Nick Saban: LSU vs Alabama

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban takes to the field before the start of the game against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

Different shades of red blanketed the interior of Mercedes-Benz Stadium the first Saturday of December.

Fans clad in crimson and bright red filled the stands. Screens flashed the color, alternating between logos of Alabama and Georgia. 

Playing a rematch of the 2018 College Football Playoff title game, Georgia and Alabama provided one of the most dramatic endings to a college football game last season in the Southeastern Conference Championship. 

The Crimson Tide rallied down 14 points in the second half. Backup quarterback Jalen Hurts scored the winning touchdown with about a minute left. Crimson filled the screens — just as it had 11 months earlier — while confetti dropped.

As college football approaches the beginning of the 2019 season, can anyone prevent a rematch? Or will the SEC championship turn into Alabama-Georgia Part III?

Alabama has dominated the league for a decade. Since 2009, the Tide has won six conference titles, including four of the last five. Every August, it seems this season someone is ready to unseat Alabama. But the Crimson Tide has always reloaded. 

Last year, Alabama lost its entire starting secondary. It had a quarterback battle rage into the first game. Nick Saban had to hire new offensive and defensive coordinators. Then Alabama took an undefeated record into the CFP championship game — a 44-16 loss to Clemson that embarrassed the Tide. 

At SEC media days in July, Saban spoke often about re-establishing the standard of Alabama football. The Crimson Tide didn’t play with discipline at the end of the year, he said, which affected their preparation for the national championship game.

“I think that our players learned a lot from that experience,” Saban said. “I don't think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.”

Saban added: “Hopefully we learned from those scenarios, and it will help us do the things that we need to do to be able to play to our full potential throughout this season.”

The past two years, Georgia has come closer to overtaking Alabama than any team except Clemson. The Bulldogs won the 2017 SEC championship, their first since 2005. Then Alabama snuck into the playoffs and beat Georgia in an overtime thriller for the national title.

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Georgia, under Kirby Smart, has turned itself into a championship contender and the team to beat in the SEC East. A longtime Saban assistant, Smart has modeled his program much like Alabama.

During Smart’s four-year tenure, Georgia has often adopted a mantra. It used “keep chopping” in 2017. This year, the Bulldogs’ phrase is “do more.”

“We understand how close we've been to taking the next step,” Smart said last month. “And although 24-5 the last two seasons is good, it's not good enough.”

A handful of teams could prevent a conference championship rematch.

LSU beat Georgia soundly last season — and coming off a win in the Fiesta Bowl and a 10-3 record, the Tigers feel confident. They have a new offense and a reliable quarterback. They also have not beaten Alabama since 2011.

Florida improved in its first season under coach Dan Mullen. So did Texas A&M with Jimbo Fisher.

Auburn is the only SEC team to have defeated Alabama the past three seasons, and it won the Western Division in 2017. But coach Gus Malzahn, who reclaimed play-calling duties in the offseason, must revitalize an offense with a freshman quarterback.

Georgia and Alabama enter this season as popular choices for the playoff. Five-star recruits fill their rosters. They’re strong along the lines of scrimmage. They both return star junior quarterbacks in Jake Fromm (Georgia) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama).

They also have questions to answer. The Bulldogs have almost no experience at wide receiver. The Crimson Tide needs to build depth at inside linebacker. Saban and Smart had to replace both coordinators.

But look at the preseason polls.

The Crimson Tide is No. 2. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 3.

Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC West, Georgia the SEC East.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium could look red again.

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