"We have come out and not played the way we would like in the second half, offensively," Saban said earlier this month. "We’re all working hard to fix it. I think the players are aware of it, and we just have to do a better job of making some adjustments and maybe some new presentations." Georgia, on the other hand, practically breaks down the locker room door after halftime. The Bulldogs have dominated their opponents 155-27 in the third quarter. Coach Mark Richt is also at a loss to explain that productivity. "I guess we’ve made some adjustments and played well coming out in the second half," he offered. "I think a lot of it is the fact when we win the coin toss, we defer to the second half. … We won a lot of coin tosses. We were getting the ball a lot in the second half."
The voices of Will Friend, Georgia’s offensive line coach, and Dan Inman, his graduate assistant, always carry the loudest over the Georgia practice field. A description of what can be heard cannot be provided here, because it usually isn’t printable. It was that way before the season. It’s that way now. Entering this season, the offensive front was perhaps the biggest concern for the Bulldogs. And it still is as they prepare for the most meaningful game the program has had in 30 years. The memory of what happened at South Carolina still hangs over this offensive line: swarms of defenders hitting the backfield, quarterback Aaron Murray and his skill players never having a chance. It was the major reason for Georgia’s lone loss was so lopsided. Now here comes Alabama with the nation’s best defense. "I think that we are really trying to realize that there’s always gonna be a challenge for us," guard Chris Burnette said. "The beginning of the season, we’ve always kind of been the question mark. We’ve realized that, and we kind of take that as a chip on our shoulder, and make sure that hey, when we go out there we’re on the top of our game so people don’t blame us."
For Murray, however, statistics aren't enough. Alabama would represent the biggest helmet Murray has placed on a stick yet. And the Crimson Tide defense is bracing for his best effort. "He's a competitor and he can make plays. I think it's just that simple," said safety Robert Lester. "He has a great core of talent around him that he can distribute the ball to and they're eager to make plays and they're capable of making big plays." Linebacker Nico Johnson said pressuring Murray, something South Carolina did relentlessly in UGA's only loss of the season, will be crucial. "It's going to be very important. If we let him sit back in the pocket, he can hurt you. It has shown all year," Johnson said. "We're going to have to make him less comfortable in the pocket. That's one of our goals going into every game."
As the hype surrounding Saturday's Southeastern Conference Championship Game balloons around the country, there is one place where every effort is being made to let the air out. The Alabama football complex is Deflation Central for excitement, or at least that was clearly the theme Wednesday, from UA coach Nick Saban to his players. "We've just got to be ourselves, not let ourselves get caught up on everything around us," Saban said. "It's just another game for us," Jesse Williams added. "We're going out to try and dominate our opponent and win the game." Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron was the most expansive on the subject of not being expansive at all about the game. "It's another game," McCarron said. "That's what everybody needs to remember. It's just another Saturday. "I think that's what hurt us in the (November 2011) LSU game, making it bigger than it was. We've just got to go do our job."
Georgia and Alabama are meeting for the first time since that memorable night when the No. 3 Bulldogs came out in black jerseys only to be smacked down by the No. 8 Tide. Beginning with that loss, Georgia endured a 20-17 record in a stretch that concluded with the 45-42 loss to South Carolina early last season. That run of mediocrity included a home loss to Georgia Tech in '08, a home loss to Kentucky in '09 and a 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl that capped a 6-7 season two years ago. King, fullback Richard Samuel, defensive end Cornelius Washington, linebacker Christian Robinson, and defensive backs Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo are Georgia's players who competed against the Tide or witnessed the defeat while redshirting. "We were on cloud nine for a while after the Sugar Bowl the year before," Robinson said. "We went out to Arizona State the week before and won, and then we came home to play a team that was out to prove that they belonged and that they were back. That season was the opposite of this year, because we lost a big game to South Carolina and could have instantly done the exact same thing we did in that year, lay down and lose to Florida and Tech. "We won those two games this year, so now we're kind of heading in that opposite direction. We're on the up, and people believe in us."
After Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M beat what some people considered to be an unbeatable Alabama squad on Nov. 10, opposing teams had a blueprint on how to attack the Crimson Tide defense. What opposing teams outside of College Station, Texas, don't have, of course, is Manziel. And Georgia coach Mark Richt knows that makes preparing for the SEC Championship Game against Alabama's top-ranked defense a tough proposition. "I don't know if it was the tempo they had problems with as much as Johnny Manziel," Richt said. "He creates problems for everybody because he can scramble like he can. If you come at him too hard you create these seams and he takes off. You just can't account for that."
"The day I took the (Georgia) job, my goal was to be here until I retire from coaching," Richt said. "Like I said from the very beginning, I wanted to make Georgia my home. I wanted to make it a place where I could coach for the rest of my career. I just don't have a desire to do anything other than be the coach at Georgia. That's been that way for the last 12 seasons. That hasn't changed." Alabama coach Nick Saban, a win away from having his team play for its third national championship in the last four years, has always respected Richt. "He's a good coach and his record pretty much speaks for itself in terms of consistency and performance," Saban said. "And he's a great person. He cares about college football and college football players."
