Kevin C. Cox
It would be hard to find two coaches who have taken more different paths to the SEC Championship Game this year. But which one continues that story with a win?
It's almost as if these two teams were destined to play each other this year. They were actually scheduled to under the old conference rotation, before Missouri and Texas A&M came along and forced some games to be shelved. If they got into the SEC Championship Game by avoiding playing each other, they're not going to get out of it the same way.
But these two teams and these two programs got here in very different ways. For one team, it would be a validation that even its storied program has heights that it hasn't fully explored. And for the other team and the other coach, it would be the kind of redemption that seemed unimaginable two years ago, or even two months ago.
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Because this is kind of what we've come to expect from Nick Saban. In his time at LSU, Saban had never had back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins, so his program took on a kind of a rhythm. Is LSU up this year? Well, then, it will probably be successful but not wildly so next year. The Tigers went 8-4 in 2000, 10-3 in 2001, 8-5 in 2002, 13-1 in 2003 and 9-3 in 2004.
Then came the NFL detour through Miami and the eventual landing -- after begging by Mal Moore -- in Tuscaloosa. For a coach who has a healthy self-image and a program that has long wanted someone to match the accomplishments of Bear Bryant, it was a match made in heaven.
And those ups and downs? They've been largely replaced by ups and ups. Except for Saban's first season, the Tide has won 10 or more games ever year since the new head coach stepped on campus. He might not be Bryant quite yet, but he also might not be that far from it, or at least he might be as close as anyone can be in an era that is so different from the one during which Bryant walked the sidelines.
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Things have gone differently for Mark Richt. Was it really only two years ago that he was headed for a bowl loss to UCF, one that would drop the Dawgs to 6-7 on the season and lead to his seat almost literally melting? When it seemed like South Carolina was passing Georgia in the rankings, and that the Richt Regime had become too insular for its own good?
And was it really less than two months ago that Doug wrote these words about Richt, which seemed to encapsulate the feeling that the last little bit of support was abandoning the Georgia head coach: "I no longer believe we couldn't realistically hire someone better." That was after the 35-7 beatdown by South Carolina in Columbia, the third loss in a row in a rivalry that Georgia used to own.
Now, it's all different. The one prize that has eluded Richt during his successful if somewhat turbulent career -- a national championship -- is almost within his reach. Win one game, and Richt is within one more win of going down as perhaps the greatest coach in the history of Georgia, or at least second only to Vince Dooley. This game, to him, would be more than just another in a long line of SEC Championship Game appearances. A win would be nothing short of total vindication.
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Of course, games are not played or won on biography. They are played and won based on who has the best players and who has the best game plan. In particular, this game might come down to who can best take advantage of the defensive weaknesses that have been made apparent by the other team's opponents -- opponents who highlighted those weaknesses with similar skill sets, perhaps, but very different schemes.
For Georgia, the run defense has at times been lacking. The Dawgs most recently gave up almost 4.6 yards a rush to Georgia Tech -- but Alabama is not going to be running a flexbone option, at least not unless Nick Saban has quit sometime in the last 24 hours and just didn't tell anyone about it.
Georgia's running troubles, though, go back further than that. South Carolina rushed for 230 yards. Kentucky had 206 yards rushing, a season high against FBS opponents. Even lowly MAC team Buffalo piled up 199 yards on the ground.
Alabama has its own trouble, one that people suspected might be a problem spot before the season began: The secondary. But only two teams so far have been able to use that effectively: Texas A&M -- again, Georgia's not running Kevin Sumlin's offense -- and LSU, which has a quarterback originally recruited to run Mark Richt's system. Those are the only two teams that went above 250 yards passing against Alabama this year, with the Aggies winning and the Tigers taking Alabama to the wall.
So if Alabama can push its way to some yardage on the ground and use AJ McCarron's efficiency to do the rest, then you have to like the Tide's chances. And if Georgia can rely on Aaron Murray's arm to put them in a position to win and then bang away a bit with the Gurshall pairing, you have to like the Dawgs' chances. The only question is which one capitalizes on those weaknesses the most?
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And I think that's Alabama. I'm on record saying that the Georgia offense is probably better than the Alabama offense. But the offense doesn't play the offense; it plays the defense. When you match up Georgia's offense with Alabama's defense and Alabama's offense with Georgia's defense, I think the edge belongs pretty decisively to Alabama.
That's not to say this game will be a blowout. It's not that I think the margin will be that wide, but that I'm fairly confident of which way it will end up. I feel very, very confident that Alabama will likely win a close game. It's more of a probability than a magnitude pick.
Stories are a nice way to look at a game and the device we used to explain life to ourselves. But when it comes to football, the better team most often wins the game. And by a margin that's close when compared to most of its other opponents, Alabama is likely the better team taking the field in Atlanta.
Alabama 24, Georgia 14