Alabama has experienced tight games on way to SEC championship game. Georgia not so much

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald
Auburn Tigers head coach Bryan Harsin and Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban shake hands after the game during the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Alabama Crimson Tide defeated Auburn Tigers 24-22 in 4OT.

Alabama will arrive at the SEC championship game Saturday against Georgia certainly battle-tested after having its share of close calls this season.

It’s a drastic change from a year ago when the Crimson Tide won every game on its way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta by 15 points or more on the way to the national championship and won by an average of 29 points per game on the season.

This time, Alabama has played in five games decided by a touchdown or less, winning four and losing to Texas A&M 41-38 on Oct. 9.

The Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC) held off Florida 31-29 in September and won its final three SEC games 20-14 against LSU, 42-35 against Arkansas and then rallied to pull out a 24-22 victory in four overtimes Saturday night at Auburn.

“Over the course of the season, I think sometimes when things have gone poorly, players have responded very well, but I also think that it's something that you need to do on a consistent basis,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday evening on an SEC Championship media teleconference. “Because sometimes you create your own adversity by not executing or making mental errors and things that you do put you in the situation that you're in. It's great to have the resiliency to overcome it, but you'd like to be able to sustain with consistency so you don't get in those situations.”

Georgia (12-0, 8-0) has made a habit of essentially having games wrapped up by the fourth quarter since a season-opening 10-3 win over Clemson. It has 10 wins by 24 or more points and led Kentucky 30-7 before giving up a touchdown with four seconds to go.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked Sunday how he thinks his team would do it if it’s tied in the fourth quarter Saturday.

“I don't know,” he said. “I think you have to find that out. The team that we're coaching out here every day, they've been through some adversity, I can assure you that. We make for adverse situations every day in practice, and we challenge them each and every day. So to the level that they can be challenged, they go against each other every day, and they go compete. That's what we ask our guys to do is to play like there's no scoreboard. If you play like there's no scoreboard, what does it matter if you've been in one of those situations or not?”

Georgia on Sunday was a unanimous No. 1 in the USA Today Sports AFCA Coaches and Associated Press polls for an eighth straight week. Alabama is No. 2 in the coaches poll and No. 4 in the AP this week.

“They’ve probably been the most consistent, most dominant team week in and week out,” said Saban, whose team won the SEC championship last season 52-46 over Florida. “It will take a lot of quality work this week, attention to detail and good preparation and do the best we can again an outstanding team, both sides of the ball and special teams.

Saban’s teams have boasted some of the nation’s best defenses during his time in Tuscaloosa, but this Georgia defense is at that elite level, leading the nation in scoring defense (6.9 points per game), total defense (230.6 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (94.93).

“They're well coached,” Saban said. “They've got a good scheme. The players do a good job of executing it. They've got good linebackers. They've got good front people. They're aggressive in the secondary. This is not a one-man wrecking crew. This is a really, really good group of players who play well together. There's multiple players that have ability to make plays.”

Georgia was able to turn to its backups in the second half of a 45-0 win in an early game at Georgia Tech Saturday. Alabama needed its best available players to keep its playoff hopes from taking a major blow in a road game against Auburn that ended at 7:40 p.m. ET.

“In football, most of these kids grew up playing week to week,” Smart said. “The good ones all played 15 games in a high school season and played for state championships. They played back to back to back to back. That's kind of what you're used to. I'm a big believer, if you strain, you get used to straining, and you strain. Our guys in the second half haven't had to strain as hard because they haven't had to play. It's one of those things, it's just however you want to look at it.”