Alabama Crimson Tide not ready yet to call Georgia Bulldogs a rival

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Alabama running back Damien Harris found the going tough against Georgia in the national championship game this past January. The senior running back, here being taken down by Georgia's Deandre Baker (18) and Aaron Davis, had only 17 yards on 16 carries.

ATLANTA – Damien Harris is a senior running back for Alabama and a locker room leader on that team. One need only hear Harris’ response Wednesday to the self-proclamation of Kentucky’s Benny Snell a day earlier that Snell is the best running back in the SEC to understand how Harris’ sensibilities reflect those of the Crimson Tide and their serious-minded head coach.

Asked if he had heard about Snell’s comments, Harris said succinctly, “Yes ma’am, I did.”

Asked if he cared to comment on it, he said, “no,” and he did so looking forward without making eye contact with the questioner.

Alabama’s student-athlete representation at SEC Football Media Days on Wednesday was similarly disengaged when it came to most matters that came up for discussion. That included the lingering effects of last year’s scintillating national championship matchup with Georgia about a half-mile away at Mercedes-Benz Stadium from where they were sitting on Wednesday. Specifically, many wondered what that game might have done to move the Bulldogs up on Bama’s totem pole of anticipated opposition.

Polls heading into Thursday’s final day of Media Days, in which the attendees will vote on a projected order of finish and predict divisional and overall champions, show Georgia and Alabama coming in as runaway favorites.

“I wouldn’t consider them a rival, no,” said Harris of the Bulldogs.  “I consider them another great program in a great conference. But it doesn’t matter who we play. If we make it (to the SEC championship game) and end up playing them again, so be it. But we’re not focused on who we play; more so how we play.”

Harris, a 5-foot-11, 223-pound senior, was 1,000-yard rusher (on the nose) last year. He was limited to 17 on six carries in the title game against Georgia. Alabama won 26-23 on a 42-yard touchdown pass in overtime.

The Bulldogs (13-2) were, of course, SEC champions. Alabama (13-1) made the finals after getting an at-large bid into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. Auburn won the West.

Like most players still on the Tide’s roster, Harris recognizes the good work Kirby Smart has done his first two years in Athens. But he’s not surprised by it.

“We kind of expected that,” Harris said. “I was here when Kirby Smart was (at Alabama) and he was a great defensive coordinator for us. When we found out he was going to Georgia, we knew he’d be about to turn that program around and put them into an elite position. That’s exactly what he’s done. All respect in the world for him and his program. They do things the right way and it was great to be able to play against them in the national championship.”

Anfernee Jennings also knows Smart well. The 6-3, 262-pound linebacker had Smart as a position coach and coordinator his first two seasons at Alabama.

“Georgia’s definitely a great team. Great players, great coaches,” said Jennings, who missed the title tilt against the Bulldogs due to an injury suffered the previous week against Clemson. “They definitely are trying to turn that program around. I’m looking forward to seeing what their season holds.”

Then, Jennings added: “They’re not a rival though. It’ll just be the next game on the schedule if we get there.”

While they play in different divisions and don’t play each other during the regular season, Bama and the Bulldogs are competing often on the recruiting trail. Georgia has been winning a lot of those battles of late. Its classes have finished Nos. 6, 3 and 1 in the last three national recruiting rankings.

Between that and the possibility of having a rematch of the national title game for the conference championship, one can be sure that CBS and national pundits are rooting for a Georgia-Alabama SEC title tilt.

For now, though, the Crimson Tide chooses to remain decidedly neutral.

“I’m sure people would love to see that,” Harris said. “But that’s not something we’re necessarily focused on.”

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