CECIL HURT: Alabama football ready for renewal of greatest occasional rivalry vs Georgia

Cecil Hurt
Tidesports.com

“It is doubtful if there has been a game played in the South this year in which the two teams were more evenly matched,” Clifford Wheatley has said about Alabama playing against Georgia.

"Alabama’s offense (is) beautiful to witness and we cling to the belief that is the most daring of any Southern 11, the very audacity of it,” to continue quoting Whitley. “But the Red and Black has felt throughout the season that a strong defense was the best offense.”

That analysis seems to be on-point, particularly when you consider that Clifford Wheatley wrote those words 100 years ago, describing a showdown in 1920, not 2020.

The more things change between Alabama and Georgia, the more they stay the same. Geography and a fairly sizable chunk of history would define it as a rivalry, although one that has been played sporadically for the past 60 years.

When they have played, not every game has been close but many have had a backstory. That 1920 game, so eerily similar to the one coming up on Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium, matched undefeated teams in front of a crowd of 11,000 (not quite the number that will attend this year but closer than anyone could have imagined a year ago) turned out exactly as anticipated.

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Alabama was superior on offense. Georgia scored three non-offensive touchdowns and won 21-14. Two of those Georgia touchdowns came on blocked kick returns. One of those was an 87-yard return of a blocked dropped kick (the 1920 version of the field goal) that would have given Alabama the lead with less than five minutes to play.

Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same, although if Georgia wins on a special teams play like that this season, the Scott Cochran memes online will number in the billions. The game wasn’t technically for a “national championship” but if you don’t think Alabama would have claimed an undefeated 1920 when it got around to claiming titles in 1984, you haven’t been paying attention.

Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) celebrates after catching the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2018 CFP national championship college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since then, the series has given us everything from game-fixing allegations that contributed to the demise of the Saturday Evening Post to a flea-flicker in the 1965 Bulldog upset of Alabama’s defending national champions that would never have stood in the Replay Era.

There was the fierce Georgia shutout in 1976. There were the classic matchups between the SEC’s most iconic coach (Paul “Bear” Bryant) and its most iconic running back (Herschel Walker) that ... wait, those never happened because the SEC schedule didn’t pair Alabama and Georgia in any of Walker’s three years in Athens.

One of the great blessings of SEC expansion is that it has given us two classic SEC Championship games between the two, not even counting the College Football Championship matchup with the 2nd-and-26. Add in The Blackout and The Rain Game and you could measure the Bulldogs’ pain in the past decade the way economists calculate the national debt.

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This year’s game has all the ingredients except the pressure of post-season elimination. It has the Nick Saban versus former assistant Kirby Smart angle. That seems more of a sidelight than it was last week, when Lane Kiffin was stirring the pot.

This game stands largely on its football merits? That 100-year-old “best offense versus best defense” theme is in play. There are just enough questions to make it a mystery. Can Alabama’s defense find itself? Can Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett be a hero if he needs to be?

“I'm excited to go see,” Smart said earlier this week. “I've always loved the challenge, and we've got a good defense. We've got a good offense. The game will come down to a lot more than just those two units, I can assure you that.

“I know our guys are excited about the challenge. I'm sure, offensively, it's the same for them. They've heard about our defense and our defense has heard about their offense, so it's a great opportunity for both units to go out and compete and go play, but I'm excited to see it.”

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.