True rematches are a rarity in college football.
There will be one on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, where Oklahoma has a chance to avenge its rivalry loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game. Georgia’s path to last season’s national championship game included a do-over against Auburn in Atlanta.
But Alabama’s SEC Championship Game against Georgia is not a rematch.
“I think last year’s game is last year’s game, and our kids are really focused on playing good football,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
“Last year’s game,” technically happened this year, of course. Alabama and Georgia meet on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta less than 11 months after the Crimson Tide claimed its 17th national championship in the same building in the early morning hours of Jan. 9.
The game stretched past midnight from its kickoff on Jan. 8. It could carry over for one day; it cannot carry over for 327 more.
“It’s good that (the national championship) happened,” Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. “We got to enjoy it, you know, for quite some time now. It’s a new season. So everything that happened last year happened last year. We understand that it’s a new team. They have a new team. We’ve got to prepare now. It’s a different ball game this time.”
Georgia’s “new team” has only eight players who started in January that could expect to start this game, plus kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. Some of the Dawgs’ defensive leaders, like linebackers Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, were seniors. The running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will show up on highlights of last season and replays of the game, but neither will suit up on Saturday.
Alabama has just seven players who started the national championship game that will have a reasonable chance to start on Saturday. Several others played prominent roles; seven of Alabama’s players on the field on the play’s final game could also expect to start this weekend. The influx of freshmen after halftime was a sign of things to come for Alabama’s offense.
The Crimson Tide defense is also rebuilt. Safety Deionte Thompson is the only player from the 2018 secondary who played a significant role on that game. The linebackers and defensive line also take on a different appearance.
“Last year, in the Georgia game I think I got, like, one snap,” defensive lineman Quinnen Williams said.
There’s still some familiarity between the teams. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are intimately familiar with one another’s defenses. Those schemes haven’t been redone. Georgia’s offense hasn’t transformed dramatically, either. Without Chubb and Michel, it features sophomore running back D’Andre Swift and junior Elijah Holyfield.
January’s game tape can reveal some defensive breakdowns to be addressed or tendencies to be scouted. But after 12 regular-season games, plenty of other film exists.
“I hate comparison questions, but (Georgia hasn’t) really dramatically changed,” Saban said. “I think they’ve made a lot of improvement. I think their efficiency on offense has been very good all year long. I think the quarterback is more experienced and actually playing even better than he did a year ago, which was really, really good. They have new backs but those backs are very, very productive. I think they have outstanding skill guys that have all improved over a year ago. Defensively, their scheme has not changed a lot, but some of their players have. They still have really, really good players and they play well together.”
Some comparison is inevitable. The game will look much the same, with Alabama taking the field in its road whites and Georgia playing in its home red jerseys just 60 miles from Sanford Stadium.
A collision course for these two teams seemed to be set back in January.
“This is the one I’ve been waiting for,” D’Andre Swift said.
It was locked in almost a month ago when both teams clinched their respective divisions on Nov. 3. It was predicted long before that; the media picked Georgia to win the East and Alabama to win the West as far back as July at SEC Media Days.
This is the first year in which the SEC media has correctly predicted both division champions since Alabama and Florida were picked in 2009. Those two teams also played for the conference championship in 2008, setting up another game that was often billed as a rematch. Winning that game helped launch Alabama’s current run of dominance and was a waypoint in Florida’s demise.
Saban isn’t one for preseason predictions, but he knew Georgia could end up in this position. The Alabama coach was more worried about how his own team would develop.
“I really thought that, in playing Georgia last year and knowing the kind of players they had coming back and the job they do there and the job that Kirby does with his entire staff, that they would have an excellent chance to come back in the game,” he said.
Motivation from their prior meeting can also play a factor. Alabama stopped Georgia from winning a national championship in Atlanta in January. The Dawgs have a chance to break through against Alabama once again after nearly defeating college football’s modern dynasty in January.
“I feel we can compete with any team,” defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said. “I know Alabama is known as the head honcho, always looked at as godfather of college football. Every team has their ‘It players’ and they make stuff happen. I think we can play with any team.”
The stakes between Crimson and White and Red and Black have remained high in recent years. Smart and Saban competed against one another for coaches as Smart built out his staff entering the 2015 season. They went head-to-head on the recruiting trail from the moment Smart switched jobs. Then they faced off for a national championship.
But Alabama faces many of the same teams year after year. The message from Saban doesn’t change even when the stakes rise: Last season won’t affect this season.
“He mentions that about every game we played,” safety Xavier McKinney said. “If we play a team this year that we played last year, he’ll say that last year’s game doesn’t matter. That’s very true.”
Part of Saban’s philosophy at Alabama has centered on looking forward rather than backward. The 2017 season ended in January. The story for the 2018 season is still being written.
“This is a new year,” Tagovailoa said. “This is a new team. There’s new challenges that we’re faced with.”
Sports writer Marc Weiszer of The Athens Banner-Herald contributed to this story.
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.