This is Georgia’s chance to one up Alabama

For a moment it seemed that Alabama might slip into this year’s College Football Playoff despite two losses on its ledger. That’s no surprise. Nick Saban’s program gets more benefit of the doubt than any other. And while his argument that Bama would be favored over the other fringe CFP teams was irrelevant, it wasn’t wrong.

I think Georgia fans knew it, too. I sensed angst among them about the possibility that the Bulldogs would draw the Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Bulldogs beating the Tide for the national championship last season didn’t erase the memories of the seven consecutive losses before that. When Alabama got back in the CFP discussion it was like Georgia was being haunted by the ghosts of losses past.

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The CFP committee picked Ohio State instead. No doubt the Buckeyes are a threat to Georgia. They just don’t come with the same baggage as Bama. Now Georgia has a chance to change that equation. Win the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve and the CFP title game after that, and Georgia will supplant Alabama as the undisputed king of college football.

That would mean back-to-back national championships for the Bulldogs. Saban has done that once, before the CFP era. Georgia will be 15-0 if it wins out. Saban has never done that. If the Bulldogs win this season’s national championship it won’t include a victory over Bama. Georgia’s title run would include decisive victories over the two teams that beat Alabama, Tennessee and LSU.

Predicting that any program will leapfrog Alabama is to risk being wrong. One remarkable thing about Saban’s run is how many times his domination was challenged, only for him to keep going strong as his challengers faded.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik had his moment with Cam Newton before quickly receding. Successor Gus Malzahn bested Saban three times in eight tries but won only one SEC championship during that time versus five league and three national titles for Saban. Clemson beat Alabama twice in national title games in three years, but Dabo Swinney has been back to the CFP once since then, got handled by Ohio State and is 21-5 over the past two seasons.

I believe Georgia’s Kirby Smart will have more staying power than those coaches. He’s managed to do what they couldn’t by matching Saban’s recruiting over the long term. Relatedly, Smart has built a defensive machine that rivals the one his old boss built.

Per 247Sports, Georgia’s classes have ranked higher than Bama in two of the past five cycles and directly below in two others. The 2023 class that Alabama signed Wednesday is ranked No. 1 and Georgia’s is No. 2. That wouldn’t mean so much if Smart didn’t get the most out of that talent — see Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M — but Smart has done that, especially on defense.

Eight of the top 11 players in Georgia’s class 2023 class are defenders. Smart’s ability to restock the talent is why Georgia’s defense is better a season after NFL teams selected five Bulldogs in the first round of the draft. The Tide’s defensive slippage led to losses against Georgia in last season’s national title game and at Tennessee and LSU this season.

Saban is taking steps to rectify that. His past three classes feature three top-ranked recruits at edge rusher, one at cornerback and one at safety. The Tide will roll again if the defense gets back to its usual standard and Saban continues his streak of attracting the best talent at the skill positions.

Saban’s recent quarterbacks have been Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young. The Tide’s succession of wide receivers includes Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, John Metchie and Jameson Williams. Georgia hasn’t come close to producing so many star offensive players.

I say again: That’s what makes Stetson Bennett’s run as Georgia’s QB so impressive. Bennett is gone after this season. On deck: Carson Beck (No. 19 QB in the 2020 class), Brock Vandagriff (No. 4 in 2021) and Gunner Stockton (No. 7 in 2022). Smart didn’t sign a QB in this cycle. He said he’ll find one in the portal if necessary. Smart’s done it before: Jamie Newman, the top QB in the 2020 portal, was set to play for Georgia until he opted out because of the pandemic.

Recruiting is the one constant skirmish between Georgia and Alabama because they don’t have a regularly scheduled series. They played twice in the SEC’s current cross-divisional rotation, but aren’t scheduled to do so again before it ends after the 2025 season. That could change, depending on when Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC and how the league handles the scheduling.

Even if the rotation stays the same, everybody knows Georgia and Alabama will tangle again one way or another before 2026. If it doesn’t happen in the SEC Championship game, it will happen in the CFP. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have a chance to one-up the Tide by winning out this season.

That will be hard to do. Once Alabama lost to LSU, I declared that the Buckeyes were the only CFP contender that can beat Georgia. The betting markets support that sentiment. OSU is a 6.5-point underdog vs. Georgia. The Bulldogs were favored by 16 points or more in every other game this season except vs. Tennessee. The Volunteers lost 27-13 at 9.5-point underdogs.

Ohio State’s greatest offensive strength, deep passing, matches up with the only real weakness of Georgia’s defense. Kentucky is the one team Georgia has played this season with a defense as good as Ohio State’s. That wasn’t such a worry for Georgia against the Wildcats because they struggle to score.

Beating Ohio State is Step 1 for the Bulldogs. Do that, and they’ll draw Michigan or TCU in the CFP Championship game nine days later. If Georgia wins it all, then maybe it will be Bama’s backers who worry the next time the two teams are on a collision course for the CFP.