That the SEC Championship game means more to Alabama than to Georgia tells us how far the Bulldogs have come. They can lose Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and, owing to their body of work, still make the College Football Playoff. Should Bama lose, it figures to be relegated to a garden-variety New Year’s Six bowl.
That’s the practical side. The psychological side is different.
Georgia fired coach Mark Richt in 2015 because his program – the SEC’s best over a four-year span of 2002 through 2005 – couldn’t get past Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in this century’s second decade. In the latter days of 2015, Georgia fired Richt and hired Kirby Smart, the UGA alum who was Saban’s ablest assistant, for the express purpose of toppling the Tide. That’s the one unchecked box on Smart’s employee review.
Actually, it’s one of two unchecked boxes, though the two bleed into one another. Smart hasn’t beaten Alabama; he also hasn’t won a national championship. It’s possible this season could end in triumph Jan. 10 in Indianapolis with Georgia having reached only one of those twin peaks. The Bulldogs could lose Saturday to Bama, win a semifinal against Michigan and watch Cincinnati take down the Tide in the other semi. The easier way would be to beat Alabama and be done with the Tide until next December.
Their past three meetings have seen the Bulldogs lead at halftime. Two of those came at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The first was for the national championship. Alabama won when its backup quarterback found a future Heisman Trophy winner running free on second-and-26 in overtime. The second was for the SEC title. Bama’s winning points came when a different backup quarterback scored with 64 seconds left. Insane factoid: Twice in 11 months, Alabama beat Georgia without ever snapping the ball while leading.
The Tide won again in a regular-season game in October 2020 that saw the Bulldogs lead at halftime. Before this season began, Smart averred that his team was as good as Alabama, referencing those three close encounters.
On a national level, Clemson – not Georgia – became the closest thing to Alabama. The Tigers met Bama in four playoff games over four years. They lost the first meeting. They won the second and fourth to claim national championships. Clemson got past Alabama. Lest we forget, this season began with Georgia beating Clemson, after which Smart said: “You’re either elite or you’re not.”
To be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ: That bit of conventional wisdom isn’t always true, though it is true an awful lot. To become NBA champs, the Pistons of Isiah Thomas had to get past the Celtics. Two years later, the Bulls of Michael Jordan had to get past those Pistons. A more local and recent example: The Braves were eliminated by the Dodgers in the 2013, 2018 and 2020 playoffs. Come 2021, the Braves beat the Dodgers. Ten days later, the Braves were World Series champs.
The Bulldogs haven’t played a close game since Labor Day. Alabama hasn’t played a close game since last weekend. There are times – that escape at Auburn on Saturday stands as the new Exhibit A – when it seems Bama wins because Bama has forgotten how to lose. That’s not quite accurate, either. Gus Malzahn, now of Central Florida, won three of eight against Alabama while coaching Auburn; he was 2-7 against Georgia. Of the Tide’s six national titlists under Saban, only two went unbeaten. Texas A&M beat this Bama team behind its backup quarterback.
Asked this week if Georgia devotes discussion to previous excruciations against Alabama, Smart said: “We talk about the opponent every week we play somebody, right? But we focus on ourselves. We focus on execution. We don’t focus on history. I think every team is independent of the previous. … What happened in those games will have no relevance to this game. Anybody with good coaching sense would tell you that.”
The only way for the Bulldogs to stop being asked if they can beat Alabama is to beat Alabama. That should happen Saturday.