It’s a classic rivalry. The battle of the best two teams in the SEC kicks off today as No. 3 Georgia travel to take on No.2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It will be the highlight of this weekend’s fixtures. Great offense vs. great defense. Master vs. pupil and two contenders for the national title squaring off.
Yet why isn’t Alabama-Georgia seen as one of college football’s great rivalries?
As I’ve been exploring college football’s traditions, its great rivalries seem to have several key criteria: History, trophies, great games, characters and a catchy title. I wrote about The Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss meet annually for the “Golden Egg”. USC vs. Notre Dame is a historic rivalry played for “The Jeweled Shillelagh”. The Harvard-Yale and Michigan-Ohio State rivalries are simply referred to as “The Game”. The Alabama-Georgia matchup seems to have it all. Except, perhaps, the history and therefore the catchy title.
Georgia and Auburn, Alabama’s in-state rivals share a famous history, known as “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry”. They have played 125 times since their first meeting in 1892, organised by the opposing head coaches who had been grad school classmates at Johns Hopkins University. It was deemed “the social event of the year” by an Atlanta newspaper. It was set up to be a classic rivalry.
A rivalry with history
Georgia and Alabama first met in 1895 and were both founder members of the SEC in 1933. Their 1960 game was the first to be televised for ABC. So why didn’t this rivalry take off? They played regularly until 1965 after which they only played intermittently, and just four times between 1971 and 1982. In the Chattanooga Times Free Press, David Paschall examined the reasons for the sporadic meetings between these two college football powerhouses. He writes that “a 1963 Saturday Evening Post article claimed that Alabama coach Bear Bryant and Georgia athletic director and former coach Wally Butts had rigged the Tide’s 35-0 rout in 1962.” Both coaches hotly contested the claims, sued the paper and won. Paschall reports that then Georgia coach Vince Dooley said: “After that… lawsuit, the two schools decided it was best not to continue as natural rivals.”
The 1992 reorganisation of the SEC put Alabama in the West conference, and Georgia in the East. Each team was allocated a permanent cross-conference rival. Alabama’s was Tennessee, and Georgia were given Auburn, further cementing that rivalry and its tradition.
Saban vs.Smart – Master vs. Pupil
A great feature of a traditional rivalry is the coaches. Green Bay-Chicago had Lombardi vs. Halas. Michigan-Ohio State had Bo Schembechler vs. Woody Hayes and the Premier League now has Klopp vs. Guardiola.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart was Nick Saban’s Defensive Co-ordinator at Alabama for seven years before taking the top job in Athens in 2015. He was also his defensive backs coach during Saban’s spell with the Miami Dolphins in 2006. Both coaches are renowned defensive specialists. Saban is a hands-on defensive backs coach whose personal mentoring has seen many former players go to the NFL. Smart was a star defensive back at Georgia, his alma mater, where he recorded 13 interceptions in a four year career.
Saban famously has never been beaten by his former assistants, carrying a 22-0 record into this game against Smart, who is building an impressive program at Georgia. They have been regularly touted as strong contenders for the national championship under his tenure.
Offense vs. Defense
Today’s game ought to be a classic matchup – a great Alabama offense that’s averaging 51 points in their first three games against a strong Georgia defense described by Saban as the best in the country. Alabama has an enormous offensive line which is protecting Mac Jones and opening up gaps for Najee Harris to burst through on the run. He rushed for 206 yards against Ole Miss last week. Georgia’s defensive line will be less than generous today.
Jones, was likened by Jessie Palmer on ESPN’s College Football Final as having “the keys to a Ferrari” with Alabama’s offense. In Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith, he has great targets. Georgia’s excellent defensive backs, in the mould of their coach and led by Richard LeCounte will have their hands full. They do have the ability to turn the ball over and I feel the outcome of the game will hinge on their ability to do this successfully.
The quarterback battle will be the other deciding factor. Mac Jones faced an unenviable task taking over from Tua Tagovailoa but has grown into a calm, confident leader and Heisman Trophy contender. Georgia counterpart Stetson Bennett, in contrast, started the season as third string quarterback on the Bulldogs’ depth chart. Season opt out by Jamie Newman and injury to transfer JT Daniels has pushed Bennett into the spotlight and his confidence is growing by the game. His ultimate test will be away in Tuscaloosa today.
Georgia and Alabama don’t share a catchy name for their rivalry, or a historic trophy. Their recent encounters and the characters in them, however, make this meeting a modern classic. Perhaps that should be it’s name. The trophies they play for may not have a nickname like the Golden Egg or Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The trophies they contest are the SEC title and the national championship and I’m sure both teams will settle for that.
Even with Nick Saban out and watching from home, Alabama’s offense will have too much for a strong Georgia team today.
Georgia 28-35 Alabama.
picture from cbssports.com