Georgia has come to resemble Alabama more than Alabama does

November 30, 2018 Atlanta - Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart and Alabama Head Coach Nick Saba pose in front of the Championship Trophy during a SEC press conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, November 30, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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November 30, 2018 Atlanta - Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart and Alabama Head Coach Nick Saba pose in front of the Championship Trophy during a SEC press conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, November 30, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

If you dressed these teams in generic uniforms and took names off the jerseys, you’d guess Georgia is Alabama and vice versa. The 2021 Bulldogs could pass for the 2012 Crimson Tide – the team with Eddie Lacy rumbling and AJ McCarron throwing long to Amari Cooper, the one that came from 11 points down to beat Georgia in the greatest SEC championship game. Kirby Smart hasn’t just built his program around what he learned in Tuscaloosa; he has turned the Bulldogs into Alabama.

The Bulldogs rank first nationally in total defense. Alabama is seventh, having yielded 64 more yards per game. Georgia is 25th in rushing; Bama is – pause for emphasis – 77th. Nick Saban’s pronounced pivot toward a 21st Century offense has left the once rock-ribbed Tide into something approaching a Big 12 aggregation.

Alabama averages 36.8 passes per game to Georgia’s 25.2. Here, though, is the key measure: Bama is fourth in passing efficiency; the Bulldogs are fifth. They haven’t had to throw as much, but – take note, all ye Stetson Bennett critics – they’re good at it when they do. Their defense hasn’t allowed them to fall behind by any significant margin. Their ground game has kept them in front.

Only Clemson, way back on Labor Day weekend, has come within 17 points of the Bulldogs. Alabama just trailed Auburn, which finished 6-6, by 10 with 8:45 remaining. Bama lost to Texas A&M, which was without its No. 1 quarterback. Georgia lost to nobody.

The road to ruin is paved with comparative scores, but these seem apt. Arkansas lost to Georgia by 37 points; the Razorbacks lost to Alabama by seven. Florida lost to Georgia by 27; the Gators lost to Bama by two. Auburn lost to Georgia by 24; the Tigers lost to Bama by two in the fourth overtime. Only Tennessee came closer to Georgia (24 points) than to Alabama (28).

By now, you’ve heard the unexpurgated version of Smart’s halftime talk against Florida. Amid evocative adjectives and nouns, his theme was: “We’re disciplined!” He told no lies. Georgia was penalized 56 times over 12 games, the 16th-lowest among 130 FBS teams. Alabama was penalized 87 times, tying it for 106th.

For more than a decade, we’ve asked if Georgia can beat Alabama. The answer has been no; the Bulldogs are 0-6 against the Tide since the 2008 Sanford Stadium blackout. The three games in Atlanta – all for championships – could take the gold, silver and bronze as the most wrenching losses in UGA annals. Georgia is favored this time by a touchdown.

That doesn’t mean Alabama can’t win. It’s still Alabama, and he’s still Nick Saban. But Georgia under Smart has done everything except beat Bama. Smart’s Bulldogs have led at the half three times against the Tide. This is his best team. This might be Saban’s 10th-best Alabama team. It can throw and catch. It averages 42.3 points. That said, last year’s Tide averaged 48.5. Even Saban can’t lose six Round 1 draftees – five on offense – and not feel it.

Part of Saban will love being an underdog, which happened only once over the past 12 years. That was on Oct. 3, 2015, when Bama came to Athens two weeks after a home loss to Mississippi. The Bulldogs were favored by a point. They lost 38-10 in the rain. Two months later, Smart was introduced as Mark Richt’s successor.

Georgia is 56-9 over the past five seasons. One-third of those losses were to Alabama. We can forget the part about a former assistant never beating the great Saban. Jimbo Fisher took care of that on Oct. 9. His A&M Aggies wound up losing four games.

This wasn’t an especially vintage year in the SEC. Florida fired Dan Mullen. LSU fired Ed Orgeron. Only two teams that aren’t playing for the conference title – Mississippi and Kentucky – finished above .500 in league play. Alabama won the Iron Bowl and dropped in the Associated Press poll. The one constant in both conference and country has been Georgia.

No team but the Bulldogs has received a first-place vote in the writers’ or coaches’ poll in seven weeks. They’ve yielded 83 points – nine touchdowns, seven field goals – over 12 games. Clemson has the nation’s second-best defense; it has allowed 180 points. Georgia has broken 30 against every opponent except the Tigers. It averages 40.7 points, not quite two per game off Alabama’s output.

Bama needs to win Saturday to make the College Football Playoff. Georgia can lose and still be invited. It won’t lose. The Bulldogs can slow any offense. Alabama won’t slow Georgia’s. Six Tide opponents have scored 20-plus points; no Georgia opponent has topped 17. Your score: Georgia 30, Alabama 17.

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