By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — As soon as Tua Tagovailoa let go of the pass, the one that ended the national championship game in the blink of an eye, Georgia has wanted another shot at Alabama.
Oh sure, the Bulldogs tried to play it cool. They insisted that it didn’t do any good to dwell on such a bitter disappointment. Learn from it and move on.
Even after both teams clinched their spots in the Southeastern Conference championship game with a month to spare, Georgia’s players wouldn’t get drawn into any discussion about the Crimson Tide.
Well, now they can talk about it.
The rematch is here.
“I didn’t come back this year to not be here,” said senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, who passed on a chance to enter the NFL draft. “We had unfinished business. We intend to go ahead and handle that.”
In what amounts to a play-in game for a spot in the College Football Playoff, No. 4 Georgia (11-1) gets another shot at top-ranked Alabama (12-0) in Saturday’s SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta — the very same place where the Tide won its national title last January, overcoming a 13-point deficit to beat the Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime .
A do-over has seemingly been in the cards ever since that dramatic night.
With Nick Saban guiding Alabama and protege Kirby Smart running things at Georgia, these talent-rich programs were heavily favored to win their respective divisions and largely lived up to expectations.
In fact, the Crimson Tide could go down as one of the greatest teams in college football history by winning out. No one has come close to beating ’Bama, its average margin of victory a staggering 35 points a game.
Tagovailoa is heavily favored to claim the Heisman Trophy, guiding what can only be viewed as a nightmare scenario for Saban’s opponents: a team that has always been among the best in the nation defensively running up and down the field with a fun-and-gun offense. Alabama is averaging 49 points a game, twice dropping more than 60 and putting up at least 50 six other times.
“They’ve got a great team. I don’t think anybody would argue that,” Smart said. “They’ve got very few deficiencies in any area, a talented quarterback, explosive offense, and the first thing you notice when they turn the tape on is how fast and how much they score. They play some good teams in our conference, and they still score a lot of points.”
Georgia slipped up once, losing 36-16 at LSU in mid-October, but romped past everyone else. The Bulldogs have scored at least 40 points in seven games, with an average margin of nearly 27 points in those 11 victories.
“They’ve got an extremely talented team. We respect that,” Smart said. “But we also have a good football team. Our kids take a lot of pride in their performance.”
The Bulldogs certainly gave Alabama all it could handle in the last meeting.
Georgia dominated the first half, going to the locker room with a 13-0 lead that prompted Saban to make a decision that would go down as one of the best in his long, celebrated career. The coach benched Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who led the Tide to a pair of national championship games, and brought in Tagovailoa, a touted freshman whose college experience to that point was limited largely to mop-up roles.
The left-handed Hawaiian threw three touchdown passes, including a 41-yarder to Devonta Smith that ended the game after Georgia started overtime with a field goal. Making that play even more galling for the Bulldogs, they sacked Tagovailoa on Alabama’s first offensive play to leave the Tide in a second-and-26 hole. Then, a busted coverage allowed Smith to break free behind the secondary . The touchdown looked downright easy.
“That game came down to more than just that,” Smart insisted. “I mean, that’s just what people remember the most. When we teach that coverage, we teach it the same way we taught it before. We just hope that we do a better job of executing it.”
Saban knew if his team reached the SEC championship game — remember, the Tide missed out a year ago after losing to Auburn in its regular-season finale — there was a very good chance that Georgia would be the opponent. The Bulldogs are actually the reigning conference champions, but Alabama has the title that really matters.
“They have been a pretty dominant team all season long,” Saban said. “I really thought that, in playing Georgia last year and knowing the kind of players they had coming back and the job they do there and the job that Kirby does with his entire staff, that they would have an excellent chance to come back to this game.”
Alabama remains the team everyone is chasing.
Saban has set an almost impossibly high template during his dozen seasons in Tuscaloosa, claiming five national titles and becoming the only team to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff during each of its first four seasons.
“Everybody in this business is striving for greatness,” Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm said. “They’re a great example. Everybody is kind of striving for that.”