ATHENS — To listen to national narrative about Saturday’s game between No. 8 Georgia and 13th-ranked Alabama, one is left to believe this is a referendum game not only for Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt, but for the entire football program and, well, their fans, too.
UGA and the Bulldog Nation, as it were, just hasn’t been able to stand up to these moments, they’re saying. And with undefeated Georgia coming in as the lower-ranked team and as a two-point favorite to boot over its powerhouse visitor, there seems to be a sense that a national-television audience will be tuning in to see the Bulldogs to fall on their collective faces.
“Georgia doesn’t want to read in the papers afterward that they, quote-unquote, ‘Georgia’d it’ again,” CBS Sports color commentator Gary Danielson said, “that they beat the teams they can but can’t beat the real competition.”
The reality is, Georgia actually had a lot of games like this during the Richt era. And overall, the Bulldogs have pretty much held their own. They’ve faced ranked opponents at Sanford Stadium eight times in the last five seasons and they’re 5-3 in those games. Georgia has been the lower-ranked team, as it is against Alabama this year, five of those times, and it’s 3-2 in those games.
Extrapolated over the course of Richt’s 15-year career at Georgia, the Bulldogs are 12-12 in “ranked games” at Sanford Stadium. They had the better ranking in 17 of those contests, including 2008, when No. 8 Alabama throttled third-ranked UGA 41-30.
Not great, certainly, but not as awful as the perception seems to be.
“I think the way this works, the way the college-football system works, is you’re only as good as the opponents you beat,” Georgia senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “However they’re perceived is how you will be perceived. Alabama is perceived as being a powerhouse. So you beat a powerhouse, then who do you become? That’s the opportunity here.”
The Crimson Tide (3-1, 0-1 SEC) certainly has been tested more than Georgia coming into Saturday’s contest, which is expected to be played amid significant rain. Alabama defeated No. 18 Wisconsin 35-17 in the season opener played in Arlington, Texas, and then lost to No. 11 Ole Miss 43-37 in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago.
Conversely, the stiffest competition for Georgia (4-0, 2-0) has come in its two conference contests against Vanderbilt on the road (31-14) and South Carolina at home (52-20). Those teams are 3-5 collectively, and the Bulldogs have yet to face a ranked opponent. In fact, not only has Georgia not trailed this season, it hasn’t been seriously threatened at any point.
That, the Bulldogs say, is where the challenge lies on Saturday.
“It’s kind of a defining moment for us, because we haven’t really faced adversity in a game,” said tailback Nick Chubb, who is averaging 149.8 yards rushing per game. “That’s kind of what you want to see in a team, how can they handle adversity in a close game. We’ve kind of been blowing out every team we’ve played so far. I know it won’t be a blowout this game either way. Whoever wins, it’s not going to be a blowout. So it will be good for us to see what kind of team we are.”
The matchups certainly suggest a tight contest. The one CBS and everybody else will be focused on will be Georgia’s run game versus Alabama’s run defense. The Crimson Tide leads the SEC and is ranked sixth nationally by allowing their opponents a paltry 56.8 yards rushing per game. Not only do the Bulldogs counter with the SEC’s second-best rushing offense (257.8 ypg), but Chubb has a chance run down history in this game.
The sophomore from Cedartown already has rushed for more than 100 yards in a national-best 12 games in a row. One more and he’ll tie the school record held by Herschel Walker for — how perfect is this — the last 34 years.
“It’s going to be very tough against our front,” Alabama middle linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “If he gets it, he gets it. If he don’t, he don’t.”
There is another storyline developing for storied Alabama as well. A national force forever, and especially dominant in the last six or so years of Nick Saban’s tenure, the Crimson Tide has come up short the couple of years in its annual pursuit for the national championship. Already dragging a loss to Ole Miss into this game, another ‘L’ effectively slams the door on that goal again this season.
So Bama assumes the role of desperado again, just as it did last year when it rebounded win yet another conference championship and reach the national semifinals.
“It means so much to Alabama not to be the team that kind of ends the streak,” Danielson said of the Tide. “At the end of games, that pressure starts to creep in.”
It’s for that reason that Georgia seems to be going out of its to downplay the magnitude of Saturday’s game. The truth is, the Bulldogs could lose and still achieve all the goals they have circled for the 2015 season.
But there is among the team and the coaches a quiet confidence as they get set for the second of what will be at least four CBS national games this season. They are, after all, the favored team playing at home.
“I’ll give the boring answer, which is all the games are big to us,” said Richt, who is 3-2 against Alabama as Georgia’s head coach. “They are. All games are big; all games mean a lot; every conference game is important; they’re all very meaningful. So we try to treat them all the same. That has to do with how you prepare and what you focus on. You focus on your job. You don’t focus on who’s in the stands or who says what. Just remember what to do, do it well and do it with a lot of enthusiasm. That’s what we try to do.”
Saturday, we’ll find out if that’s enough.