Saban is noted for saying he doesn’t want his players to think about results, but instead worry about the process that will get them to the top. Even so, Saban’s record when he has a shot at a championship seems worth talking about. Now, less than three weeks after a listless performance in a 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, Alabama appears to have reawakened. The poll shakeup Nov. 17 gave Alabama (and Georgia) a second chance. The Crimson Tide responded with a devastatingly methodical 49-0 beating of Auburn. The Tigers appeared toothless, although running back Tre Mason told reporters the players hadn’t given up on their embattled coaches, who got their walking papers from Auburn on Sunday. Bear Bryant used to tell his Alabama players they needed to show the other team early and often why they had won a national championship. Saban’s Tide did that to Auburn on Saturday. Now, can Alabama do that to Georgia?
"As a team, you never want to lose a game when you’ve won the first half, when you’ve dominated that way," Georgia senior linebacker Christian Robinson said, alluding to a 10-0 lead for Georgia that turned into a 42-10 LSU win in this game last year. "That’s been on our minds, the pictures of Tyrone Mathieu scoring on us. We could’ve done so much better. We have a different team, a different opponent. We’re coming to put our best foot forward." "We really wanna go out there and not have a repeat of last year," senior defensive end Cornelius Washington said. "We had a chance at it last year, and we let it slip through our fingers. And we’re not gonna let that happen this year. We’re not gonna let the same thing go down. We really wanna go out and win and give ourselves a place in Miami. We’ve been talking about it the entire season. We’ve been training for it since the beginning of the year."
"As far as how we approach it, there are some similarities," Richt said. "We run pro-style attacks offensively, run the 3-4 defense, quarterbacks that have been highly efficient, have been around a little bit, play some big games over their careers. … The one thing they’ve done is they’ve been national champions and we’ve not. They’ve been SEC champions and we’ve not during the time frame of these kids careers."
Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs aren’t just up against Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in their bid to win an SEC Championship and a place in the BCS title game. Outside the Peach State, UGA is widely, if unfairly, viewed as some sort of interloper that really ought not to be in the national championship discussion at this stage of the season. That’s especially true with the national sports media. ESPN wants a ratings-powerhouse Notre Dame-Alabama matchup in the BCS national championship game so badly that it can barely contain itself.
It’s this simple: Georgia has an opportunity to affirm itself as a member of the SEC’s elite, and ranking among the SEC elite is synonymous with the national elite. Imagine how this feels for Richt, after seeing his program seemingly erode over several months, going 7-9 in consecutive SEC seasons, losing to the likes of Kentucky, Mississippi State, Colorado and Central Florida. "It’s what you always hope for," Richt said Sunday of the team’s position this week. "It’s what you want. We know pre‑season rankings are for the fans. Where you’re ranked at the end of the year is the most important. [But] it’s not about me. It’s about Georgia. It’s about this program, this team, these young men, this coaching staff. I don’t worry too much about all the personal stuff. But it is great to be in this position at this point. You fight like mad every year to get your team in this position."
The similarities between these teams are what make this an intriguing matchup. Both teams run pro-style offenses and feature a 3-4 defensive scheme. Both have efficient quarterbacks who rarely make mistakes. Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron are No. 1 and 2 in the nation in passing efficiency, respectively. If the game comes down to quarterback play, Murray and McCarron have played in their fair share of big games. "It’s going to be a matter of making good decisions, managing the situations as they go," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "I think everybody is going to have to be a little bit patient in this game." Those quarterbacks each have a running back tandem that rivals any backfield in the country. Freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall power Georgia. Gurley has rushed for 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Marshall has racked up 720 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon pound away at defenses for the Tide. Lacy has gained 1,001 yards and 14 touchdowns, with Yeldon adding 847 yards and 10 touchdowns. "I think [Georgia] is an outstanding team because of the balance that is created by their ability to run the ball effectively with good runners, as well as having a good quarterback and good skill guys to make plays outside in the passing game," Saban said.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said Cooper is Alabama’s "go-to guy." "Some of the long‑yardage receptions have been just launching it out there deep and him making a play," Richt said Sunday. "He’s also caught a couple balls, shorter‑range balls, made people miss, has taken it to the house or had some big plays. He’s very versatile." Cooper did not, however, lead the team in yards per catch. That was the speedster Bell’s specialty. Bell averaged more than 25 yards per reception and was quarterback AJ McCarron’s best deep threat. "Kenny has done a fantastic job for us," Saban said Sunday. "He has great vertical speed, makes a lot of catches, certainly complements the other guys that we have." Saban noted the early loss of Black, along with season-ending injuries to Bell and DeAndrew White, stretched the receiving corps. "That’s always a difficult circumstance," the coach said. "But we have other good players that have played consistently for us this year. We’re going to try to put them in the best position to utilize the skills they have and hopefully make some plays for us. "AJ has done a great job of getting the ball to the right guy and hopefully will continue to be able to do that."
Alabama wide receiver Kenny Bell underwent surgery Sunday morning for the broken leg he suffered Saturday against Auburn, and head coach Nick Saban already has a possible replacement in mind: True freshman Chris Black, who hasn’t played a down this year after hurting his shoulder in the first week of preseason practice. Black, who had surgery on the shoulder, returned to practice three weeks ago in a limited capacity. He wasn’t cleared for contact drills at the time, and Saban had intended to redshirt him. On Sunday, Saban said doctors have cleared Black, and he could get a chance to shore up Alabama’s depleted wide receiver corps as the second-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) prepares to face No. 3 Georgia (11-1) in the SEC Championship Game. "We may have to revisit whether we redshirt him or go ahead and let him play," Saban said.
