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Friday Flashback: The Funeral Game

As illustrated by the colorful colloquialisms of Bama’s S&C coach Scott Cochran, Georgia’s coming out party became an exercise in bereavement at the hands of a resurgent, hungry Alabama squad

Alabama Crimson Tide v Georgia Bulldogs
Glen Coffee gets loose against the Bulldog defense.
Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

On September 27, at Sanford Stadium between the storied hedges, Nick Saban’s second team at Alabama made a profound, yet simple, statement. The statement: Alabama is back, and they won’t be leaving again for quite some time.

Though the Tide had drubbed its previous four opponents in 2008 heading into the showdown with SEC East powerhouse and third-ranked Georgia, there was still some question in the minds of football’s elite regarding whether Saban’s project in Tuscaloosa was that far ahead of schedule. Even the most conservative football pundits knew that Saban’s rebuilding of the legendary Alabama football program would only take a matter of time. But in only his second year, Saban had the Tide undefeated, and they had opened the season with a resonating salvo over ACC powerhouse Clemson.

That said, there was still the thought that Clemson was a mere ACC team at a time when the conference was still considered a basketball league. Georgia, however, was an SEC monster incarnate (at least in terms of roster talent). With future first-rounder and NFL starter Matthew Stafford under center, future Denver Bronco Knowshon Moreno at running back, future first-rounder A.J. Green at receiver, and a defense that had held opposing rushing attacks to a mere 45 yards per game, the Bulldogs presented quite a different sort of challenge to the up-and-coming Crimson Tide.

Alabama was no slouch, to be sure. But starting quarterback John Parker Wilson was more whipping boy than NFL prospect, with 30 career starts but a questionable record of 17-13. The Tide had gone 7-6 in the previous campaign, and had dropped four of its last five games in the previous season. Despite marked progress from the Shula era on many fronts, there were still question marks about the Tide as it began its climb back to relevancy in ‘08.

Those questions evaporated into the thin evening air in Athens that night. If the Georgia team was like the historical namesake of its collective hometown, then surely the Tide represented a legion of Spartans. The Bama players looked bigger, stronger, and faster than their previous incarnations. They were cast in the crucible of Nick Saban’s trademarked Process, a furnace by which they were made hard and strong like tempered steel. A fire brewed in their bellies, belching forth like dragon flames when the clock started and opponents had the misfortune of falling in their path. Alabama surely looked the part of Saban’s great teams of yore, but in the SEC, it’s not enough to be blessed with size, speed, and talent. After all, in the SEC, almost every team bears those hallmarks. In the SEC, a team must possess those qualities AND be resilient and relentless, and as the game against Georgia would prove, the Tide had those characteristics in spades.

The Set-Up

Despite Alabama’s early season successes, the nation seemed to be sold on the product Mark Richt was peddling from Athens. Georgia was stocked with legitimate NFL talent, with all-stars at quarterback, running back, and receiver; an offensive line that was chock full of seasoned road graders; and a defense that was stingy against the run and adept in pass defense.

In fact, after years of middling between the rise of fellow East powers like Florida and South Carolina, it appeared that 2008 could be the year that Georgia finally kicked down the championship door and made its claim to a national championship, its first since the Herschel Walker era of Bulldog football. Richt had his Georgia team undefeated to open the season, and they had ascended the polls to number three on the strength of that performance. Coming into the Bama game, Georgia was riding an 11-game winning streak, and they had confident momentum as the wind in their sales.

Not only that, but the gate to the top spot opened for the Bulldogs (that is, if they could beat Alabama), as on the Thursday night game preceding the showdown with the Tide, the top-ranked USC Trojans lost to Oregon State in shocking fashion, creating a vacuum at the peak of the polls. If Georgia could beat Alabama, itself a top-10 consensus team, then surely the Bulldogs could crowbar the number-one slot away from other potential suitors and continue a climb to a potential BCS Championship shot.

Georgia fans had been patient with Richt as he had rebuilt their program from the ground up, and now it appeared that their patience would be rewarded with possibly the best top-to-bottom team fielded in Athens in a generation.

On the other sideline, Alabama was trending towards success in Saban’s second year. He had begun the arduous task of recruiting in the talent needed for his system in the historic ’08 recruiting cycle, while incorporating the existing roster components into a cohesive unit. The previous season had been a painful one for the Tide faithful, though that was somewhat expected. Saban’s first Tide team opened 3-0, but then dropped a heartbreaking 26-23 loss in overtime to the previous Georgia squad. The Tide lost to Florida State, and ended the regular season with a four-game SEC slide featuring losses to LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, and lowly Louisiana-Monroe. They finished with a close win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl, but that was little salve for a team that had aspired to great things upon Saban’s arrival.

In Saban’s second year, however, his team looked the part. Wilson was making better decisions within a game plan that played to his relative strengths. Alabama’s running backs and offensive line were workhorses, as a platoon including Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch, and Mark Ingram provided speed, power, and receiving skill to give the Tide one of the nation’s most effective backfields. The left side of the Tide line was monstrous: left tackle Andre Smith, left guard Mike Johnson, and center Antoine Caldwell all went on to The League after graduation, and for good reason: they were beastly maulers with good technique and discipline.

