ATHENS — Borrowing from an often-used Coach Kirby Smart phrase, the main thing is finally the main thing for Georgia football with Alabama and the SEC Championship Game on deck for the Bulldogs.
The No 1-ranked Crimson Tide (12-0) tangles with No. 4 Georgia (11-1) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a game filled with College Football Playoff implications.
The teams met last January in the College Football Playoff Championship Game at the very same venue. Alabama emerged with a 26-23 overtime victory after quarterback Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench and rallied the Tide from a 13-0 halftime deficit to the win.
Here are five things about the much-anticipated matchup
Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban have pointed out the teams have changed since the last meeting, but the rematch angle is hard to miss.
“ I think it’s a credit to the seniors on this team to be able to go to this (SEC Championship) game two years back to back, which sometimes can be difficult to do,” Smart said. “It’s an honor to be in it, playing one of the hottest teams in the country, one of the best teams in the country. And we know a lot about them. They know a lot about us.”
Saban said that knowledge has been applied.
“ I don’t think there’s any question that our players are going to have a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia, what they’ve accomplished,” Saban said. “ We played against them last year, and it was a tremendous football game right down to the overtime. So, I think we’ll have the right sort of mindset and respect for the team that we have to play.”
Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy and is re-writing the Crimson Tide’s record books.
Tagovailoa leads the nation in pass efficiency rating, boosted by his eye-popping 36 touchdown-to-2 interception ratio, as he has set several Alabama school records in leading the Tide to a historically dominant run of wins.
“A lot of the things I’ve been doing well is taking what the defense gives us, but it’s also distributing the ball to more than just one person,” Tagovailoa said. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop, it’s awesome. I can go to the right and get a Snickers bar if I want to, go to the left and get some Skittles. It’s really fun for me to be behind some first round, perhaps, draft picks.”
Smart said the Hawaiian sophomore is a tough matchup.
“He can sit in the pocket and make every throw,” Smart said. “He’s very confident and I don’t know what the right word, but he’s got presence about him in the pocket. He doesn’t fear rush. He doesn’t fear contact. Guys are bearing down him and he sidesteps it and whips the ball out.”
Tagovailoa accounted for a school-record six touchdowns — five passing, one rushing — in his last outing, a 52-21 win over Auburn.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has had to compete for his starting job every day even after leading the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship and runner-up finish to the Tide in the CFB title tilt, but there has been no controversy of late.
Fromm has closed the season on fire, playing his best football since Georgia’s only loss of the season at LSU, completing 62-of-85 passes for 827 yards with 11 TDs and one interception in double-digit wins over Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech.
“They put the ball in (Fromm’s) hands and this guy has been there and done that even though he’s a sophomore,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “I think his experience in this game a year ago, if I were a Georgia fan, would give me great confidence, and they’ve got outstanding wide receivers.”
Fromm is 22-3 as a starter, and he’s on pace to set a new single-season Bulldogs’ completion record with a 69.1-percent completion rate.
Nick Saban is 15-0 when matched against teams coached by former assistants.
“Those things are circumstantial,” Saban said. “ A lot of guys that we’ve played against in the past that are our assistants, they were rebuilding programs that were down and hadn’t had an opportunity to build them up. So it’s not always been a level playing field, but we certainly have a lot of respect for Georgia and what they’ve done and what they’re capable of.”
Smart, who coached at Saban’s side for 11 seasons — LSU (2004), the Miami Dolphins (2005) and Alabama (2006-15) — said he doesn’t see either coaching having an advantage because the familiarity is a two-way street.
“I certainly was with him long enough to know that in certain situations I have a lot of the same beliefs and thoughts,” Smart said. “So I don’t think anybody strategically gained something because you work together for 10 years or you work together for 12 years at different places.”
And, Smart added, “ it’s not personal for me. I don’t look at it as that at all.”
The Crimson Tide’s run to the SEC Championship Game has been of historic proportion, Alabama has beaten the first 12 teams it has faced by 20 more points, a modern era record and a feat matched only by an 1888 Yale squad.
The Tide has been so dominant that most analysts agree that even if Alabama were to lose to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, it would still be judged as one of the top four teams in the country by the CFB Playoff Committee and be granted a spot in the four-team playoff.
The Crimson Tide was awarded a top-four spot in last year’s CFB Playoff even though it didn’t win the SEC West Division or play in the SEC Championship Game.
Alabama’s outgoing senior class has a 53-3 record and won two national championships.
The Tide has won 23 consecutive games against SEC East Division teams, dating back to a 35-21 loss at South Carolina in 2010. The streak includes four SEC Championship Game wins.
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