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INDIANAPOLIS — Entering the National Championship game tonight, Alabama has defeated 35 straight teams that play in the SEC East. Their domination over the conference has been unmatched since the Nick Saban era began over 17 years ago. But now, we are looking at a matchup between the Tide and Georgia that could change the landscape of the conference, at least for now.
No. 1 Alabama (13-1) plays No. 3 Georgia (13-1) on Monday night at 8 p.m. eastern on ESPN. Georgia is a 2.5-point favorite on FanDuel.
The buildup to this rematch has centered on whether Kirby Smart can take advantage of the talent that he has amassed and finally finish the job. We saw this story play out a few years ago when Tua Tagovailoa dropped a dime on Bulldog fans and ripped a championship from their hearts. There comes a time when a fanbase looks at a team that struggles to get over the hump and wonders whether it will ever do so again. Well, that time is tonight.
The most dominant defense in the country will have an opportunity to prove the voters and pundits right. We’ve watched this Georgia defensive unit manhandle opponents in thirteen of fourteen games, at times almost making it look too easy. Stetson Bennett has picked apart teams with his play-action passes or by simply handing it off to his stable of running backs and destroying teams by halftime. It’s like the Bulldogs were made for this moment, not only by their record, but how they got here.
Jordan Davis called their loss to Alabama in the SEC title game a “wake-up call.” Kirby Smart had the opportunity to look his team in the eye and let them know that if they didn’t play the way that got them to that point, then everything they’d worked for could be gone in an instant.
So just like that, it turned into a one-game season. But when the team leaders stood up in the locker room after the loss and proclaimed that it wouldn’t happen again, Kirby Smart knew he had a different type of team.
“We played really well throughout the year, played consistent. We didn’t have a lot of let-downs. And we played the best team we’ve played this year in the SEC Championship. And it was a great matchup that they won most of those matchups, you look across the board.
“So we’ve harped on improving in a lot of areas,” Kirby added. “Certainly got to do a much better job in third down, red zone, in forcing turnovers. But throughout the season, I think we’ve gotten a lot better across the board.”
This is a different football team than the one we saw in Atlanta. The defense looked phenomenal against Michigan, and the offense looked like they were shot out of a cannon. A pissed off Stetson Bennett with something to prove might be the best Stetson Bennett. As a team, they attacked down field, used their running backs out of the backfield, and pressured the Michigan quarterbacks into mistakes. This was the total opposite of what we saw against Alabama the first time and it came at the perfect time. This Georgia team needed to shake off the rust from their first loss of the season.
It’s been 41 years since Georgia has held that National Championship trophy, and every year since Kirby Smart arrived, people have asked him when they would do it again. They’ve had the talent, coaches and facilities to bring home a title, but they’ve never had the complete defense that will be taking the field tonight. Players like Nakobe Dean have put their bodies on the line every single play this season, which is a testament to how this team has bought into what Dan Lanning and Kirby have been preaching. The whole group has bought into playing assignment football, which has paid off, especially with an offensive unit that can wear down an opposing team.
But whether Georgia can finally cross the finish line and raise the coveted trophy will continue to be brought up until it finally happens, which comes with some pressure. When Kirby Smart was asked whether his history as a Georgia guy or the history of this moment have made him think harder about this day, Smart gave the perfect football coach answer.
“No, I do not. What I feel is how do we stop Bryce Young and how do we control their front and how do we run the ball, how do we throw the ball with efficiency, how do we convert third downs and stop them in the red area. That’s the furthest from my concern because I don’t all in all control that.
“What I control is who we recruit, how we develop players, how we keep people in our program, and then how we do, scheme-wise and things,” Kirby added about the pressure. “Because if you do that right, the other will take care of itself. But my focus and energy and entire mind is on what we can do to help our players play better.”
He can deflect all he wants, but we all know he’s thought about winning this game for his school and finally putting the talk to bed. But, if you’re a fan, his answer is exactly what you want to hear, especially during this trip. He’s not worried about the fan base, donors, people of influence or anyone else besides the folks in that locker room until he finishes the job.
This team is filled with guys who’ve represented the school with pride and passion, not letting ego get in the way of the goal that stands in front of them. Their leader, Stetson Bennett, is a true underdog story, and he has the chance to go from walk-on quarterback to National Championship-winning legend. The book will be phenomenal one day, but the final chapter needs to be finished first.
Tonight presents an opportunity for Georgia to nudge Alabama to the side and put itself in a huge spotlight. It’s a chance for this program to take the next step, which could turn into multiple titles down the road. But to set the tone for the future, they’ve gotta knock down that wall first.
If not now, then when?
Tonight, Georgia should finally end the talk that they can’t close. The Bulldogs have every piece needed to win a championship, and this game looks completely different now than just over a month ago.
Tonight, Kirby Smart can finally move into a different level of college coaches, as long as his team shows up with him.
My prediction: Georgia defeats Alabama 34-23.
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Follow along on Twitter: @TreyWallace_