Alabama junior middle linebacker Henry To'o To'o will suit up for the 38th time as a college football player Monday night when the Crimson Tide vie with Georgia for the national championship inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
More than 10% of his games will have come against the Bulldogs.
"Georgia has always been Georgia — big, fast, physical and trying to punch you in the mouth every single down," To'o To'o said this week on a Zoom call. "It's my fourth time playing them now, and I'm excited. It's always a huge challenge. It's always one of those games that I mark on my calendar to be able to execute.
"I've got to put my best foot forward. Georgia has that extra fight and that dog in them that they're never going to back down, and they're always going to keep punching."
The 6-foot-2, 228-pounder from Sacramento, California, began his college career at Tennessee but is coming up on the one-year mark of entering the NCAA transfer portal, a decision that immediately followed the termination of former Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt. To'o To'o announced Alabama as his transfer destination last May, cemented a starting role in preseason camp and has led the Tide with 107 tackles.
To'o To'o also has 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a forced fumble, and he has been especially busy down the stretch, racking up 34 tackles in Alabama's past four wins against Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game and Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl national semifinal on New Year's Eve.
"He's going to be all in, and he's going to be committed to it," defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. "He's going to prepare harder than anybody else and practice harder than anybody else, and when he does that, people gravitate towards him. I think he's got a great personality that people want to gravitate towards, and he pulls them with him.
"He's been a huge addition, not only just from a leadership standpoint and the communication, but he's been very productive as well. We would be different without him."
To'o To'o arrived in Knoxville as a top-50 national prospect in the 2019 signing class and immediately started to produce, tallying 72 tackles to rank fourth among all freshmen in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He followed that up with 76 tackles in the 10-game season of 2020 that was shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Pruitt's third and final Tennessee team floundered to a 3-7 finish.
At Alabama, the expectations have been national championship or disappointment under Nick Saban, but To'o To'o has helped the Tide reach the sport's final game for the ninth time in the past 13 seasons.
"Entering the transfer portal was one of the craziest times in my life," To'o To'o said. "I kind of had to start the recruiting process over, and I was truly blessed to be able to have the schools that were interested in me. I had a relationship with the coaches here before.
"It was kind of a rough time, but I'm happy that I had my parents and my brothers and sisters to be able to help me and guide me to ultimately making Alabama home."
To'o To'o will be far from alone Monday night when it comes to participants from the Golden State. Tide quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young hails from California, but so do tight end Brock Bowers, receiver Jermaine Burton and backup quarterback JT Daniels for the Bulldogs.
Bowers was a nuisance to Alabama during the Tide's 41-24 downing of Georgia last month in Atlanta, compiling 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown.
"I definitely had heard about him," To'o To'o said of the fellow Bay Area talent. "I never really had a relationship with him, but I knew he was a great player coming out of high school. He did a lot of things against us last game."
Vols' Baron will stick around
Tennessee edge rusher Tyler Baron withdrew his name from the NCAA transfer portal Friday, a day after entering it. The 6-5, 260-pounder amassed 30 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four sacks this season as a sophomore.