Smart, Georgia trying to stop skid against Saban, Alabama

The Georgia Bulldogs aren’t the only team having a tough time beating fellow Southeastern Conference powerhouse Alabama.

They’re just the only one that gets another shot in the season’s biggest game.

The No. 3 Bulldogs have the kind of talent-rich roster that appears built to give the top-ranked Crimson Tide a run for their money. They’ll head into the national championship game Monday night in Indianapolis trying to finally get over that elephant-sized hump while Alabama is seeking its seventh national title since the 2009 season.

Beating ‘Bama for some five-star recruits has proven easier than besting coach Nick Saban & Co. on the field. Alabama has won the last seven meetings, including one in a previous national title matchup and three with SEC championships on the line.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former Nick Saban disciple at Alabama, is 0-4 against his old boss. Smart points out they share those struggles “with a lot of teams.”

He’s right, but the Bulldogs are the ones who have a chance to change that recent history a little over a month after Alabama toppled them from the No. 1 ranking with a 41-24 win in the SEC championship game.

It matched the regular-season score from 2020 in Tuscaloosa.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for them,” Saban said. “And I think it’s important for our players to know what they need to do to be able to continue to have success in the next game, regardless of what happened in the last game.”

Or the last seven games.

The Bulldogs also have pushed Alabama to the limit, most notably in their last for-all-the-national-marbles meeting on Jan. 8, 2018.

But the streak stands among the SEC’s two most dominant, talented programs.

— On Dec. 4, Bryce Young passed for an SEC championship-game record 421 passing yards, locking down the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 College Football Playoff seed for his team. Alabama was actually the underdog, and Saban couldn’t resist crowing to reporters that “the rat poison you put out there this week was yummy.”

— Oct. 18, 2020. Alabama scored three touchdowns in a 10-minute span starting late in the third quarter for the first 41-24 win. Saban was cleared to be on the sidelines after a false positive COVID-19 test. Mac Jones passed for 417 yards and four touchdowns, similar to Young’s numbers in the first rematch.

— Dec. 1, 2018. Jalen Hurts got to be the hero this time. The former starter replaced an injured Tua Tagovailoa in the SEC championship game, throwing for one touchdown and running for another with just over a minute to play in a 35-28 win.

— Jan. 7, 2018. Also in Atlanta, Tagovailoa and fellow freshman DeVonta Smith connected on a 41-yard touchdown in overtime for a 26-23 victory. Tagovailoa had replaced a struggling Hurts in the second half.

“He just stepped in and did his thing,” Hurts said afterward. “He’s built for stuff like this. I’m so happy for him.”

Some 11 months later, he got a piece of glory himself.

Before Smart’s arrival, then-No. 13 Alabama routed Mark Richt’s eighth-ranked Bullogs 38-10 on Oct. 3, 2015.

The Tide also survived a 32-28 SEC championship game in 2012 when the clock expired with Georgia stopped at the 5-yard line.

Alabama split the first two meetings under Saban, falling in overtime 26-23 in 2007 and winning 41-30 the following season. Smart was an Alabama assistant for that first meeting and defensive coordinator for the next few so his personal record in the rivalry is a more respectable 3-5.

Smart doesn’t need to emphasize the recent one-sided nature of the Alabama-Georgia series, describing his team’s mood simply as “they’re excited.”

“They earned another opportunity to go play a really good football team,” he said. “Now we’ve got a really good football team. Our guys are physical, excited and looking forward to this opportunity on the biggest stage there is.”

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