Georgia: Since taking over at the UGA program in 2001, Mark Richt won two SEC titles in 2002 and 2005. He's dominated the SEC East, winning five times. His teams have been to the Sugar Bowl three times and have been ranked third nationally twice at the end of the year.
Alabama: Nick Saban has won two national championships at Alabama, one at LSU. He's the best coach in the college game right now.
Gurley is one touchdown away from matching Walker’s 15 as a freshman. He and Marshall have already blown by the 1,739 yards and 14 combined touchdowns by Arkansas freshmen and future first-rounders Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in 2005. "Playing as a true freshman in the SEC, two guys, that’s enough said right there — at the University of the Georgia," Alabama defensive end Damion Square said. "I know they’ve got some big-time guys there. For those guys to come in and play early and often, that makes them great. Those guys run hard. They’re going to make you pay when you make mistakes. Come in and tackling those guys, they’re going to make a 2-yard gain a 7-yard gain. You’ve got to be really fundamentally sound when you’re playing against those guys." Square passed on the question of which tailback tandem is the best. "I play for the University of Alabama. So..." he said.
This isn't a new situation for Saban. He explained Wednesday how he was forced to have cornerback Travis Daniel make his LSU debut at the 2001 SEC Championship because of a rash of injuries at the position. "We had to make that decision on the spot," Saban said. "He ended up being a fourth-round pick in his fourth year. I don't know if he would have stayed another year. He already graduated. I think that's what you have to weigh." Saban said "there's a lot of different scenarios" to consider, but ultimately "you never know what's the right one." "You've kind of got to make the decision based on all the information that you have right now," Saban said. "It might help his development between this game and one more game, wherever it is, whoever it's against, in terms of his development for the future. "It's a tough decision and you never know if it's the right decision because you never know what's going to happen five years from now."
After recounting Alabama's sustained excellence, Richt expressed exactly what was on everyone's mind. "They’re just at a time where they’re dominating college football, really," he said of the Crimson Tide. "So we have a lot of respect for them, obviously." Wide receiver Rantavious Wooten said Alabama's accomplishments are impossible to ignore. He and his teammates must remind themselves — despite their foes' recent otherworldly dominance competing in college football's toughest conference — it's still another game. Alabama, however, has a "been-there, done-that" aura surrounding itself. Wooten knows Georgia must be cognizant of that winning pedigree. "We've got to stay level-headed, because those guys have been in the position before and they've won it," Wooten said. "We've got to be ready for that."
Georgia defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said the successes that both Alabama and Auburn have had recently help those two schools keep their talent within their state’s borders, which presents a challenge for the other SEC schools. "Obviously, the state of Alabama is very allegiant," Garner said. "A lot of the kids there, they grow up either Alabama or Auburn. When both programs are doing well, it’s very hard to go in and get the elite guys. We’ll go over there and dibble and dabble and try to get that hook in the water, and just see if we can get any type of nibbles. If there’s a kid that shows some interest in Georgia then obviously we’ll recruit him." Garner added that Alabama’s population of high school talent is another challenge for recruiters. "It presents some difficult challenges because they don’t have the number of kids in (Alabama) as they do in the state of Georgia," Garner said. "It’s a smaller pool and those kids grow up with certain allegiances."
"When I see the defense, I see every linebacker staring at me, and they're waiting to tackle me," Williams said. "Obviously, I know I'm not going to get the ball, but I know it helps as a big diversion for Eddie and T.J. back there. It's good to help out on that side of the ball."
The key is the first quarter. If Georgia can get out to a quick start, they can hold the lead or at the very least, stay in the game until the end. Remember what Texas A&M did in the Tide's only loss this season? They jumped to a 20-0 lead, and although Alabama might have been the better team that day, the early advantage proved to be insurmountable. To do that, UGA needs quarterback Aaron Murray to be hitting on all cylinders from the opening drive. He's known for his struggles in big games, but a quick start could give him the confidence he needs to carry through the entire game.
It hasn't been storybook, but that's because those don't exist. There have been setbacks and challenges, because there always are. A top recruit in that 2011 class, Isaiah Crowell wound up arrested on weapons charges and bounced from the program. Everyone just assumed it was another Georgia discipline problem. Richt shrugs that off and says public issues are the price of discipline. "Some people might say, 'He's losing control of the program because all these guys are suspended,'" Richt said. "And I'm saying, 'No, it's 100 percent the opposite.' We maintain control of the program by disciplining our players." If you're consistent, you can survive anything, he believes. If not, "it might work in the short term, for that game or a season, but in the long run you're going to have problems," Richt said. "[Your players] are going to quit on you. They are going to think you are a fraud."