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‘Bama, Georgia vie for national title in SEC showcase

ATLANTA — Alabama and Georgia showed that talk of the Southeastern Conference losing some of its might was very much overblown.

At least at the top, the SEC still owns bragging rights in college football.

A ninth national title in the past 12 seasons is for the conference as the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs meet Monday night in the heart of SEC country at Atlanta’s new $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Alabama, playing in its third straight College Football Playoff championship game, is seeking its fifth national title in nine years under coach Nick Saban.

Georgia, which hired former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart away from Alabama two years ago, is trying to join the recent list of SEC winners after not claiming the national championship since the 1980 season.

“I’m proud of the SEC and I’m proud of the competition in our league,” Saban said. “Kirby has done a great job and has Georgia playing really well.”

The only other time that two teams from the same conference played for the title was at the end of the 2011 season, when it was also an SEC exclusive. Alabama defeated Louisiana State near the end of the two-team Bowl Championship Series, which began with the 1998 season.

Since the four-team playoff debuted for the 2014 season, no conference had gained more than one representative until this season, and many voiced displeasure that Alabama — which didn’t make the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta — was included along with Georgia.

The Crimson Tide (12-1) showed they belonged, though, with a 24-6 victory over defending national champ Clemson at the Sugar Bowl in a semifinal rematch of last year’s title game.

“We wanted to prove that the naysayers and doubters were wrong and we hadn’t lost anything,” said Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who had a key interception and even caught a touchdown pass against Clemson.

Georgia (13-1) had already assured that one SEC team would be playing for the title by edging Oklahoma 54-48 in double-overtime at the Rose Bowl on Sony Michel’s touchdown run. The Bulldogs rallied from a 31-14 deficit in the second quarter to beat the Sooners.

“They say adversity kind of reveals character,” Smart said. “I think it exposes character, for sure. We found out we’ve got a pretty good character team.”

Smart, a former All-SEC safety at Georgia, was “really disappointed and upset” with Georgia’s defense, though, against Oklahoma, saying it “stunk it up” most of the game.

There were no complaints about the Alabama defense against Clemson from Saban or anyone else. The Crimson Tide held the Tigers to 188 total yards and two field goals.

“We had wanted to prove ourselves to the world, because I think we felt a little disrespected,” Payne said.

Saban compared the effort to the one Alabama turned in against LSU in a 21-0 victory for the 2011 national championship.

“I thought the defense played with a ferocious, relentless sort of ‘I-won’t-be-denied attitude,'” Saban said.

That 2011 all-SEC finale was a rematch from the regular season, with LSU having edged Alabama 9-6 in a battle of field goals.

Alabama and Georgia, in different divisions of the 14-team SEC, have played just four times in Saban’s 11 years in Tuscaloosa, with all except the first meeting a loss for the Bulldogs.

The most painful for Georgia was the 2012 SEC Championship Game, with a late drive falling just short in a 32-28 loss to an Alabama team that went on to crush Notre Dame in the BCS title game.

The last regular-season meeting was in 2015, with Alabama rolling 38-10 at Athens, Ga. Smart wasn’t scheduled to face his former boss until 2020 at Tuscaloosa.

The timetable has moved up. Both coaches are trying to downplay the mentor-pupil part of matchup.

“I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players,” Saban said.

Georgia running backs Michel and Nick Chubb combined for 326 yards rushing and five touchdowns against Oklahoma, with Michel also scoring on a pass from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm.

“We finally get to play for something big,” Michel said of the title game.

The Georgia campus is only about 70 miles from Atlanta, and Alabama’s campus is about 200, driving resale tickets prices higher than for any of the three previous CFP title games.

“It’s great to be able to play in our own backyard,” Fromm said.

Georgia defeated Auburn 28-7 in the SEC title game, avenging a regular-season loss, but Alabama, whose only loss was also to the Tigers, has experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as well.

Alabama defeated Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and has turned Atlanta into a home away from home, winning three SEC title games and a CFP semifinal at the Georgia Dome.

The Crimson Tide are 6-0 in the Georgia capital overall since 2014.

“We treat Atlanta like it’s our home,” Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson said. “We win a lot of games there.”

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