ATLANTA - Alabama’s national championship hopes came down to fourth-and-31 with a loss and some less dramatic close calls along the way.
The Georgia Bulldogs, two-time defending champs, are still No. 1 and had a much less treacherous path to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game meeting of powerhouses Saturday in Atlanta despite some key injuries.
The Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0 SEC, No. 1 CFP) completed their third straight perfect regular season with a 31-23 win over Georgia Tech and have been atop the rankings for an SEC-record 24 consecutive weeks.
The Tide (11-1, 8-0, No. 8) trailed or were tied in the third quarter in half of their games and only beat Auburn 27-24 on Jalen Milroe’s 31-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond with 32 seconds left.
"This is what’s the biggest thing this whole football team has done is grow from tough times," said Milroe, who was benched for one game after a loss to No. 7 Texas. "I think that’s what separates us from other people. Never giving up and then the love we have for each other."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said overcoming deficits and finishing tough games has been his team’s modus operandi all year. He even used the Iron Bowl as a life lesson.
"It should be a lesson for everybody in life: Overcome adversity, man. If you have the ability to do that, you have a great chance to be successful," Saban said Saturday night.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 25: Kendall Milton #2 of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts following a touchdown during the first half against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 25, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkla (Getty Images)
It has certainly been the case for this team, which hasn’t had the seemingly smooth path as some of his six Alabama national championship teams. Georgia coach Kirby Smart, Saban’s former defensive coordinator, said Sunday that the talent level and makeup of a typical Saban team hasn’t changed all that much.
The season-long ride was bumpier, though, with plenty of people doubting Alabama could get back into this position after the Texas loss and offensive struggles against South Florida. The Tide have now won 10 straight.
"This one has been very unique," Smart said. "They play really hard. They play well together. They respond for each other. They’ve been in some tight ball games and made some bigtime comebacks in games."
The Bulldogs are favored by 5 1/2 points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook And Saban considers them "obviously" the nation’s best team.
Both teams have injury concerns.
Georgia played against Georgia Tech without tight end Brock Bowers (ankle) and wide receivers Ladd McConkey (ankle) and Rara Thomas (foot sprain). Right guard Tate Ratledge (knee) also was held out.
Smart said Bowers was the closest to being able to play against the Yellow Jackets with soreness in his surgically repaired left ankle, and Ratledge could have gone but wasn’t 100%. Smart didn’t have any update Sunday on the players’ status.
Alabama tailback Jase McCellan tweaked a left foot injury in the Iron Bowl and Saban said he would be "day to day this week." He had 15 carries for 66 yards against Auburn.
It’s the third time Saban and Smart have met in the SEC Championship Game, with Saban winning the first two. But on their last meeting, Georgia rallied for a 33-18 victory in the national championship game in January 2022. It was the Bulldogs’ first title in 41 years, and now they’re going for three in a row.
"There’s always things that haunt you when you don’t have success," Saban said. "They outplayed us the last 10-11 minutes of the game. You always want your team to be able to finish."
Now, his team must win the rematch to have a shot at making the College Football Playoff.