Bulldogs face college football's ultimate roadblock: Alabama

Bulldogs face college football's ultimate roadblock: Alabama

December 1st, 2018 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, shown during his team's home win against Tennessee on Sept. 29, will try to lead the Bulldogs to a second straight SEC championship. After beating Auburn to win the 2017 league crown, Georgia's challenge this year is Alabama.

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, shown during his...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban reacts to a call during the second half of the Crimson Tide's win against Auburn last Saturday.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban reacts to a...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Ten years ago, Alabama completed a 12-0 regular season before having its Southeastern Conference championship and national title hopes disappear in a 31-20 loss to quarterback Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators inside the Georgia Dome.

Florida went on to win the 2008 national championship, its second in three years under coach Urban Meyer, and the Gators began the 2009 season ranked No. 1 and with Alabama trying to knock them from the college football summit. The Crimson Tide succeeded, exacting revenge against Florida with a 32-13 victory for the SEC crown before going on to win the first of coach Nick Saban's five national championships in Tuscaloosa.

Current Georgia coach Kirby Smart had just started as Saban's defensive coordinator, and now his Bulldogs have assumed the role of Alabama from a decade ago, with Saban's Tide standing in their way much like Meyer's Gators did then.

"I wouldn't say in '09 that our goal was to take down Florida," Smart said. "It was to take down whoever was in our path, to be honest with you. I've never been around really good teams that are focused on other teams. The good teams I've been around are focusing on whoever they play that week, and it's really not been different for us this year.

"Our concern couldn't have been with Bama, otherwise we wouldn't be here."

Saban's No. 1 Tide (12-0) and Smart's No. 4 Bulldogs (11-1) will meet at 4 this afternoon at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 27th annual SEC title game and just the second inside the $1.6 billion facility that replaced the Georgia Dome.

It's also the second meeting between Alabama and Georgia inside Mercedes-Benz, with the Tide having edged the Bulldogs 26-23 in January's title game of the College Football Playoff. The two teams were overwhelming favorites in July to win their SEC divisions, but both coaches insist they weren't fixated on each other's program.

"I think every team that we play is standing in our way," Saban said. "In our league, I think you have to play well every week, because there are a lot of teams that are capable of beating you if you don't bring your 'A' game. This team obviously has accomplished more than any team we've played all year in terms of their record and the success they've had all season long in all phases of the game, so this is obviously even a bigger challenge."

Alabama and Georgia can be argued as the two most talented teams in college football, with the Bulldogs having landed the nation's No. 1 signing class earlier this year and with the Tide hauling in the top-rated classes in the seven previous recruiting cycles.

Both programs often experience tougher times throughout the week compared to some of the opponents they face, which is a huge reason each of these teams has reached this point with ease.

"Our players who are in the NFL will tell you that the challenge they had every day in practice was what made them better," Saban said. "Contrary to what people say in recruiting about how you can't play here, the guys who really want to get challenged come here and get better because of it. Jonathan Allen got better because he played against Cam Robinson every day.

"One guy wins the Outland Trophy, the other guy wins the Nagurski. They both got better."

Today's game comes several months after both programs sustained massive personnel losses in the NFL draft, with each having four players selected within the first 35 picks — Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da'Ron Payne, Rashaan Evans and Calvin Ridley from the Tide, and Roquan Smith, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb from the Bulldogs.

The Tide are in the way of what the Bulldogs seek to accomplish, which is a second consecutive conference championship and ultimately a first national title since 1980, and a loss today likely would leave Georgia having to wait until next year to try again.

"It's a concern now because we've got to go play them," Smart said, "but we've never looked at it as it's all about them or all about us. We've just got to do a good job of executing against what's always one of the best teams in the country."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.