ATLANTA – Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have faced sporadic challengers during their long reign over the Southeastern Conference.
Auburn will pop up every few years to take on college football’s greatest dynasty. Joe Burrow led LSU to a national title at Alabama’s expense. Florida showed flashes of sticking it to the Tide.
None of them had any staying power.
Georgia could be different.
Kirby Smart and the top-ranked Bulldogs look like a program built for the long haul, capable of going toe-to-toe with Alabama on an annual basis.
In a season of turmoil, Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC, No. 1 in CFP) has stood above everyone and appears to be a shoo-in for a spot in the College Football Playoff no matter what happens Saturday in the league championship game against the Crimson Tide.
“Georgia has been the No. 1 team in the country for good reason,” Saban said. “They’re probably the most consistent, most dominant team week in and week out.”
No. 4 Alabama (11-1, 7-1, No. 3 CFP) likely needs an upset of Georgia to avoid missing out on the four-team playoff for only the second time in its eight-year existence, though there are certainly scenarios where the Tide could become the first team to get in with two losses.
“What our players need to do is just focus on one play at a time, winning as many plays as we can,” Saban said. “Don’t worry about the scoreboard and what the outcome means.”
While Georgia has rarely been challenged -- or even trailed -- this season, the Tide has won four games by less than a touchdown.
Alabama managed to escape the Iron Bowl last week with a victory over Auburn, rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 24-22 in four overtimes.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett hasn’t paid any attention to Alabama’s close calls.
“Football is such a crazy sport, and there’s so many different aspects that go into an individual game that determine a score,” he said. “We have too much respect for who Alabama is this year as a team to allow ourselves to do that.”
Smart, a former defensive coordinator under Saban, has yet to beat his mentor in three meetings since taking over at Georgia -- including a crushing overtime loss in the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season.
That is a hurdle Smart must get over, of course, to be recognized as a true equal to his ex-boss.
“You appreciate the job he’s done more when you leave,” Smart said of Saban. “When you move on, you appreciate the fact that he works really hard. He doesn’t ask any assistant to do anything that he doesn’t do. He holds everyone to a high standard.”
Overall, Alabama has won six in a row against the Bulldogs since 2007.
“This year is this year,” Smart said. “I don’t think there’s any overlap between the two. I know people want to make it that, make it some kind of overlap, but every year is independent of the previous.”
Saban lost to one of his former assistants for the first time this season when Jimbo Fisher and the Texas A&M Aggies handed the Tide their only loss.
Now, Smart has a chance to join Fisher in that exclusive club.
Bennett vs. Young
The quarterbacks present a striking contrast.
Alabama’s Bryce Young was one of the nation’s most highly recruited players and has fully lived up to the hype in his first season as the starter.
Stetson Bennett, on the other hand, walked on at Georgia, left for a year to get playing time at a junior college, and started this season as a third-teamer before claiming the starting job after JT Daniels was injured.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, both have played a huge role in their team’s success this season.
Young has been mentioned as Heisman Trophy contender, throwing for 3,901 yards with 40 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Bennett has thrown 21 TD passes with only five picks, along with showing an ability to extend plays with his running skills.
Freshman Brock Bowers has been one of Bennett’s favorite targets, creating all sorts of matchup problems for opposing defenses with his size and speed.
Bowers leads the Bulldogs with 37 catches for 652 yards and 10 touchdowns, setting a school scoring record for a tight end.
“He’s probably as good a tight end as we’ve faced all year,” Saban said. “He’s got good size, very athletic, great hands, good route runner. He’s very challenging to guard.”
Two of college football’s best defensive players will have a chance to shine Saturday.
Georgia’s Jordan Davis is a massive nose guard who anchors a defense that has allowed only 6.9 points per game.
Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is tied for the national lead with 14.5 sacks, while his 30.5 tackles behind the line are far more than any other player.
Anderson said it will be a challenge to contain Bennett.
“He’s very fast. He has great feet. He can escape the pocket really well,” Anderson said. “We can’t let him run all over the field and make long drives with his feet.”
Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. ranks third in the SEC with 1,016 yards rushing, but his status is uncertain due to a left leg injury.
Given Alabama’s lack of depth at that position -- Trey Sanders is the only other scholarship running back -- Robinson’s health is crucial to the Crimson Tide’s chances of pulling off an upset.