For No. 1 Georgia, the past is the past vs. Alabama

11/30/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart (left) and University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban (right) stand for a photo with the SEC Championship trophy during a press conference at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Friday, November 30, 2018. Georgia will play the University of Alabama in the 2018 SEC Championship game on Saturday (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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11/30/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart (left) and University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban (right) stand for a photo with the SEC Championship trophy during a press conference at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Friday, November 30, 2018. Georgia will play the University of Alabama in the 2018 SEC Championship game on Saturday (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

ATHENS – Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban addressed the elephant in the room Sunday night.

As they prepare their nationally-ranked teams to meet for the fourth time in the last five years – the next one being in Saturday’s SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS) – they were asked if what has happened in those other encounters has any bearing on what transpires in the latest one.

The dynamic is decidedly different this time around. It’s the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0 SEC) that are coming in as the favorite. Las Vegas betting houses were posting Georgia as a 4.0-6.5 point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com.

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But it’s not like the Bulldogs have been intimidated coming into the previous meetings. Yes, Georgia as lost six in a row in the series, but Kirby Smart was the Bulldogs’ coach for only the last three. In each of those, his teams carried a lead into the second half. Georgia lost 26-23 in overtime of the 2017 national championship game, 35-28 in the 2018 SEC Championship game and 41-24 last year in Tuscaloosa.

“I think what has happened in the past in games really doesn't have a lot of impact on what happens in the future. I think we've got to line up and play well in this game. So, what happened last year doesn't matter, what happened the year before doesn't matter. You've got to play well in this game. So that's the challenge that we all have."

- Alabama coach Nick Saban

“Obviously, this year is this year and those years were those years and every year is independent of any previous year,” Smart said on the SEC Championship coaches’ teleconference call Sunday night. “I don’t think there’s any overlap between the two. I know people want to make it some kind of overlap, but every year is independent of the previous one. Our job is go play the best possible game we can and that’s what we’ve been trying to build towards this year. We haven’t played our best yet and we think our best is still out there and that’s our goal.”

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Georgia’s record against Alabama over the years (25-41-4) is nothing to brag about. But it’s not much different than most every SEC team, particularly during the regimes of Nick Saban and Bear Bryant. Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher became the first of Saban’s former assistants to defeat him when the Aggies won in College Station, Texas, earlier this season.

Saban enters Saturday’s game 24-1 against his former charges. Smart, who counts himself as one of those, is 0-3.

Immaterial, Saban said.

“I think what has happened in the past in games really doesn’t have a lot of impact on what happens in the future,” said Saban, who employed Smart as his defensive coordinator from 2008-15. “I think we’ve got to line up and play well in this game. So, what happened last year doesn’t matter, what happened the year before doesn’t matter. You’ve got to play well in this game. So that’s the challenge that we all have.”

As for this year’s matchup, it is one of the most anticipated games of the year. Both teams opened the season as Top 5 teams, with Alabama as No. 1, and so they were expected end up on opposite sidelines in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They arrive with the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) sporting the SEC’s top offense (42.7 ppg) and, Georgia the top defense in the nation (6.9 ppg).

Early pregame analyses favor the Bulldogs based on two main factors: SEC comparatives and cumulative fatigue.

The Crimson Tide come to Atlanta on the heels of back-to-back wars. Alabama needed four overtimes to defeat Auburn 24-22 well into the night on Saturday and had to fight tooth and nail to dispatch Arkansas 42-35 the previous week.

Conversely, Georgia is coming off a breezy 45-0 win over Georgia Tech in which most of the starters sat in the second half. That came a week after those same starters played a single quarter of the 56-7 victory over Charleston Southern.

Both coaches acknowledged there being residual physical and psychological effects, but none so great as to be very impactful.

“These guys are young and they’ve got plenty of time to recover,” said Saban, who will be leading Alabama into its ninth SEC title game since 2008. “I think probably psychologically is more important, as far as how you look at what’s coming up. I think sometimes that can get affected by what happened in the last game. Hopefully, getting the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country, our players will look at it like a real challenge.”

Meanwhile Georgia won its SEC games by an average margin of 33.1 points, while Alabama’s SEC games were decidedly closer at 12.8 points per game. The teams played four common opponents in Arkansas, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. The Bulldogs beat those opponents by an average margin of 28 points compared to Bama’s 9.7.

But could that also mean that Georgia hasn’t been tested enough?

“I don’t know; I think you have to find that out,” Smart said. “The team we’re coaching out here every day, they’ve been through some adversity. I can assure you of that. We make for adverse situations every day in practice. We challenge them each and every day.”

Georgia fans can recite chapter and verse what happened in each of the last two meetings in The Benz. They’ll say things like “Tyler Simmons wasn’t offsides” and “second-and-26″ and “ill-fated fake punt.”

Smart insists that none that will matter on Saturday, nor will Georgia’s six-game losing streak to the Tide, or Saban’s record against assistants.

“We focus on ourselves; we focus on execution; we don’t focus on history,” Smart said. “I just think every team is independent of the previous. So, it is what it is. Our guys have to go out and play well. What happened in those games will have no relevance to this game. Anybody with any coaching sense will tell you that.”

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