Alabama and Georgia have met four times since Nick Saban took over the Crimson Tide—and brought an assistant named Kirby Smart with him—in 2007. Each one of those meetings, in its own way, helped bring these two programs to Atlanta to face one another for the national title on Monday night.
We’ll start on Sept. 22, 2007, less than two months after the first iPhone was released…
When John Parker Wilson scrambled for a six-yard touchdown that allowed Alabama to tie the score with 1:09 remaining, the Crimson Tide had a chance to start the Saban era 4–0. But Alabama had to settle for a field goal in overtime, and future No. 1 overall draft pick Matthew Stafford hit Mikey Henderson down the left sideline on the Bulldogs’ first snap of overtime to cinch a 26–23 win.
“Matthew threw a beautiful ball,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told reporters. “When [Henderson] caught it, I dropped my playbook and started celebrating.” Later, Richt said something that, in hindsight, explains a lot about the difference between himself and the guy on the other sideline that night in Tuscaloosa. “A game like this makes it all worthwhile,” said Richt, who had recently turned over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo the previous November. “Rings and trophies are nice but the memories we made tonight are going to last a lifetime.”
The Bulldogs had lost two weeks earlier to South Carolina. Two weeks later, they would suffer a mystifying 35–14 loss at Tennessee that ultimately cost them the SEC East title. As the season went on, the Bulldogs developed into arguably the best Georgia team of the Richt era. The entire team celebrated its first touchdown against Florida in Jacksonville, and Georgia rolled to a 42–30 win behind Knowshon Moreno’s 188 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But with a 6–2 SEC record, Georgia was shut out of the SEC title game. Alabama, meanwhile, started 6–2 but closed the regular season with losses to LSU, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn in consecutive weeks.
Had the College Football Playoff existed in 2007, Georgia—which finished at No. 5 in the final Bowl Championship Series rankings—would have been the team no one wanted to face in a semifinal. Instead, two-loss SEC champion LSU played Ohio State for the national title, and the Bulldogs had to settle for pasting Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Had there been a playoff, and had the hypothetical committee made Georgia the No. 4 seed, we might have a completely different view of Richt’s tenure now. Richt might even still be coaching Georgia.
The Bulldogs’ ferocious finish to 2007 brought a preseason No. 1 ranking and the highest expectations for any team in the Richt era. Alabama entered the season cautiously optimistic after bouncing back from that losing streak with an Independence Bowl win and after signing the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class according to Rivals.com. But would players like five-star receiver Julio Jones and four-star linebacker Dont’a Hightower be able to contribute immediately? That optimism turned to plain excitement when the Tide crushed preseason ACC favorite Clemson 34–10 in the season opener in Atlanta.
Both teams were 4–0 entering their Sept. 28 matchup in Athens. Georgia had declared the game a Blackout. The team would wear black jerseys—as it had the previous year for a win against Auburn—and fans were encouraged to wear all black.
This amused Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, who surmised during a practice that week that the attire would serve a different purpose. “They're wearing black,” Cochran told Alabama players, “because they're going to a [compound adjective that should keep you from watching the embedded YouTube clip if you’re easily offended] funeral.”
It was a beautiful night between the hedges. The black-clad Sanford Stadium crowd roared at kickoff. Minutes later, it fell eerily silent. Cochran, it seems, had been 100% correct. Alabama led 31–0 at halftime and cruised to a 41–30 win. “They had probably never been hit in the mouth like that,” said Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, who probably didn’t realize at the time that most teams hadn’t been hit in the mouth the way Alabama would hit them in the ensuing years. Said Richt: "We got ourselves into a mess. I don’t know how else to explain it other than Alabama took it to us.”
Saban seemed mostly agitated that his team allowed Georgia to outscore it in the second half. He launched into a rant when asked if his team might be a national title contender. That soliloquy ended with this phrase: “So if you want to drink the Kool-Aid ...” Later, Saban clarified his mood. “I know I don’t look happy,” he said. “But I am happy.”
Alabama wound up going 12–0 in the regular season, but Saban was correct to be cautious. His team lost to eventual national champ Florida in the SEC title game, and then it got beat 31–17 by Utah in the Sugar Bowl. The Process had begun to take hold, but the indoctrination process wasn’t complete.
Georgia would get creamed 49–10 by the Gators in Jacksonville and then get stunned 45–42 at home by Georgia Tech to end the season. Stafford would head to the NFL, and the Bulldogs slid to 8–5 in 2009 and 6–7 in ’10. Richt, with the ’02 and ’05 SEC titles to his credit, survived the slide. Plus, the Bulldogs knew they had something special in quarterback Aaron Murray, who had learned on the job as a redshirt freshman in 2010.
Murray would lead Georgia to an SEC East title in 2011. LSU, which put together the best regular-season résumé of the BCS era, beat the Bulldogs in the SEC title game. But the Tigers lost 21–0 to Saban’s Tide in the BCS title game. The next season, one of Saban’s best teams would meet one of Richt’s best teams.
