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Wall Street Journal / Sports

Georgia Wants Alabama. Gulp.

Georgia and Alabama have played three times since 2008, with the Crimson Tide winning all three games. But will this time be different?


Ben Cohen and

Andrew Beaton

The story of college football in the playoff era can be told in three words: “We Want Bama.”

For at least the last four years, fans of every other team celebrated their biggest wins and described their wildest ambitions by putting themselves in the same breath as Alabama. The sport’s haughtiest honor has become proclaiming your team good enough to step on the same field as the Crimson Tide. Some were earnest. Some were ironic. But almost everyone who wanted Bama—and got Bama—regretted it afterward.

No school in the country understands the feeling of terror associated with playing Alabama under Nick Saban more intimately than the Georgia Bulldogs.

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Now they don’t have a choice. They beat Oklahoma on Monday in a double-overtime epic before Alabama beat Clemson in a rematch of the last two national championships. Which means they’re playing for college football’s national title next week in Atlanta. They know enough about their opponent to wish they were playing someone else. Anybody else.

But now they’re convincing themselves that this time is different. They are a game away from the program’s first title since 1980. They have a coach who knows the other team’s instruction manual. They think all that past misery is just that—ancient history.

The two schools belong to the Southeastern Conference—which is something that SEC fans may be screaming into your ear for the next week—but they have only played three times since 2008. Georgia fans wince at the mere sound of Alabama because of what happened in those three games.

Georgia was the favorite in 2008; Alabama was up 31-0 by halftime. Georgia was one play away from playing for a national title in the 2012 SEC championship; Alabama won the conference title—and the national title—when the Bulldogs couldn’t score at the end of a classic game so dramatic that Saban himself said he was ready to have a heart attack. Georgia was again the favorite in 2015; Alabama had a 38-3 lead at one point in another demoralizing blowout.

Derrick Henry of the Alabama Crimson Tide tries to break a tackle by Leonard Floyd of the Georgia Bulldogs in Alabama’s 38-10 win in 2015.Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

These weren’t losses so much as they were moments that molded the identity of an entire fan base. Georgia has more college-football tradition in one perfectly trimmed hedge at Sanford Stadium than many of the other 129 schools in this sport combined. But its last decade has been defined by not being able to beat one team.

It’s true that Alabama has spent the last decade crippling the spirits of the entire college football world. It’s also true that no team has seen its hopes destroyed by the Crimson Tide as painfully as Georgia.

The other teams haunted by Alabama at least have some memories to cherish from the Saban era. LSU won the 2007 title. Auburn won it all in 2010 and then prevailed in the Iron Bowl with the dramatic Kick Six in 2013. Clemson lost to Alabama in two of the last three years, but it has a national title to show for the other year.

Georgia has only the scars. What makes their Alabama envy worse is that it isn’t like Georgia has been bad over the last decade. In fact the Bulldogs have been really good. But even their 83-34 record under Mark Richt in the time of Saban’s reign wasn’t enough for him to keep his coaching job. It was clear that Georgia wasn’t capable of beating Alabama.

So after years of seeing itself as the best team in the country that couldn’t beat Alabama, Georgia did the inevitable: It hired a Saban clone.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart in 2013. Photo: Dave Martin/Associated Press

That has become a common strategy in the SEC over the last decade. Every school in the conference has replaced its coach since Alabama hired Saban. Next season four of the other 13 teams in the league—Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M—will be coached by former Saban assistants.

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has more Saban in him than any of the others. He was an assistant under Saban with LSU, the Miami Dolphins and then Alabama, where he was the defensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide teams that beat Georgia into submission. He took over a program whose fans were resigned to their fatalism.

“It felt like every year we were waiting for something to go wrong,” said Stan Hanley, a Georgia native who lives in England and flew to the Rose Bowl.

But as he watched Oklahoma take a 31-14 lead in the first half on Monday night, Hanley was strangely calm. “This whole season has felt different,” he said. “You just didn’t feel the impending doom.”

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That’s the Smart effect. He has convinced Georgia they don’t have to be the Georgia of yore. They can be more like Alabama.

“When Kirby Smart was hired this is what they thought he could potentially bring them,” said John Kincade, host of a popular sports talk show on The Fan in Atlanta. “They never thought he would bring it to them this quickly.”

There was never any doubt that Smart, a Georgia-bred former Bulldogs football player, was going to create Alabama in Athens. That’s what he was hired to do. Georgia’s brass studied the Death Star and decided it had to build a bigger and better one. And it’s actually working.

“He took over a program that has been successful,” Saban said, “and he’s done a great job of taking it to the next level.”

Few schools could dream of reaching that next level by doing it the Alabama way. It requires a mammoth budget, access to the best recruits in the country, a rabid fan base, and the brazen vision to believe it could reproduce Alabama’s success. Georgia already had everything it needed to be and then beat Alabama. They went full Saban by hiring Smart.

Smart hasn’t beaten Saban on the field yet. But he has already done something no former Saban assistant has done: beat him at recruiting. For the last seven years, Alabama has hauled in the No. 1 class in the country. Georgia sits atop the rankings for 2018.

Smart hasn’t tried to outrun the obvious comparisons to his old boss. They’re both former defensive backs. They both built teams predicated on defense, power and physicality. They both insist on running the football. They’re both diplomatic in their responses. (There are differences between them, too. Smart wears a visor on the sidelines. Saban doesn’t.)

Alabama defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne celebrates after being selected most valuable defensive player after the Sugar Bowl.Photo: Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

But the only reason Alabama and Georgia are playing for the national title is that they didn’t have to play for the SEC title. In the days before the SEC championship between Georgia and Auburn, Smart was asked whether he was relieved that he didn’t have to spend the biggest week of his career talking about his former boss.

“I can only imagine sitting here today, if we were playing them, what the questions would be like,” he said.

Now he’s on an even bigger stage. And the only thing separating Georgia and the national title is Saban. He’s played his former assistants—coaches hired by schools that wanted to be more like Alabama—11 times in his career. He is 11-0.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com and Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com