Nick Saban has coached only five games against Georgia (winning three), but two rank as watersheds. As Alabama readies to play the Bulldogs for the SEC championship, we pause to reflect on the role this infrequent opponent has played in the career of the man considered college football’s best coach.
Georgia at LSU, Sept. 20, 2003: This game came early in Saban’s fourth season at LSU at a time when he was considered just another good football man. He had worked five seasons at Michigan State without winning the Big Ten or gracing a significant bowl. His first three years in Baton Rouge had showed promise — the 2001 Tigers won the SEC Western Division with three league losses but upset No. 2 Tennessee for the league title — but LSU went 8-5 in 2002.
Coming off a 13-1 season and its first SEC championship since 1982, Georgia arrived at Tiger Stadium ranked No. 7 to LSU’s No. 11. The Bulldogs were in their third season under Mark Richt, and it had begun with a 30-0 win at Clemson. Indeed, Georgia went to Baton Rouge having yet to lose in an opponent’s stadium under Richt.
The Bulldogs outgained the Tigers 411 yards to 285, but the usually precise David Greene threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and the usually unerring Billy Bennett missed three field-goal attempts. The Tigers led 10-3 with five minutes remaining and were positioned to seal the deal. But linebacker Odell Thurman caused quarterback Matt Mauck to fumble inside the Bulldog 20, and Georgia took the ball on its 7. Whereupon Richt, who then served as his own offensive coordinator, ordered up a screen pass named “Texas” to Tyson Browning, and the running back whooshed 93 yards to score the tying touchdown with 4:16 to play.
Devery Henderson returned the kickoff to the LSU 49. (Watching the tape, Georgia coaches would later note that two Tigers blockers — forget simply holding — had actually tackled Georgia men. Nothing was called.) With 1:16 left, Mauck threw deep to an open Skyler Green, who wasn’t supposed to targeted on the play, for the winning touchdown.
Said Glenn Guilbeau, the Baton Rouge writer who covers LSU for Gannett: “That’s when LSU became a national contender for the first time since the 1987 team (coached by Mike Archer, quarterbacked by Tommy Hodson) … Georgia kind of came in as the favorite; it was on the way to the national championship. I remember talking to Chris Fowler and the ESPN crew later in the season, and they said, ‘We thought Georgia outplayed them that day.’ ”
The Bulldogs and Tigers would meet again for the SEC title in the Dome, but by then the Tigers clearly were the superior team. They beat Georgia 34-14 and trumped Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the BCS title, the first of Saban’s three. Richt would later say: “We missed our chance at them down there.”
Said Guilbeau: “I remember talking to Matt Mauck before Georgia came back down here in 2008, and he said, ‘We always thought that (first 2003) Georgia game was the one that put us on the map.’ ”
Alabama at Georgia, Sept. 27, 2008: Once again, Georgia entered ranked higher — No. 3 to Alabama’s No. 8. The Bulldogs opened the season ranked No. 1, but slid after some indifferent early victories. Having returned to the college game for a princely sum of $4 million per annum after two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Saban was coming off a strange Year 1 in Tuscaloosa. His team had started 3-0 before losing to Georgia in overtime, and the Tide would finish 7-6. (A home loss to Louisiana-Monroe marked the nadir.)
Alabama began the 2008 season ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll, but upset Clemson 34-10 in the Georgia Dome in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. Said Cecil Hurt, who covers Alabama for the Tuscaloosa News: “They were really physical and they dominated. That opened a lot of eyes.”
Beating an ACC opponent on a neutral field wasn’t quite the test that Georgia, which had gone 10-2 in 2007 and finished No. 2 in the Associated Poll, would be. As a bonus, the Bulldogs had designated that night as a Blackout, for which the team donned black jerseys and the fans got duly geeked. (Hey, it worked in 2007 against Auburn.)
Halftime score: Alabama 31, Georgia 0.
Bama scored on its first five possessions, hitting Georgia with a combination of power (Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram pounding, Andre Smith blocking) and precision (the freshman Julio Jones catching four first-half passes for 79 yards and a touchdown) that was breathtaking to behold. The Bulldogs made comeback noises in the second half before losing 41-30, and afterward Saban spent his media briefing fussing over his team’s perceived letdown. “I know I don’t look happy,” he said, “but I am.”
Said Hurt: “That first half, when they were so dominant, really created a lot of buzz that this team could contend for an SEC and BCS title. … It set the tone for the next three or four years.”
Beating Georgia in 2003 and 2008 didn’t just boost Saban’s programs; those games also served to arrest Georgia’s momentum. Richt won the SEC title in 2002 but has won only one — in 2005, when his Bulldogs upset LSU under Les Miles, who succeeded Saban — since. Georgia really wasn’t a serious national player after the Blackout wipeout of 2008, but now it is.
And who’s barring the Bulldogs’ path to Miami? That man yet again.
By Mark Bradley