ATLANTA — The national championship could be decided with a dream matchup between two of college football’s most storied programs: Notre Dame vs. Alabama.
Of course, Georgia might have something to say about that.
The third-ranked Bulldogs are eager to wake up some echoes of their own.
Coach Mark Richt’s team will take on No. 2 Alabama in a Southeastern Conference title game that essentially serves as a national semifinal. The winner of Saturday’s contest at the Georgia Dome will surely land a spot against top-ranked Notre Dame in the BCS title game at Miami on Jan. 7.
While Alabama (11-1) is a seven-point favorite to remain on course for its third crown in four years, Georgia (11-1) wants to carve out its own legacy, something beyond the great teams of the early 1980s led by Herschel Walker.
"We respect and honor those guys that played ahead of us, but we really need to give the fans something else to talk about," linebacker Christian Robinson said. "If that’s all we have to talk about, we must not be doing anything special."
Georgia won its only Associated Press national title in 1980, Walker’s freshman year. The Bulldogs were in position to win another two years later, the running back’s final season between the hedges, but Penn State knocked them off in the Sugar Bowl.
In an interesting twist, Walker announced this week that he’ll soon be opening a restaurant in Athens after the first of the year.
By then, the Bulldogs hope they’ve cooked up another national title.
All those who’ve come along since Walker will be cheering on this team, including Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. He played at Georgia in the late ‘90s and planned to give the Bulldogs a pep talk by phone.
"We can’t let this one slide," Bailey said. "This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because I’m tired of people talking about Herschel Walker. That was 30-something years ago. There’s been a lot of things happen between now and then, but no championships. That’s why they still talk about him."
Indeed, even though Georgia finished No. 2 in the AP rankings in 2007, this is the best shot at finishing No. 1 since the Walker era. If the Bulldogs win the next two games, they’re the champions.
"We’re hungry," Robinson said. "We’ve got something to prove."
So does Alabama.
A year ago, the Crimson Tide didn’t even make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game — LSU won the Western Division — but Alabama got a do-over against the Tigers for the BCS title. Even with a resounding 21-0 victory, there are still those who think the Tide didn’t deserve a second chance after losing to LSU in the regular season.
If Alabama beats Georgia and Notre Dame, no one can say the Tide didn’t earn it, despite an upset loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.
"There is a lot more pressure, but that is what we like," running back Eddie Lacy said. "You come to Alabama to be in situations like this and play in games like this."
The SEC finalists are remarkably similar on paper.
• Georgia’s Aaron Murray is the nation’s top-rated passer, just ahead of Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
• The Crimson Tide has a dynamic running back duo with Lacy (1,001 yards, 14 touchdowns) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (847 yards, 10 TDs). So does Georgia with a pair of freshmen, Todd Gurley (1,138 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Keith Marshall (720 yards, eight TDs.)
• Each squad has lost a couple of key receivers to injuries.
• Alabama leads the nation in points allowed (9.2 per game) and total defense (233.7 yards). Georgia has been just as stout since senior safety Shawn Williams called out his defensive teammates before a big game against Florida, accusing them on playing "soft." Over the last five weeks, the Bulldogs have surrendered just 43 points.
"This matchup is right on," Georgia receiver Tavarres King said. "These are two great teams, two physical teams, that get after it every Saturday. It should be a fun game."
Alabama has played in plenty of epic contests over the last five years, and coach Nick Saban is one of the best at preparing his players for these sort of pressure-packed settings.
In fact, from the way the Crimson Tide was talking all week, this is no big deal.
"Just another game," McCarron said. "That’s the biggest thing everyone just needs to remember. Don’t make the game bigger than what it is. Just another Saturday."
This is still rather new for the Bulldogs.
Over Murray’s first two seasons as the starting quarterback, Georgia failed to beat a team in the Top 10. That steak continued in the only loss this season, a 35-7 blowout at South Carolina. But a 17-9 victory over then-No. 3 Florida propelled the Bulldogs to the top of the SEC East, and a favorable schedule helped keep them there.
"Before that Florida game, nobody thought we could win a big game," Robinson said. "Well, we did that. So we can mark that off and go on to something else — winning a championship."
This game will likely be decided in the trenches, especially by the performance of Georgia’s young offensive line.
The Bulldogs have a sophomore at center (David Andrews) and a freshman at right tackle (John Theus), so they could have their hands full trying to control an Alabama front that is so dominating, not much blitzing is required to get pressure on the quarterback and clog up the running lanes.
But the Crimson Tide was exposed a bit in a last-minute win over LSU and the shocking loss to the Aggies, giving up more than 400 yards in each game. Georgia will be counting on Murray to finally come up big on the biggest stage, a goal that has eluded him during his record-breaking career in Athens. He was awful against South Carolina, completing just 11 of 31 for 109 yards. He threw three interceptions against Florida, but the defense bailed him out.
Showing how much this game meant, Murray — normally one of the most media-friendly players on the team — has done no interviews since a 42-10 win over Georgia Tech last weekend.
Alabama will have to keep an eye on Jarvis Jones, a terror in Georgia’s 3-4 defense. Despite being nagged by injuries and missing two games, the junior linebacker has 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He is up for numerous national awards and perhaps has a chance to earn his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony if he comes up huge against the Crimson Tide.
"You certainly have to have a plan to try and help the players that have to block him, so hopefully he can’t just get in one-on-one situations where it’s a difficult circumstance for somebody," Saban said. "There have been games this year where he has made a phenomenal amount of plays, like sacks and causing fumbles. The guy is probably one of the best defensive players in the country in terms of his play-making ability."
Jones and his teammates want to show they match up well with a team such as Alabama.
And mess up that dream matchup in Miami, for good measure.
"All you hear is Bama this, Bama that," cornerback Damian Swann. "We know we’re just as good as them, if not better."
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