After the Crimson Tide won last year’s national championship, it’s well-known that Saban met with his returning players a couple days later and told them they did not win a national championship, that was last year’s team. Sunday, Saban was asked if he thinks this year’s team understood what that meant. "I think they understood right from the start," he said. "There’s quite a few guys on this team that were on the 2010 team that probably didn’t live up to expectations after having success in 2009. "I think at least to have some leadership and some experience in the group that saw the difference between the 2010 and 2011 team in terms of just the whole approach, the whole sort of competitive character, attitude, being hungry, whatever you want to call it, I think they realized that the legacy of this team would be defined by what they did and what last year's team did wouldn't have anything to do with that."
The Bulldogs will face perhaps their biggest test of the year from an Alabama offense that is averaging one more point per game (39.0) than Georgia's own explosive offense (38.0). The Crimson Tide have been effective both running (214.2 ypg) and throwing (218.8 ypg), so Georgia's defensive players know they'll have to be at their best if they are to unseat the defending BCS champions. "You just can't focus on their running game because they have a passing game somewhat," defensive tackle John Jenkins said. "So just being able to find a way to stop them is what we're going to have to do. We're going to have to find a way because they're a very explosive team, very skilled players, very great coaching staff over there. They won the national championship over there last year, so you've got to respect them."
Q. You are outscoring opponents in the third quarter this year. What explains that, and how big is that going into Atlanta?
A. I guess we've made some adjustments and played well coming out in the second half. I think a lot of it is the fact when we win the coin toss, we defer to the second half. We've gotten the ball for one more possession in the third quarter because we are the ones getting the ball first. We won a lot of coin tosses. We were getting the ball a lot in the second half. As far as what it means for this game, I don't know if it means a whole lot really. I think every single drive is going to be crucial. Every series is going to be very, very important. I think it's a game where, again, I know we feel we're going to have to be patient offensively and understand that we are playing a defense that's the best in the country, best in the league. We got to be able to be patient, bang away the best we can, look for opportunities to make plays.
Q. A day after Kenny Bell goes down for the year, a lot of injuries with the receivers, what does this do to the other receivers?
A. Kenny has done a fantastic job for us. He has great vertical speed, makes a lot of catches, certainly complements the other guys that we have. Chris Black is a guy that has been cleared medically to maybe come back and play. He has been practicing for two or three weeks. We may have to revisit whether we decide to redshirt him or go ahead and let him play. But this is actually the third receiver that we've had go down, all guys in the two deep. That's always a difficult circumstance. But we have other good players that have played consistently for us this year. We're going to try to put them in the best position to utilize the skills they have and hopefully make some plays for us. AJ has done a great job of getting the ball to the right guy and hopefully will continue to be able to do that.
Saban was asked if he could point out any major differences between his team and Mark Richt's. He struggled to find many. "I think philosophically there's a lot of similarities in how they try to win with balance, taking care of the ball, playing with a lot of physical toughness on both sides of the ball," he said. "They try to put their players in the right position. There's not a whole lot of tricks and gimmicks with us or them in terms of trying to win with execution. I think players like that. Probably play with more confidence, really understand what their role is, what they're supposed to do. "I think if you look at it from that standpoint, there's a lot of similarities. That's just philosophically what we believe in. I think they must believe in the same things."
"I feel like we’re more talented," Rambo said, according to this blog post on AJC.com. "We have better players at each position, across the board, especially on defense. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. I know it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to come down to who has the best defense and who makes more turnovers. It’s going to be a battle of the defenses."
The University of Alabama will play in its eighth Southeastern Conference Championship Game Saturday, but for the first time, the Crimson Tide will be facing an opponent other than Florida.?SEC East champion Georgia will give Alabama fans something other than orange and blue to look at across the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. But in some ways, it will be like looking at a mirror. Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham once coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State, and employs a 3-4 defense similar to the one Saban's staff uses. "There are some similarities in the system and scheme they use, relative to what we use. He's done a really good job," Saban said of Grantham. "He has his own ideas and methods in how he does it. His players play extremely well, and that always has something to do with the coach and the system and how it's taught. If you're going to rank assistants, he's one of the two or three best I've ever had on our staff."
"I think you try to do what you do," Richt said. "We're not going to reinvent the wheel by any means this week. There's got to be a patience level. We have to understand that it's important at the end of every drive to have a kick. If it's a punt, it's OK. Punting's OK. "We (have) just got to make sure we're not trying to do more than any play is set up to do," he added, keeping his cool demeanor. "If something is there, we (have) got to be able to hit it in the passing game. If it's not, we've got to be able to throw it away. We've got to be able to manage the game well, be wise and patient." "Wise and patient" are ironic words in a league that may have five coaching vacancies by Tuesday morning, but that has been the approach at Georgia in the Richt administration, and it has worked in every way short of the national title. Alabama may well continue that streak. It may replicate the dominant start of the last meeting between the two schools, a 2008 blowout win for Alabama in Athens. But whatever happens, don't look for this Georgia team to react with panic.