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September 26, 2008
Georgia opened the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, but the Bulldogs' treacherous schedule earned nearly as much preseason attention as their talent-laden roster.
Conventional wisdom indicated the Bulldogs would slip up during back-to-back trips to South Carolina and Arizona State, or they'd never make it unscathed through a four-game stretch when they left Athens to play LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn.
Saturday night's showdown with Alabama (4-0 overall, 1-0 in the SEC) rarely was mentioned as one of the Bulldogs' potential potholes, yet it now shapes up as by far the biggest hurdle Georgia (4-0, 1-0) has faced so far.
Alabama has won its first four games by an average margin of 26.8 points ? including blowouts of Arkansas and preseason ACC favorite Clemson ? and hardly resembles the team that dropped its final four regular-season contests a year ago. The Tide instead seem poised to prove they belong alongside Georgia, Florida and LSU as the SEC elite teams this season.
"They have been tested," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "They just have whipped everybody so bad it didn't seem like they were. To play a top-10 team like Clemson and play Arkansas the way they did, they made it seem like they weren't tested. They are a dominant team right now and a very confident team right now."
Richt underscored the importance of this game by announcing the Bulldogs would break out their black jerseys Saturday. Georgia wore black jerseys for the first time since the 1940s last year and responded with a 45-20 victory over Auburn. The Bulldogs were back in black later in the season for a 41-10 Sugar Bowl triumph over Hawaii.
If the black jerseys bring out the best in Georgia once again, it could help the third-ranked Bulldogs regain the No. 1 ranking they've lost - despite remaining unbeaten - since the start of the season. "It gives us another platform to make a statement to the nation that we deserve to be among the best in the nation," Bulldogs linebacker Rennie Curran said.
This also represents a statement game for Alabama.
Alabama routed Clemson 34-10 at the Georgia Dome in its season opener. If the Tide can beat a top-10 team away from home for the second time this season, they could establish themselves as a contender for the national title.
"These are the kinds of games that you should come to a place like the University of Alabama to play in," Tide coach Nick Saban said.
This showdown between top-10 teams features plenty of intriguing individual matchups. Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno is a legitimate Heisman candidate who already has rushed for nine touchdowns this season, but he faces an Alabama defense that allowed zero net rushing yards against Clemson and hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season.
Although Georgia has Moreno in its backfield, the Bulldogs don't lead the SEC in rushing. That honor belongs to Alabama, which should face a stiff test against a Georgia defense that leads the conference and ranks third in the nation against the run.
This game also showcases two of the nation's most dynamic true freshman wide receivers. Alabama's Julio Jones has caught three touchdown passes in his first four games, while Georgia's A.J. Green had eight receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown last week in a 27-10 victory over Arizona State.
"If you are a competitor, you like to compete in games where great players are going to be out there," Saban said. "You can see how well you get your team prepared to play in a challenging situation. Obviously there will be a lot of adversity to overcome. Most great competitive situations offer that challenge."
This situation also offers Alabama a chance for revenge. The Tide rallied from a 20-10 deficit to force overtime against Georgia last year, but the Bulldogs won 26-23 on Matthew Stafford's 25-yard touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson in the extra session.
With both teams undefeated, the stakes are even higher in Saturday's rematch.
"Last year's game was two teams evenly matched," Richt said. "It ended up going into overtime. We made one more play than they did, and that was the end of it. I can't imagine it will be any different than it was a year ago."
Moreno's quest to continue his Heisman candidacy against Alabama DT Terrence Cody and Co. will earn more attention, but Alabama's attempts to run the ball against Georgia could prove equally important. Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram have developed into one of the nation's more productive tailback tandems while giving Alabama the nation's 14th-ranked rushing attack. Coffee has rushed for 404 yards and has averaged 8.6 yards per carry. Ingram has rushed for four touchdowns and 263 yards while gaining 6.1 yards per attempt. Then again, they haven't faced a defense this stingy. Georgia ranks third in the nation against the run and has allowed just under 2.0 yards per carry. No opposing running back has rushed for more than 60 yards against the Bulldogs this season.
