When Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater as head coach, Alabama was the top dog.
Now, the roles are reversed.
The No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs are the two-time defending national champions and haven’t lost a game in nearly two years.
Everyone is chasing them.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Crimson Tide defensive end Justin Eboigbe said. “They’re the best right now, and in order to be what we want to be, we’ve got to go through them.”
The Bulldogs (12-0, No. 1 CFP) will be going for their 30th straight victory and a likely top playoff seed when they face the No. 8 Crimson Tide (11-1, No. 8 CFP) on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Attempting to become the first team in the poll era to win three straight national titles, Georgia was rarely tested during another perfect regular season. The Bulldogs’ average margin of victory was nearly 24 points, with only three games decided by single-digit margins.
When Smart took over at Georgia in 2016, leaving his job as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama, the Crimson Tide were the undisputed king of the SEC.
“I can’t say enough about the tremendous respect I have for him, the job he’s done, how long he’s done it,” Smart said of his former boss. “People don’t really understand how hard it is to be consistently really good, consistently great.”
It took a while for the Bulldogs to take the Tide down.
Smart dropped the first four meetings against Saban, including an overtime loss in the national title game at end of the 2017 season and another setback in the 2021 SEC championship game.
That’s the last time the Bulldogs were on the wrong end of a score.
Smart finally knocked off Saban in a national championship game rematch two seasons ago, and the Georgia coach hasn’t looked back.
“It’s phenomenal what he’s been able to accomplish,” Saban said of his protege. “To win as many games in a row, win a couple championships, have another chance to do it again a third time, I mean, that’s phenomenal.”
Some wondered if the 72-year-old Saban was slipping after Alabama missed out on the SEC championship game in 2022, then lost at home to Texas early this season.
But, after sorting out the quarterback position — and having Jalen Milroe develop into one of the nation’s most exciting players — Alabama has ripped off 10 straight victories. They have an outside shot to claim a spot in the four-team playoff if they can upset the mighty Bulldogs (and get some help elsewhere in Saturday’s other conference championship games).
The Tide is coming off its most improbable win of all, beating rival Auburn 27-24 last Saturday on Milroe’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond on fourth-and-goal in the final minute.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our team,” Saban said. “They sort of created that for themselves by making a tremendous amount of improvement throughout the season. I’m very proud of the transformation of our team from the beginning to the end.”
Two former Georgia players are playing big roles for the Tide.
Receiver Jermaine Burton, who spent two seasons with the Bulldogs, is Alabama’s top receiver with 749 yards and seven touchdowns on 33 catches. His average of 22.7 yards per catch ranks second nationally.
Linebacker Trezmen Marshall played in 35 games over four seasons in Athens. He has 50 tackles for the Tide.
Several of Georgia’s leading offensive players sat out last week’s 31-23 victory over Georgia Tech with nagging injuries.
The most prominent of those was tight end Brock Bowers, who is coming off ankle surgery. Smart said he “just didn’t feel as good as he had,” so the Bulldogs decided to keep him on the sideline.
Georgia also was missing receiver Ladd McConkey (ankle), receiver Rara Thomas (foot) and offensive lineman Tate Ratledge (knee).
While nothing is definite, Bowers and Ratledge seem likely to return for the SEC championship. McConkey and Thomas were listed as day-to-day.
FACING NO. 1
Alabama has spent plenty of time at No. 1 over the years, but the Tide also have managed plenty of success when facing The Associated Press’ top-ranked team.
No program has compiled more wins against No. 1 teams than Alabama’s 10 victories, with the latest coming against Georgia in that 2021 game for the SEC title.
Kendall Milton has become a dominant force in the Georgia backfield over the past three games, rushing for 349 yards and five touchdowns with a stunning average of 8.5 yards per carry.
The tandem of Milton and Daijun Edwards, who leads the Bulldogs with 781 yards and 11 touchdowns, could be a handful for an Alabama team that surrendered a whopping 244 yards rushing to a one-dimensional Auburn offense.
“I have the utmost confidence at this point,” Milton said.
Groza Award finalist Will Reichard will become the NCAA’s career scoring leader with his next successful kick, whether it’s a field goal or extra point.
Reichard, who is in his graduate year, is tied with Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (2012-15) at 530 career points.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.
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