogs’ pursuits since they last lifted a national championship trophy.

“I am 63 now,” said Scott Woerner, whose interception clinched Georgia’s 17-10 win over Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1981. “When he have our reunions once or twice a year, Tim Morrison never forgets to remind everyone, ‘it is still about us.’ Who would have thought 41 years would pass? Somebody’s just got to make a play.”

That will be the key to Monday. It was Alabama that made all the meaningful plays in the last meeting.

Bryce Young was chief playmaker. Bama’s sophomore quarterback from California passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another in the Tide’s shockingly one-sided 41-24 victory. Wide receiver Jameson Williams hauled in two of Young’s passes for touchdowns of 67 and 55 yards.

Not coincidentally, Young picked up the Heisman Trophy in New York the next week.

As much as that indicates a mismatch of Georgia’s secondary against Bama’s receivers, it was more a function of the Bulldogs’ famed defensive front not being able to bring down Young. To say they didn’t pressure the quarterback would be inaccurate. Georgia registered 15 QB hurries in the contest. It finished with zero sacks.

With the same players competing 37 days later, is it possible that turns out differently?

“We have to attack it a little bit differently,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who has been good enough at his job to land the head coaching position at Oregon. “There are a lot of different ways we can do that. … They had good answers and played better than we did that day.”



That’s the thing about facing Saban and Alabama. They always seem to have answers, especially when the stakes get high. This will be the 10th time Saban has led his team onto the field for a national championship game. He’s 7-2 in the other nine.

He’s done that by having the right answers at the right time. Like in 2017 championship game when he switched to freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at halftime and saw Tagovailoa lead them to a 26-23 come-from-behind victory over the Bulldogs. Or the 2018 SEC Championship game, when he switched back to Jalen Hurts and beat Georgia again.

Yet, with all that history, the Bulldogs remained 2.5-point favorites on the eve of the title game. That’s based, in part, on Georgia’s dominating 34-11 rebound win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal and the relative health of the respective teams. Alabama will be without its receptions leader, John Metchie, who went down with a knee injury during the last Georgia game. The Crimson Tide also will be without starting cornerback Josh Jobe (toe) and have injury concerns about cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis (hip) and offensive line starters Emil Ekiyor (shoulder) and Chris Owens (ankle).

The Bulldogs are relatively healthy. Tight end Brock Bowers, who had 10 catches and a touchdown in the last meeting, has a sore shoulder but is expected to play. And receiver George Pickens (knee), safety Christopher Smith (knee) and Salyer (foot) are all significantly recorded from injuries that slowed them in the previous game against Alabama.

So, the time would appear right for Georgia to vanquish the beasts of both Bama and a 41-year championship drought.

If the Bulldogs do, Smart said it won’t be because he feels the mounting external pressure to get it done.

“What I feel is, ‘how do we stop Bryce Young and how do we control their front and how do we run the ball, how do we throw the ball with efficiency, how do we convert third downs and stop them in the red area,” Smart said. “(The drought) is the furthest from my concern because I don’t control that. What I control is who we recruit, how we develop players, how we keep people in our program, and then how we do scheme-wise.

“If you do that right, the other will take care of itself.”

Again, Alabama.