Notre Dame went through the regular season undefeated, but nearly everyone watching 11–1 Alabama and 11-1 Georgia in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1 believed that the winner of that game would go on to trounce the Fighting Irish and win the national title. Both teams were loaded. Alabama had AJ McCarron handing the ball to Eddie Lacy and throwing to freshman Amari Cooper. Georgia had Jarvis Jones coming off the edge and Alec Ogletree filling gaps. The Bulldogs had Murray handing off to Todd Gurley, who stood a chance at colliding with linebacker C.J. Mosley or safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on each carry.
The game has been compared to a heavyweight championship boxing match, but that doesn’t do it justice. It was more like a heavyweight title bout in a Rocky movie. The combatants traded one haymaker after another. Alabama took a 32–28 lead when McCarron hit Cooper for a 45-yard touchdown with 3:15 remaining, but that was plenty of time for Murray to lead the Bulldogs down the field.
Except Georgia went three-and-out on its next possession. But then Alabama went three-and-out. Murray would wind up with 68 seconds to take his team 85 yards. After a 26-yard pass to tight end Arthur Lynch, the Bulldogs faced first-and-goal from the Alabama eight-yard line with 10 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Murray tried to throw to Malcolm Mitchell, but the ball was deflected by a leaping Mosley. Receiver Chris Conley, one of the smartest players on the team, allowed his instincts to override his football savvy. Batting the ball down would have given Georgia one more play. Instead, Conley caught the ball and got tackled at the five-yard line. Time expired and Alabama celebrated. Afterward, Richt was asked if it was the most devastating loss of his career.
“Well, it hurts,” he said. “It's disappointing. Hurts a lot. I mean, we prepared hard all week, all season, all offseason, to get back to the Dome, and to win. And so I mean, we came up short against an outstanding football team. They played well. We played well. Clock ran out. You know, what are you going to do? You're just going to congratulate your players for a valiant effort and thank the Georgia Bulldog people for their support and wake up tomorrow and go back to work, go recruit, figure out where you go play a bowl game and prepare for that.”
This time, Saban wasn’t agitated after a win against Georgia. He was elated, because he knew the caliber of opponent his team had just beaten. “They played a tremendous game out there today,” Saban said. “That was a great football game by both teams. And they could have won at the end just as soon as us, and it came right down to the last play.”
The Tide went on to hammer Notre Dame in the BCS title game, winning their third national title in four seasons. Georgia came as close as it ever would to the national title in the Richt era.
Our 2007 hypothetical hinged on a system that wouldn’t be put into place until seven years later. In 2012, Georgia really was five yards away from winning a national title. That probably would have changed everything for Richt and probably would have altered the path of several programs going forward. The next time I get bored in June and write a what-if column, I may try to imagine how things would be different had Georgia won this all-time classic instead of Alabama.
But in our timeline, that final play was the beginning of the end for Richt at Georgia. He would never take the Bulldogs to another SEC title game.
By this season, Georgia boosters’ and administrators’ patience with Richt was wearing thin. Bobo, his final security blanket from the old days, had just left to replace Jim McElwain at Colorado State. He had replaced Bobo with former NFL coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in a head-scratching move that called into question whether Richt had paid attention to the offensive changes that had swept the college game in recent years.
Saban certainly had. After struggling with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 and ’13 and with Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss offense every time the teams played, Saban and coordinator Smart had altered Alabama’s defensive recruiting philosophy to produce a lighter, faster unit, and Saban had hired Lane Kiffin as the offensive coordinator in 2014 and commanded Kiffin to speed up and spread out Alabama’s offense. The Tide hadn’t lost more than two games in any season since winning the 2012 national title, but they hadn’t been able to win another national title, either.
When they rolled into Athens on Oct. 3, the Tide were still smarting from a 43–37 loss to Ole Miss that began with five Alabama turnovers and ended with a Tide comeback that fell just short. Georgia was 4–0 and hoping to re-establish itself as an SEC power. By halftime, it was clear the Bulldogs were nowhere near the Tide’s level. After starting the second quarter up 3-0, Alabama outgained Georgia 142 yards to 57 and opened up a 24–3 halftime lead. The Tide rolled to a 38-10 win.
“We got whipped, we all know it and we've got to do something about it,” Richt said. “We’ll watch the film and face the truth and look at ways we can improve. We as coaches have to make decisions to do that.”
The loss was the first of three events that season that would ultimately doom Richt’s tenure and usher in the Smart era. The second came four weeks later when Richt decided that third-string quarterback Faton Bauta would start against Florida even though starter Greyson Lambert wasn’t injured. The idea behind the change was a desire to use Bauta’s superior mobility, but none of the plays Georgia ran seemed designed to take advantage of that mobility. The Gators hammered the Bulldogs 27–3 and essentially eliminated them from the SEC East race. The third came on Nov. 21 when Georgia Southern visited Athens. The Bulldogs escaped with a 23–17 overtime win, but Georgia officials watched their team celebrate that win as if it had just won the SEC title and realized the team needed its expectations reset. It didn’t help Richt that Saban’s “[bleep] through a tin horn” rant—which was about Georgia Southern—had come a few days earlier as the Tide prepared to face Charleston Southern.
The people in charge at Georgia wanted a coach with that attitude who could make his players feel the same way. So, two weeks later, they hired the former Georgia safety who had become Saban’s top lieutenant.
And two years after that, Smart’s Bulldogs will face Saban’s Tide in Atlanta with the national championship hanging in the balance.