But was Alabama ready for the challenge offered by a highly touted Georgia? Vegas, a constant supporter of Tide teams of late, certainly didn’t think so in that game. The spread fluctuated between 7-10 points in the week leading up to the game, and Alabama was a decided touchdown underdog on game day. After all, many reasoned, Georgia was more polished, had more proven talent, and would host the Tide. Stafford was a legitimate first-round pick at quarterback, and Wilson was…not. Those who thought Georgia would win a hard-fought battle were likely right to think so.

Then, there was the black jersey issue. To rally the troops for the big homestand at Sanford Stadium, Richt had announced that his team would be pulling out the rarely-used black jerseys for the match-up with Alabama. While there was certainly a marketing component involved in that decision, it was also a bit of a dig against the Tide, an attempted act of psychological warfare, if you will. Richt hoped it would give his team swagger, and serve as a rallying point as they faced the test that stood between them and national respect.

But Alabama was conducting psychological warfare of its own. Never one to back down from a challenge, Saban opened the game week media briefings wearing a black shirt (an uncommon occurrence), as if to announce, “challenge excepted” to the Georgia faithful (though Saban would never admit caring about such non-Process oriented matters). There was bubbling chatter about the black jersey issue on fan blogs and message boards, but Saban kept his team on message.

Alabama then rolled out its own secret weapon: Scott Cochran.

A TideSports reporter covering practice was filming the team during warm-ups during the week leading up to the game. Caught on camera was the raspy, multi-decibel voice of S&C Coach Scott Cochran, putting the team through its daily paces. At one point on the video, the infamous Cochranian quote can be heard as clear as a bell: “They wearin’ black jerseys because they know they goin’ to a f***in’ funeral!”

And just like that, the stigma of UGA’s black jersey was changed forever, more so when the Tide took the field on the Saturday night that let the world know that the Tide had come in, and it would scour bare the beachhead of college football.

Saban, never shrinking from a challenge, embraced the atmosphere of the game and the underdog role his team had been given. In the lead-up to the game, he tamped down the hype, but recognized the opportunity his team had in the contest with Georgia.

“These are the kinds of games that you should come to a place like Alabama to play in.”

At the time, he likely didn’t know (or, maybe he did) just how telling that quote would become, as the match-up with Georgia in 2008 sounded a sentinel horn across the SEC and launched a dynasty that continues to this day.

The Funeral

Alabama took the field in a way reminiscent of many great Tide teams of the last decade: enthusiastic, but professional, hyped but firmly ensconced within their lane. Alabama had grown into a reflection of its coach’s own boiling, percolating confidence: the team was a stoic, back-breaking cudgel of Nick Saban’s conquering will.

Alabama took the field and immediately went to work with the ruthless, murderous efficiency of a lion on the savanna. It mattered not to them that Georgia was the favorite by a touchdown. It didn’t matter that USC had lost, or that the media loved the feel-good story of Richt rebuilding the Bulldogs “the right way.” It didn’t matter that Georgia’s roster was bubbling with future multi-million dollar NFL contracts, or that Saban was still having to play with Mike Shula’s talent. All that mattered once the Tide took the field was that the job got done, and that the team lived up to the lofty-but-attainable standard imposed by its head coach and taskmaster.

Alabama began the game like Mike Tyson in his prime, savagely throwing and landing powerful blows while eluding Georgia’s best punches. Multiple shots were thrown by Bama, and most of them landed. The Tide blended its trademark power running game with efficient play-action passes from Wilson to freshman phenom Julio Jones and speedster Marquis Maze. It utilized the screen to take advantage of the slobbering pass rush of the Bulldogs. Behind the lumbering pile-driver of the left side of the line, Coffee, Upchurch, and Ingram scampered and banged, darted and smashed, through the Georgia front seven.

The Tide struck first on a seven-yard Ingram run to cap an opening drive that went 80 yards on 11 plays over six-and-a-half minutes. That first salvo was the epitome of Alabama football under Saban. Nothing fancy, typical power and play-action offense. But discerning the scheme and stopping it were two decidedly different things, as the Tide executed at a nearly flawless level. Still, Georgia helped the Alabama cause with two key penalties resulting in first downs on the opening drive, and the Tide took advantage.

Alabama put together another long drive, this one of 60 yards on eight plays, to set up a Leigh Tiffin field goal. Georgia could hardly muster a series, while Alabama moved the ball seemingly at will. As the clock ticked down on the first quarter, Alabama sat atop a 10-0 lead.

The Tide was unrelenting in the second quarter, jumping out to an even bigger lead just four-and-a-half minutes in when Coffee pounded the ball over the plane from three yards out. Tiffin’s PAT put the Tide up 17-0, and Alabama’s offensive game plan was wearing on the Georgia defense. The Bulldogs were already gassed, and Bama’s in-your-face running style put a physical beating on a Georgia team that had not faced the likes of the Tide before.