John Parker Wilson threw six interceptions during the four-game losing streak that ended Alabama's regular season in 2007, but he has done a much better job of avoiding mistakes this season. Wilson has thrown five touchdowns and has been picked off only once in Alabama's first four games. Alabama hasn't relied on Wilson to do too much; it has run the ball and played defense well enough to win as long as Wilson avoided mistakes. This week, he may have to be more of a playmaker than a caretaker. Wilson will look primarily to Jones, who leads the Tide with 132 receiving yards. Georgia is 54th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, but that's not necessarily an accurate measure of the Bulldogs' secondary. Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter only got the Sun Devils into the end zone once last week, and Carpenter is a stronger quarterback than Wilson and arguably has better receivers at his disposal.
Moreno hasn't had to find running room against anyone like Cody, Alabama's 365-pound run-stuffer deluxe. Then again, Cody hasn't faced anyone as good as Moreno. Alabama did hold Clemson to zero rushing yards earlier this year, but the Tigers' decision to abandon the running game early made things easier for Alabama. Georgia doesn't figure to repeat that mistake. Moreno gained 149 yards against Arizona State last week and already has rushed for nine touchdowns this season. Moreno's ability to reach the century mark Saturday could depend on how well Georgia's young offensive line creates running room against Alabama's formidable front four. Moreno probably won't be as dominant as usual Saturday, but he still ought to break the 75-yard mark and should reach the end zone at least once.
Matthew Stafford's arrival as one of the nation's top quarterbacks occurred the moment he threw the winning touchdown pass against Alabama in overtime last season. Alabama ranks 13th in the nation in pass efficiency defense this season and has recorded six interceptions while allowing three touchdown passes. Alabama entered the season with two of the SEC's top defensive backs in strong safety Rashad Johnson and cornerback Kareem Jackson, but special-teams ace Javier Arenas has proved he can make big plays at cornerback. Arenas recorded a sack two weeks ago against Western Kentucky and scored on a 63-yard interception return against Arkansas last week. In fact, Alabama picked off four passes against Arkansas and returned two for touchdowns. Stafford is a much better quarterback than Arkansas' Casey Dick, but Alabama's secondary may be dangerous enough to goad him into mistakes Saturday night.
Alabama has one of the nation's top return men in Arenas, who has brought back a punt for a touchdown four times in his career. Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin is 6-for-8 on field-goal attempts this season and has made a 54-yarder, but he also has gone just 1-for-3 from at least 40 yards. Alabama punter P.J. Fitzgerald is averaging 41.4 yards per attempt. One of the biggest questions surrounding Georgia before the season was how true freshman kicker Blair Walsh would handle the pressure of stepping right in for a national title contender. Walsh has gone 5-for-7 and has made a 52-yarder, but how will he respond if he's called on to make a kick with a game on the line in the final minute? Georgia punter Brian Mimbs is averaging 42.1 yards per attempt. Arenas' impact makes the difference here.
Saban has the national championship that's missing for Richt, but Richt's career record of 76-19 is superior to Saban's mark of 102-48-1. Saban won two head-to-head matchups with Richt during LSU's 2003 championship series, but Richt's team beat LSU in 2004 and knocked off Alabama last year in Saban's first season with the Tide. Alabama ended the regular season with a four-game losing streak in Saban's first year. Georgia never has lost more than four games in one season since Richt's arrival in 2001. Both coaches lead talented staffs. The matchup between Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez should be interesting. McElwain has done a good job of helping Wilson reduce his mistakes this year, while Martinez is one of the nation's more promising assistants.
Alabama needs to control the clock with the Coffee-Ingram combination and keep Stafford and Moreno on the sideline as much as possible. The Tide also probably needs to keep Moreno below the 100-yard mark. Even if both those things happen, Alabama probably still needs Wilson to make a couple of big plays in the passing game without throwing more than one interception.
The Bulldogs need to hold Alabama's running game in check and force Wilson to beat them. Georgia also needs to make sure its offense maintains the potency it showed against Arizona State last week instead of playing the way it did two weeks ago at South Carolina. Georgia probably wins as long as Moreno rushes for at least 100 yards.
The first quarter. These teams are so evenly matched that this game could come down to the final minute. Then again, considering the way both play, it could be decided by which squad gets off to a better start. Alabama has outscored opponents 64-0 in the first quarter, and Georgia hasn't allowed a point in the first period this season. Alabama needs to grab an early lead because that will allow the Tide to focus on the running game - and take some pressure off Wilson.
Steve Megargee: Georgia 24, Alabama 17
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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