ATLANTA (AP) — Nick Saban and Kirby Smart posed stiffly behind the trophy, forcing smiles for the cameras.
Saban whispered something in his former assistant’s ear, drawing a bit of a chuckle.
Then, a quick handshake, and off they went in opposite directions.
It was a formality that had to wait until the last day of November.
But, really, they could’ve done it months ago.
As soon as Alabama and Georgia walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium almost 11 months ago — the Crimson Tide in triumph, the Bulldogs in despair — a rematch seemed inevitable.
Now, it’s here.
On Saturday, at the very same place where the Tide captured the fifth national title of the Saban era, these two powerhouses will square off in another game with huge ramifications.
A Southeastern Conference championship is on the line, as well as a trip to the College Football Playoff.
“We certainly want to win every game that we play,” said Saban, who is trying to guide the No. 1 Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC, No. 1 CFP) to its sixth national title in the last decade — perhaps the greatest dynasty that college football has ever seen and not far off the seemingly impossible standard he sets for his program.
Fourth-ranked Georgia (11-1, 7-1, No. 4 CFP) is eager to start a dynasty of its own.
Smart, a longtime assistant under Saban who moved to Georgia in 2016, has already shown he can go head-to-head with his ex-boss on the recruiting trail.
Now, Smart is eager to prevail on the field. He sure came close the last time these teams met, watching his team squander a pair of 13-point leads before Alabama won 26-23 in overtime on a 41-yard touchdown pass while facing second-and-26.
“We obviously have our challenges to try to continue to play at the standard that we’ve played at,” Saban said. “I have no doubt they’ll continue to have a very, very good program.”
Despite all the titles, all the chances to savor its laurels, Alabama never seems to waver from the single-minded focus of its coach.
As soon as the Tide wins a national title, it starts looking toward the next one.
“We’ve been here before,” nose guard Quinnen Williams said. “Everybody knows when it’s time to come to work. You can be beat any day. You can be the best team in the country and get beat.”
The Bulldogs made an unexpected run to the national title game last season, but this is right where they expected to be in 2018.
Right where they expect to be for years to come.
“Last year was a shocker,” linebacker Juwan Taylor said, “but this is what it’s going to be like at Georgia from now on. Championships.”
Some things to watch for in the SEC championship game:
If this game goes down to the wire, Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could see significant action in the fourth quarter for the first time all season. He has attempted — and completed — just three passes for 56 yards in the final 15 minutes. By contrast, Tagovailoa completed seven passes for 54 yards against the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter of last season’s national title game. Georgia hasn’t faced many late challenges, either. The Bulldogs have gone to the fourth quarter with double-digit leads in 10 of their 11 wins — the only exception being a victory over Florida , which they led 23-14 with one period left.
DOMINATING THE EAST
Alabama hasn’t lost to an SEC East opponent in more than eight years. The Tide has a 23-game winning streak over teams from the opposite division since a 35-21 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 9, 2010 . They are 4-0 in SEC championship games during that streak, including a 32-28 victory over Georgia in 2012.
Tagovailoa has put up Heisman-worthy numbers in his first season as the starter , completing more than 70 percent of his passes for 3,189 yards and 36 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Georgia counters with one of the nation’s best defensive backs, lockdown corner Deandre Baker. The Thorpe Award finalist has only two interceptions, none since Week 3, but that’s because teams rarely throw his way. It will be interesting to see if Tagovailoa goes right at Baker or sticks with the plan used by most Georgia opponents — look to the other side of the field, where the Bulldogs start redshirt freshman Eric Stokes but usually provide plenty of help for the young cornerback.
UNSTOPPABLE FORCE VS IMMOVABLE OBJECT
Georgia is a ground-oriented team that has two backs closing in on 1,000 yards: D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield . If things are going well, the Bulldogs will hand the ball off on roughly two-thirds of their offensive plays. But Alabama, led by linebackers Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson, is one of the toughest teams in the country to run against. The Tide has surrendered an average of just 80 yards per game against its Power Five opponents. Georgia has plenty of faith in quarterback Jake Fromm, but it doesn’t want to get into a passing contest with Tagovailoa.
BEATING THE BOSS
Saban is 15-0 against his former assistants, including wins this season over Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M), Billy Napier (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee). The only one who’s come close in those 15 games? Smart, in that title game.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.
For more AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25