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Crimson Tide photo / Alabama sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson leads the nation with 29.5 tackles for loss entering Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia.

The past two Southeastern Conference championship games have not only crowned a league winner that went on to the national title but also served as the finishing piece to the Heisman Trophy puzzle.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow completed 28 of 38 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns during a 37-10 rout of Georgia two years ago, while Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith racked up 15 catches for 184 yards and two scores in last December's 52-46 outlasting of Florida. A third consecutive Heisman winner from the SEC could emerge from Saturday's showdown between No. 1 Georgia (12-0) and No. 4 Alabama (11-1) in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but what if this year's recipient came from the defensive side of the ball?

Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young is the betting favorite for college football's top individual award, but Crimson Tide sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson and Bulldogs senior nose tackle Jordan Davis are still in the hunt.

"I think it's cool," Anderson said this week, "especially nowadays, because a lot of defensive guys don't get as much attention, but I think it's good. It's cool."

Anderson is an absolute edge-rushing menace, having amassed 29.5 tackles for loss to lead the next-closest competitor by 7.5 in that category. The 6-foot-4, 231-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Hampton is averaging 2.46 tackles for loss per game, and his lost-yardage stops have amounted to a nation-leading 126 yards.

The finalist for the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy takes a back seat to nobody in the eyes of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who celebrated running backs Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015) winning the Heisman before Smith became the first receiver in nearly three decades to claim it.

"He's done as much for our team as anybody ever has," Saban said. "I don't know how that equates to recognition or how you compare them to other positions or how you compare them to other players in the country. I don't get to see those guys all the time, but he's done as much for us as anybody could ever hope for."

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Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) during the Bulldogs’ game against Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Anderson plays a position that compiles more numbers than Davis, a monstrous 6-6, 340-pounder from Charlotte whose simple appearance can be demoralizing for offenses walking up to the line of scrimmage. Davis has collected 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries from the defensive interior, and he is the face of a Bulldogs unit that leads the nation in fewest yards (229.7) and fewest points (6.9) per game.

Yet in Georgia's 62-0 win at Vanderbilt on Sept. 25, Davis was needed for only nine snaps. He said this week that about 52 snaps several weeks ago at Tennessee represents his season high.

"It doesn't matter who we play," Davis said. "I'm just glad to be on the field and show my best. If they need me for a hundred snaps, I'll give my best effort for a hundred snaps. It doesn't matter.

"Whenever my name is called, I just want to be there."

Of course, Anderson and Davis are not lacking for Heisman support when it comes to their teammates.

"Will's a monster, and he's going to get back and cause havoc every single play no matter how many guys are blocking him," Alabama linebacker Henry To'o To'o said. "That's just the nature of Will and the dedication and hard work that he's put in throughout the season and his entire life."

Said Georgia linebacker Nakobi Dean: "I'm all in on everything Jordan Davis. He's one of the toughest defensive players in the nation."

Other Heisman candidates include Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III. Only Pickett is playing this week out of those four, and Pitt's matchup with Wake Forest in the ACC championship game won't have near the spotlight as Alabama-Georgia.

Young ultimately has the benefit of playing quarterback — the position that has claimed 17 of the past 21 Heismans — and he has completed 288 of 418 passes (68.9%) for 3,901 yards with 40 touchdowns and four interceptions. He ranks second nationally in touchdown tosses and fifth in efficiency (176.97).

"He's composed at all times and has great presence in the pocket," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "He's a great distributor of the ball and knows where all his outlets are and can draw the defense to him and dish the ball. He's a lot like a point guard in basketball."

Alabama's 24-22 comeback win at Auburn in four overtimes last week may wind up being Young's Heisman moment, even though the Crimson Tide failed to score during the first three quarters. Should a low-scoring game transpire in Atlanta, that could provide an opening for Anderson or Davis.

"I think there is a mutual respect between the two of us," Anderson said, "and I think it's cool."

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

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