Bama extended the lead further halfway through the second on an Upchurch run to cap a seven-play, 59-yard drive that took a mere two-and-a-half minutes. Upchurch’s four-yard run and Tiffin’s PAT put the score at 24-0, as hope faded in the eyes of the Georgia faithful.

Alabama wasn’t complacent however, adding to that score before the half when Wilson found Jones on a 22-yard strike to cap a 63-yard drive with less than a minute-and-a-half remaining until halftime. It appeared the Dogs were soundly and thoroughly whipped, and in only a half of football at that. However, there remained another half to play, and Georgia had too much firepower for such a poor offensive showing.

Georgia scored its first points of the game in the third when a seven-play, 47-yard opening drive culminated in a Blair Walsh field goal at the 11:07 mark. They struck again after a failed Bama possession when Moreno toted it in from two yards out after Georgia put together a nice 10-play, 58-yard drive to end the third quarter. While the gap was still wide, the Bulldogs were closing it, as the score rested at 31-10 heading into the fourth quarter of play.

Georgia got special teams help when a P.J. Fitzgerald punt was returned 92 yards for a touchdown by Prince Miller that, with the ensuing PAT, trimmed the Tide lead to 14 points by a score of 31-17. For a moment, it appeared the Bulldogs may be able to muster a grand comeback.

However, Alabama promptly ended that speculation on its next drive, as Wilson and Company engineered an eight-play, 51-yard, five-minute long drive that ended in a Tiffin field goal with just under 10 minutes left in the game. The field goal made it a three-score game, which against the Alabama defense, seemed a hill too high to climb for the struggling Georgia offense.

Alabama cemented their victory on their next possession, as Coffee scored again, this time from 12-yards out to leave a mere three-plus minutes in the game and the score at 41-17.

The Bulldogs could only make the final score more respectable with all hope of victory a flickering flame in the wind. Stafford hit Mitchell Moore for a touchdown at the three-minute mark, and followed up with another score on a 21-yard pass to Green with a little over a minute remaining.

But there was little hope of wresting control away from Saban’s Alabama, neither in that game nor in the years to come.

Alabama was ruthlessly efficient in dispatching the Bulldogs. Wilson was 13-for-16 for 205 yards and a touchdown, while Stafford flashed a gaudy stat line with 24-for-42 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns. While Coffee bested Moreno in the running back duel (86 yards on 23 carries with 2 TDs to Moreno’s nine carries for 34 yards and one TD), Alabama didn’t have a rusher go over 100 yards, a rarity in the years since. And receiving weapons Jones and Green were almost off-setting forces, with Jones reeling in five for 94 yards and a TD, and Green with six for 88 with one TD. Only ten yards separated the two teams in total yards (Bama’s 334 to UGA’s 324).

Though there was statistical parity, the product on the field couldn’t have looked more different. Georgia, for all its talent, didn’t look hungry. Alabama, on the other hand, invaded the space between the hedges like Ragnar Lothbrok’s marauding Norse hordes, brutalizing the Bulldogs and making them look totally outclassed despite their lofty ranking.

A man of wit and a quick turn of phrase, the legendary sports reporter Cecil Hurt offered his observation in the immediate aftermath of the Tide’s destruction of UGA. Though his comment was likely tongue-in-cheek (as so many of his witticisms are), it has proven sagely and wise through the passing of the events of the last decade.

“One could imagine Nick Saban, four-and-a-half games into the season, weeping a silent tear, saddened, like Alexander the Great, that there was no challenge against which his greatness, and that of his football team, could be measured.”

Moreover, Alabama’s domination of esteemed Georgia sounded the storm warning for the rest of the league…and the nation, for that matter. The Tide was rising, Alabama was surging. There was no limit to what the combined forces of Alabama’s legendary program and Saban’s Process could achieve. The full scope of that combination remains unknown after four national titles and countless other accolades.

After the game, Saban, in his own fashion, wouldn’t talk about potential title shots or rankings or anything of the sort. As surly as ever, he focused on the next game. However, there was a subtle kernel of satisfaction in his demeanor after the game, as he must have realized that his team was being Processed at an accelerated rate. The Tide went on to roll through the regular schedule before falling to eventual national champion Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship Game (a loss they avenged in brutal fashion in 2009). The dynasty was in a nascent stage, but it was well on its way to fruition.

And there are no signs that the Tide’s flow will abate anytime soon. Heading into the current season, Alabama is the odds-on favorite for another trip to the national championship game at season’s end.

To think, it all began with a throttling of what history has revealed was a generationally-talented team for Georgia. That supposed funeral proved not to be death rite at all, at least not for the Tide. In retrospect, it marked a rebirth for an Alabama football program that had been down too long, a team on the rise, a squad that has since attained the unimaginable.

(To relive the glory of The Funeral in its fullest scope, block out two hours of time in Outlook, turn off your ringer, and click here. If you, you know, have like a life or something and only spend 20 minutes per day watching decade old football clips, click here for the abridged version. If you really just like watching Scott Cochran cuss, then this is your link.”