ATLANTA — Six years ago, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to see Alabama get another shot at LSU — this time for a championship. Kirby Smart couldn’t concern himself with that. He just had to find a way to flip the result.
Smart was the defensive coordinator at Alabama, which had lost to LSU in an epic, some would call ugly, 9-6 game. The teams were paired again for the BCS championship, and two months after the original game, Alabama won the one that mattered the most, 21-0.
Now, Smart is the coach at Georgia and again has a chance to avenge a regular-season loss — this time in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday. But Smart doesn’t see the rematch with Auburn — which routed UGA two weeks ago by 23 points — as totally analogous.
“The biggest difference was how far apart the games were,” Smart said, citing the one-month wait between the end of the regular season and the second LSU game. “We had that entire prep time. In this situation, we’ve got the game week, so it’s really four or five days of prep, then you’ve got to go play.
“You had more time to do things and try to get things different. I don’t think you can reinvent the wheel in a week. Really hard to do.”
This is the seventh rematch in an SEC Championship Game. The team that won in the regular season is 5-1 in the rematches, with the exception being 2001, when LSU lost to Tennessee in the regular season but then beat the Volunteers in the SEC championship.
The last rematch also involved Auburn: Seven years ago, the Cam Newton-led Tigers beat South Carolina in late September and then again in early December, when it won by more.
Gus Malzahn, now Auburn’s coach, was the offensive coordinator in that game.
“The unique thing about this is it’s a [three]-week turnaround,” Malzahn said. “It’s been very recent; that makes it a little more unique and challenging.”
Todd Ellis was on the other end of it in 2010, as South Carolina’s play-by-play analyst. Ellis, who also played quarterback at South Carolina, came away thinking that momentum and venue were important. While Auburn had played at home the first time, Ellis thought the split crowd for the title game “draws out who’s the better football team.” And that year it was Auburn, which, by then, was rolling. By getting out to a big lead in the first quarter, Auburn kept its momentum going and showed the Gamecocks the second game wouldn’t be different than the first one.
“The neutral site issue changes things a great deal. One team or another is losing a huge advantage,” Ellis said. “I think a championship game, in a rematch, you have seen the other team’s weaknesses, know your own weaknesses against them, and coaching comes in there.”
Malzahn thinks the neutral-site venue will be a big change. Auburn had the benefit of its raucous crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium the first time around against Georgia, an advantage that shouldn’t exist at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I know there’s going to be a whole lot of Georgia fans,” Malzahn said. “Especially the fact they’ve had a little more time to know they’ll be playing in the game.”
But there were somewhat similar circumstances for Georgia the one time it had a rematch in the SEC Championship Game, and it didn’t go well. Back in 2003, LSU beat Georgia, 17-10, in Baton Rouge on Sept. 20. Then, the Tigers won the rematch in more thorough fashion, 34-13 at the Georgia Dome. (The only player-coach connection still at UGA is Odell Thurman, then a Georgia star linebacker, now an intern on the strength and conditioning staff.)
LSU’s coach that year was Nick Saban, who a year later hired Smart as an assistant. And eight years later, they were at Alabama, turning the tables on LSU. Now, Smart will try to do it again as a head coach.
“I don’t really see it as a challenge or an advantage for either team,” Smart said. “We play [Auburn] every year anyway, with it being our crossover rival. Two times in one year is unique. But it’s not really a challenge or an advantage in any way. I think both teams just know each other. A lot of carryover on both staffs. A lot of talented players on both teams. I’m not sure it presents any advantages or disadvantages.”