Georgia and Alabama square off in what the Southeastern Conference championship game has become in the last half-decade, which is a de facto national semifinal.
What can be said of the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide’s match-up that hasn’t already? This highly anticipated showdown for the right to face Notre Dame in the BCS championship game has been analyzed, deconstructed and dissected. Experts like BamaHammer.com have taken analytic looks at the Georgia defense and offense. DawgSports.com ran through a bevy of numbers and tidbits. Andy Staples at Sports Illustrated addressed the impact of the 3-4 defense on Saturday’s outcome.
Staples opted not to compare Alabama and Georgia’s 3-4 competition to Sting and Bret Hart feuding over the Scorpion Deathlock/Sharpshooter, but alas…
Other story lines have been examined thoroughly as well. The perpetually criticized Mark Richt has a golden opportunity to silence detractors should he beat the current emperor of college football, Nick Saban.
Though this game is in its own backyard, the Bulldogs’ last two high profile games in the Georgia Dome were losses to Boise State and LSU that bookended the 2011 regular season. Richt’s career mark is 117-39, which would guarantee job security for decades at most programs. But at Georgia, where a passionate fan base desperately wants its first national championship in three decades, losses like those to Boise State and LSU define his tenure. Richt wins — he just doesn’t win the Big One.
The SEC championship can be to Richt what the 2012 Final Four was to John Calipari; it can also be what the 1996 Masters was to Greg Norman. This is a significant background story, and one Tommy Tomlinson at SportsOnEarth and Mark Bradley at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution chronicled far more eloquently than I could here.
Perhaps a lens through which to examine Saturday’s SEC showdown is the Heisman Trophy race. Though the Heisman hive mind seems to have settled on Johnny Manziel winning the award, just who will join the Texas A&M quarterback in New York next week for the presentation is unsettled. Why not Jarvis Jones?
A ton of names have been suggested, but only Manziel, Collin Klein and Manti Te’o appear to be certainties. Te’o’s likely nomination begs the question, why not Jones? They are two distinctly unique linebackers with comparable impacts on their teams. Jones has 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, both statistics that rank among the nation’s very best. Jones actually leads the nation in forced fumbles with six. And he’s accrued those numbers in just 10 games.
The last two defensive Heisman finalists both propelled to NYC on the strength of conference championship game performances: Ndamukong Suh had an unreal seven tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sack effort against Texas in the 2009 Big 12 title game, and Tyrann Mathieu changed the course of the 2011 SEC championship with a punt returned for touchdown and fumble recovery.
Undivided national attention and voters’ tendency to jump bandwagons present Jones an unparalleled chance to add a second defensive player into the Heisman mix.
Jones having a big day is predicated on him getting around, or through, one of the best offensive lines in college football. And Jones having a big day translates to good things for Georgia. UGa earned its marquee win with Jones playing a career game; that’s no coincidence. Jones wreaked havoc on rival Florida for three sacks, 13 tackles and two forced fumbles. The Bulldog victory was far-and-away their crowning achievement to date, sending them to Atlanta while the Gators make arrangements for their upcoming trip to New Orleans.
That brings up an interesting debate. Should Georgia win, it will have just two wins over BCS top 25 competition — albeit two very impressive top 25 wins, but just two nonetheless. The rhetoric that running through the mine field that is the SEC is all the championship isn’t one-size-fits-all. To wit, Alabama is just Georgia’s third ranked opponent this season; not currently ranked, but ranked at all in the week the Bulldogs faced them.
Alabama saw more ranked opponents, but the Crimson Tide also avoided Florida, UGa and South Carolina from the East. LSU is a significant win, and Michigan remains in the top 25. But what makes Alabama that much more championship worthy than fellow one-loss Kansas State, which with a win over Texas would have three top 25 teams in one fewer game? Or Florida, which has the most top 25 wins of any team in the nation? One of either Alabama or Georgia will be rewarded because of the conference’s reputation; Florida is punished after having actually endured it.
The Gators have much less of a gripe should Georgia emerge from Atlanta victorious, considering the Dawgs bested UF head-to-head. However, Alabama falling shy of Florida’s number of quality wins even after an extra game is a topic absolutely worthy of further discussion.
Worthy of further discussion on Sunday, anyway. In the interim, it’s all about the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide; Georgia and Alabama; two programs with legacies that define the SEC and laid its foundation.