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How Nick Saban has shaped the recent history of Georgia football

For 13 seasons and counting, Nick Saban has lorded over the SEC like a fog that won't lift.

And while it's true that nearly every SEC program's history over this period can be defined by their attempts to catch up to, compete with, emulate or in some ways outfox Saban -- I say nearly because you can probably exclude Vanderbilt and Missouri from this list -- that's especially true for Georgia.

What's striking about that statement is Alabama and Georgia don't play all that often. They're in separate divisions and not permanent cross-over rivals. But when the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs do meet, it always tends to be a high-stakes affair with two common themes: 1) Alabama wins, and 2) Georgia deals with the fallout from that loss for years to come.

It's not technically true that Georgia has never beaten a Nick Saban-led Alabama team. The Bulldogs beat Saban's first Tide team, in 2007, in a game best remembered by ESPN play-by-play man Mike Patrick throwing out the biggest non-sequitur in sports broadcasting history.

As Georgia prepares to make its first trip to Tuscaloosa since the Britney Spears Game, with the Bulldogs ranked No. 3 and the Tide No. 2, it's time to take a trip down memory lane to see just how we got here.

The stakes: On the heels of an 11-2 season, a Rose Bowl win and a No. 2 final ranking, Georgia entered 2008 as the No. 1 team in the country for the first and, to this day, only time in program history. With Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno in the background, no Mark Richt team ever enjoyed this much firepower. Georgia didn't quite play to their paper over their first four games -- they actually dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 -- but they still entered the game undefeated and, nominally, as the SEC favorite.

Alabama, meanwhile, had entered 2008 at No. 24 but rocketed up to No. 8 by the time their Sept. 27 date with Georgia arrived, thanks in large part to a 34-10 blowout of No. 10 Clemson on opening night. The Crimson Tide were comin', and they knew it.

The game: Alabama absolutely steamrolled Georgia from the opening kickoff. The Tide jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead, scoring on all five first half possessions, before easing into a deceptively-close 41-30 final score.

The fallout: This was the night the Saban Dynasty was born, and Alabama has been a 10,000-ton freight train ever since. The Tide would roll through the 2008 regular season unbeaten before falling to eventual national champion Florida in the SEC Championship. Georgia went 10-3 and won the Citrus Bowl.

The stakes: This was a College Football Playoff semifinal before the CFP existed. Notre Dame secured a spot in the BCS National Championship a week prior; No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia would battle for the other spot in the Georgia Dome. Rarely in college football were the stakes so clear and so tangible.

The game: In one of the best games of the decade, the lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter. Alabama erased a 21-10 deficit with two straight touchdowns, then Georgia moved back ahead 28-25 just five plays later. Alabama see-sawed back in front with a 45-yard touchdown grab by Amari Cooper with 3:15 to play. The Bulldogs went three-and-out on their next touch (their second straight), but managed to get the ball back with enough time to race down the field -- from their own 15-yard line to Alabama's 8.

With the clock rolling and just five seconds to play, Aaron Murray's final pass was tipped and caught five yards short of glory.

The fallout: A game that looked, felt and played like a national title game basically was the national title game. Alabama demolished Notre Dame 42-14, while Georgia's SEC title drought stretched to seven years and its national title drought grew to 32. Alabama won four over that span.

The stakes:
 Alabama's bid to repeat as SEC champions appeared in serious jeopardy as the Tide loaded up for Athens. Saban's team, ranked No. 13, had already dropped a game to Ole Miss, and a setback here would place the Tide at an unthinkable 0-2 in SEC play. Georgia was 4-0, ranked No. 8 and averaging 45 points per game. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer could pop Nick Chubb and Sony Michel free enough times that Georgia could bury Alabama in the Athens mud.

The game: Yeah, pretty much none of that happened. Chubb did run for 148 yards, but Georgia could not throw the ball -- 3.4 yards per attempt, three interceptions -- and, in one of the most miserable days in the history of Georgia football, Alabama throttled Georgia 38-10 in a driving rain.

The fallout: Though he would coach the remainder of the regular season, the Mark Richt era ended that day. Tired of being good but not good enough, Georgia said goodbye to Richt and his 145-51 record two months later. UGA would hire Kirby Smart as his replacement, hoping to duplicate Nick Saban's formula while simultaneously weakening their rival from within.

In Tuscaloosa, Derrick Henry would win the Heisman Trophy, and the Tide would win their fourth national title of the Saban era.

The stakes: Georgia's bet worked, to a point. Bama was still Bama, but Georgia was now its own version of Bama, too. Smart's second Georgia claimed the program's first SEC championship since 2005 and met Alabama for the national crown -- in Atlanta, of all places.

(Side note: Both teams were extremely fortunate to reach this game. Georgia overcame a 31-14 deficit in its Rose Bowl semifinal, while Alabama had to overcome its status as a non-division winner who lost its last regular season game.)

The game: Bulldog fans will tell you only Georgia can lose a game it never trailed. UGA led 13-0 at the half and 20-7 in the third quarter, but never made the plays to put it away. Georgia's offense gained 142 yards after halftime -- 93 on one touchdown drive, and 49 on the other seven. Meanwhile, Bama's offense came alive behind precocious freshman Tua Tagovailoa.

Everyone remembers the 2nd-and-26 bomb that won it, but the Tua throw that astonished me was finding Calvin Ridley in the back of the end zone amid a sea of red and white jerseys on a 4th-and-4 with 3:49 left in regulation.

The fallout: Obvious and immediate -- Alabama danced in confetti, the winner of its fifth title of the Saban era. Georgia returned home, its title drought now reaching 37 years.

The stakes:
There's a distinct history in sports of teams suffering crushing defeats, then coming back stronger to win it the following year. The 2018-19 Kansas City Chiefs, 2018-19 Virginia basketball, the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning all come to mind. Georgia had a chance to join them in the SEC Championship -- an opportunity to reach the College Football Playoff in back-to-back years, to win consecutive SEC crowns for the first time since taking three straight from 1980-82, and to end Alabama's repeat bid.

The game: Georgia somehow managed to lead or tie Alabama for 118:56 of clock time over a 2-game span and go 0-2 in those games. The Bulldogs built leads of 21-7 and 28-14 and could not hold them, as this time Jalen Hurts replaced Tua and sparked a comeback, completing a 21-0 rally on a 15-yard keeper with 1:04 left in the game.

The fallout: Alabama went to the Playoff, where the Tide blew out Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl before being blown out themselves by Clemson in the championship game. Georgia lost to Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

And that brings us to today.

Though it's a game of AP Top 3 teams, the stakes for Saturday night's game are arguably the lowest they've been since 2007. It's a non-divisional game, after all, and both teams are expected to win their respective divisions. This could be the first of two, or maybe even three, Alabama-Georgia games this season.

All that aside, we've got a decade of evidence that Georgia's path to the top of the mountain runs straight through Tuscaloosa. They have to beat Saban at some point, and Saturday's as good a time as any to start.