Georgia can’t get away from the Alabama bogeyman

Crimson Tide have chance to ruin UGA’s season
Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart shake hands after Alabama beat Georgia during the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart shake hands after Alabama beat Georgia during the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Practically speaking, nothing changed for Georgia when Alabama’s Jalen Milrose lofted a perfect pass and Isaiah Bond made a great catch to beat Auburn on Saturday night. The task remained the same for the Bulldogs. Beat Bama on Saturday in the SEC Championship game, get picked for the College Football Playoff and make a run at another national championship.

But Milrose-to-Bond changed a lot for Georgia in intangible ways. If the Crimson Tide fail to make that play, then the collective angst of Bulldog Nation might be a bit lower. The dramatic victory was a reminder that the Bama bogeyman is still lurking. The last team to beat Georgia is the one that has the best chance to stop the Bulldogs now.

That didn’t seem possible for much of the season. The Crimson Tide lost a game in September for the first time since 2015. It took Nick Saban a month to settle on a quarterback. Alabama sweated out wins over South Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn. USF finished 4-4 in the American Athletic Conference; TAMU, Arkansas and Auburn were a combined 8-16 in the SEC.

And yet, after all of that, the Tide are in position to play for their seventh national championship with Saban as coach. Quarterback Jalen Milroe went from benched in September to dual-threat bully in November. The Tide’s defense had slipped below Saban’s standard. That unit is looking elite again.

Alabama needed a one-in-a-million play to beat Auburn. The Tigers lost to New Mexico State and are headed to some obscure bowl game. That Bama effort probably offered some solace to Bulldogs supporters who watched their team labor to put away pesky Georgia Tech.

Those fans should think back to the 2021 season. In the week before that year’s SEC Championship game, Alabama needed four overtimes to beat an equally mediocre Auburn team. Then the Tide beat Georgia decisively in the league title game. The Bulldogs haven’t lost since, and their 29-game win streak includes a victory over Bama in the 2021 national championship game.

Failing to win the national title obviously would be devastating for the Bulldogs. It would hurt to get this close to becoming the first three-peat champion during college football’s post-integration era. It would add another layer of despair if the Tide were the ones to deny them. That could happen.

Georgia is one of four unbeaten Power 5 teams playing conference title games this weekend. The Bulldogs are favored by fewer points (six) than Michigan (23½) and Washington (9½). Florida State is favored by 2½ points over Louisville, but that’s because the Seminoles are difficult to judge since quarterback Jordan Travis sustained a season-ending injury. I think the betting markets are underrating FSU.

If Georgia loses and Michigan, Washington and FSU win, then the Bulldogs could be left out of the CFP. Alabama wouldn’t necessarily take their spot. Texas and Oregon also can finish as one-loss conference champions. The CFP committee values league champions. In that scenario, it would have three to pick from over Georgia, with Bama as the one to beat the Bulldogs.

That’s a nightmare outcome for the Bulldogs. It took so much time and effort for them to supplant Alabama at the top. It didn’t happen until Smart beat Saban for the first time in five tries with the 2021 national championship on the line. The Bulldogs went on to extend their win streak to 29 games, including another national championship. Alabama failed to make the CFP last season.

Said Saban: “We won 19 games in a row here twice. I know how hard that was. It’s hard to sustain. So (Smart’s) done a phenomenal job of recruiting and developing players in the program.”

If the Tide lose Saturday, Saban’s program will have slipped from the impossibly high standard that he set. It would make three years in a row without a national championship for Alabama. Saban has never gone that long without winning a ring at Alabama. Bama won half of the national championships from 2009-20.

“People don’t really understand how hard it is to be consistently really good, consistently great,” said Smart, Saban’s ex-assistant.

The Bulldogs and Tide are playing for an SEC championship. In some ways, it also will be a struggle for college football supremacy. There’s Georgia and Alabama and then everyone else when it comes to contending for national titles over the long term.

LSU’s 2019 national championship season was a one-off. A convergence of factors combined to provide the Tigers with an all-time great offense. They are 30-19 since. Clemson has declined, too. Ohio State coach Ryan Day hasn’t won big like predecessor Urban Meyer. The one-point loss to Georgia in last year’s CFP semifinal could end up haunting the Buckeyes for a long time.

The same could happen to the Bulldogs if they lose to Alabama on Saturday and are shut out of the CFP. The Bama bogeyman looks scary again.

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