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How losing to Alabama set Georgia on the course to playing the Tide for the national title

It was an Alabama-Georgia game that started the Nick Saban dynasty in Tuscaloosa. After a 7-6 debut season, Alabama opened the 2008 season with a 34-10 blowout of No. 9 Clemson in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta -- a game that played a large role in pushing Dabo Swinney into the big chair at Clemson, but that's a story for another day -- and then rolled through Tulane, Western Kentucky and Arkansas to begin 4-0 and climb to No. 8 in the AP poll. On Sept. 27, Alabama headed to Athens to face undefeated Georgia. Led by Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, the Bulldogs began that season ranked No. 1, and were No. 3 at the time they hosted Alabama. It was the first time since 2005 that Alabama played in a game pitting Top 10 teams, a game the Tide lost to a Nick Saban-led LSU team.

If you remember this game at all, you remember that Georgia wore black jerseys. And if you remember that, you definitely remember what Tide strength coach told his team ahead of that game: "They're wearing black because they're going to a motherf***ing funeral."

Alabama proved Cochran right. The Tide scored on all five first half possessions, jumped out to a 31-0 lead and quite literally has not slowed down since.

It was another Alabama-Georgia game that cost Mark Richt his untouchable status at Georgia. The 2012 SEC Championship pitted No. 2 Alabama against No. 3 Georgia, with the winner facing No. 1 Notre Dame for the national championship.

Georgia led 21-10 midway through the second quarter, fell behind 25-21, then jutted back ahead 28-25 in the fourth quarter. Alabama regained a 32-28 lead with 3:15 remaining. Georgia went three-and-out, but then forced a Tide punt to get the ball back at its own 15 with 1:02 remaining. Quarterback Aaron Murray piloted the Bulldogs to the Alabama 8 with 15 seconds to play. With no timeouts, the clock ticked, and ticked, and ticked. A complete pass would hand Georgia an SEC and almost certain national championship, and hand Richt legend status in Athens.

Georgia completed the pass, but it was three yards short.

Alabama rolled through Notre Dame a month later, scoring the game's first 35 points in a 42-14 demolition. Georgia almost certainly would've done the same. Instead, the red and black played Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl and Georgia's thirst for glory remained unquenched.

"Had we won in 2012 against Alabama and won the national championship, does Coach Richt get fired? Probably not," Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught the pass that took Georgia to the Alabama 8 in that SEC title loss, told ESPN this week. "But once we didn't win it, we kind of hit a little lull and people higher up wanted a new face of the program and new juice."

It was the most recent Alabama-Georgia game that got Kirby Smart the Georgia job he holds today. On Oct. 3, 2015, undefeated and eighth-ranked Georgia hosted No. 13 Alabama in a referendum game for Richt. A win would announce Georgia as a serious national title contender while doing something that has been done only once since Nick Saban's Crimson Tide Killing Machine became fully operational in 2008: knock Alabama out of the SEC and national championship hunt during the regular season. The Tide had already lost to Ole Miss at home two weeks earlier, and a second loss would do them in for that season.

That didn't happen.

On a rainy day in Athens, Alabama flat out blew the doors off of Georgia. The game was knotted at 3-3 for the first 20 minutes, but turned quickly after that. Alabama ripped off five touchdowns in a 13-minute span over the second and third quarters, dealing a knock out blow to the Richt era at Georgia. The Bulldogs wouldn't officially move on from Richt until Georgia's 9-3 regular season was complete, but the 15-year Richt tenure effectively ended that day on the soggy field of Sanford Stadium.

You can watch the highlights here, featuring some of the same cast of characters that will decide the national championship on Monday night.

Georgia saw exactly how far the distance was from Good to Elite, and it knew what step to take to get there.

For example: This anecdote from an Andy Staples column last month:

When Smart accepted the job, McGarity didn’t issue marching orders. He asked questions. What did Smart now need from the administration to build a championship program? “He needed to educate us,” McGarity says, “about what it meant to go big-time.”

Many programs before and since Georgia attempted to rip of Saban's trademark Process with a Saban understudy, but not a program with Georgia's resources and not with the Saban understudy in Kirby Smart. Smart worked for Saban as his defensive backs coach at LSU for the 2004 season -- you don't coach defensive backs for Saban unless you can really coach -- and had been with him since 2006 -- as the safeties coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2006, as defensive backs coach again at Alabama in 2007 and then as defensive coordinator from 2008 on.

Two years in, that gamble has paid off in spades. In fact, Smart's Georgia is actually ahead of where Saban was at this point in his tenure. After a retrenching debut season, both saw their Process realized in Year 2. Except Saban didn't make it out of the SEC in his year 2 of 2008; Alabama went unbeaten in the '08 regular season, but was slain by eventual national champion Florida in the SEC Championship and later flattened by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

And here Smart sits in Year 2, looking to become:

  • The first coach to lead Georgia to a national championship in 36 years
  • The first coach to win a national championship inside of his third year as a head coach since Larry Coker at Miami in 2001
  • The first coach to beat Saban at his own game

Not only has no former assistant ever beaten Saban, none of them have even come close. To beat Saban on this stage -- with many of the same players that were humiliated in the 2015 game, plus a quarterback in Jake Fromm that was committed to Alabama until Smart swiped him -- would be to turn Frankenstein's Monster on Frankenstein himself. In front of 25 million people.

Georgia has a chance to win a national championship and supplant Alabama as the premier program in the SEC and nationally on Monday night.

But first, Georgia had to lose to Alabama.