September 29, 2015

(AP) - Mark Richt had to acknowledge this week is a little different for No. 8 Georgia.

The same can be said for Nick Saban and 13th-ranked Alabama, who find themselves cast in the unfamiliar role of underdog with something to prove when they visit Sanford Stadium on Saturday.

''A lot of people are excited,'' Richt said Tuesday, breaking into the subtlest of smiles. ''At least that's what I hear.''

Indeed, the Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SEC) have a chance to take a step toward a truly special season Saturday. Of course, they've been in this position before against the Crimson Tide (3-1, 0-1).

It hasn't worked out so well.

Georgia started the 2008 season ranked No. 1, only to have its hopes crushed when Alabama raced out to a 31-0 halftime lead between the hedges. In 2012, the teams met again in the SEC championship game, which went down to a final play - a deflected pass that left the Bulldogs 5 yards short of the winning touchdown as time ran out.

The Tide went on to rout Notre Dame in the BCS championship game.

Georgia could only wonder what might have been.

''That season would've ended very well if we had won that game,'' said receiver Malcolm Mitchell, among a handful of Georgia players still around from three years ago. ''But we didn't, so this is where we're at today.''

A victory over their longtime nemesis, one of only three conference teams against which Georgia has a losing record, would go a long way toward erasing the sting of those defeats.

''Wins always make you forget losses,'' Mitchell said.

More significantly, it would leave the Bulldogs with a much clearer path toward their first conference title in a decade, and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff. Georgia has only one other ranked opponent after Saturday's game: No. 25 Florida.

During his weekly media session, Richt was very measured in his responses. Clearly, he didn't want to do anything to rile up Alabama, which put itself in a must-win situation by losing at home to Mississippi.

When asked about the Tide being an underdog for the first time since 2009, Richt wouldn't bite.

''I don't really have a reaction to that,'' the coach said.

He certainly wouldn't buy into the premise that Alabama's long run of SEC dominance is on the verge of ending.

''Alabama is a great football team,'' Richt said. ''I don't know what the talk might be out there. But they're as good or better than anyone in our league, and they're as good or better as anyone in the country.''

The Bulldogs were installed as 2 1/2-point favorites to open the week. The higher-ranked home team being picked to win is only notable because Alabama hasn't been an underdog since the 2009 SEC championship game against Florida. It's been 72 games and three national titles before it's now happened again.

''I think we take pride in our reputation that we've built around here the last few years and just the standard that we hold ourselves to every time we go out there and play,'' cornerback Cyrus Jones said Monday.

''The fact that we're underdogs, I think it just gives us that more motivation to go out there and just kind of reclaim our reputation and how we want to be viewed by the rest of the league and the rest of the country.''

The Tide do have much to prove after the 43-37 loss to then-No. 15 Ole Miss two weeks ago prompted a players-only meeting.

Alabama had five turnovers in that game and then mustered 303 total yards in a 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe after that come-together session.

The focus, linebacker Reggie Ragland said, was on ''players just being together and quit worrying about the outside.''

''We can't worry about what other people say because people are going to talk regardless,'' Ragland said. ''We don't care about when people talk about us because we have to play football regardless. It's still a long season and we'll see at the end of the season.''

Now, the Tide will face running back Nick Chubb and a Georgia team that has outscored the first four opponents by an average of 32.0 points.

Center Ryan Kelly said Tide players pay no attention to whether they're favored or underdogs. The meeting was designed to bring the team together amid the criticism for a program that is 18-6 against top 10 opponents since 2008.

''When you're on top of the world, everybody's praising your name, but then you lose one game and it kind of goes down the hill,'' Kelly said. ''At the end of the day, it's all the guys in that room. We're the guys that have to go out there every day and practice, bleed together, sweat together. Nobody else is doing that besides us."

For Saban, it's how you respond to a loss that matters. So far, he likes what he sees.

''I have a lot of faith in this team,'' he said.

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