After thriller, Dogs host Bama with more at stake

Published 5:49 pm Friday, September 26, 2008

ATHENS, Ga. – A.J. Green was watching the game on television, still a few months away from enrolling at Georgia. He knew the Bulldogs had it when Matthew Stafford let go of the pass.

Mikey Henderson got a step on the Alabama defender. The ball arrived just in the nick of time.

Touchdown, Georgia.

Game over.

“I was watching at my house,” said Green, now a freshman receiver for the Bulldogs. “That was a crazy game. It was fun, though. When they put Mikey out there, I said, ‘Throw the fade to him. He’s going to outrun them anyway.’ As soon as Stafford threw it, I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”

That was a year ago. The Bulldogs turned their season around with the overtime win in Tuscaloosa, going on to finish No. 2 in the nation. Alabama took a turn for the worse, barely nudging above .500 by the time 2007 was done.

On Saturday, these two Southeastern Conference powerhouses will get together for another of their infrequent meetings, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

For No. 3 Georgia, it’s a chance to justify its place as a national championship contender. For the eight-ranked Crimson Tide, it’s a chance to show coach Nick Saban really has stirred the ghost of the Bear after last year’s tantalizing tease.

“These are the kind of games that you should come to a place like the University of Alabama to play in,” Saban said.

Georgia (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) opened the season No. 1 but slipped a couple of spots, the voters not impressed with a win over outmanned Georgia Southern and a squeaker against South Carolina. But the Bulldogs always knew their schedule — one of the nation’s toughest with remaining games against five Top 25 teams — would ensure they got their proper due.

It might happen this week. Top-ranked Southern California’s shocking loss at Oregon State gives the Bulldogs a chance to leap back to No. 1 with an impressive showing against the Tide.

“They’ve got a ton of momentum, and I feel like we do, too,” said Stafford, the SEC’s top-rated passer and yet to throw an interception. “It’s going to be fun.”

Despite the obvious proximity — the campuses are in neighboring states, separated by about a 4½-hour drive — this isn’t one of the SEC’s more heated rivalries, largely because the schools haven’t faced each other more than two years in a row since the 1960s. This will be the first Alabama-Georgia game since 1976 with both teams in the Top 10.

But last year’s thriller in Tuscaloosa proved a watershed for each program.

The Bulldogs already had lost at home to South Carolina and were desperate to avoid another defeat in the opening month of the season.

Georgia jumped to a 10-0 lead. Alabama tied it up after halftime. The Bulldogs reclaimed their 10-point edge early in the fourth quarter. The Tide rallied again, sending the game to overtime on John Parker Wilson’s touchdown run with just over a minute left in regulation. Georgia attempted a field goal on the final of regulation, but missed.

With all the momentum heading into OT, Alabama got the ball and went ahead for the first time on Leigh Tiffin’s field goal. But the Bulldogs needed only one play to end it. Stafford faked a handoff, Henderson streaked for a corner of the end zone and turned back just as the perfectly thrown ball arrived.

Georgia 26, Alabama 23.

“There’s a couple of games that stay with you, and that’s definitely one of them,” Stafford said. “It was such an up-and-down game. We felt like we had the momentum early. They took it back. It was just back and forth the whole game. We had a chance to win in regulation and didn’t. That was a blow to our momentum. Then we make a great play in overtime to win it. It was just an awesome game, and a big game for us. That set us off.”

The Bulldogs lost only one more game all season, on the road at Tennessee, and trailed only national champion LSU in the final Associated Press poll.

“You learn a lot when you get a victory like that,” Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. “It helps the team grow closer. It helps you continue on to push through the tough times.”

After losing to Georgia, the Tide faced plenty of tough times, dropping five of its next eight games before salvaging a winning season in the Independence Bowl — hardly satisfying for a school that demands nothing less than championships.

In Year 2 of Nickball, Alabama (4-0, 1-0) is off to another promising start. The Tide opened with a 34-10 rout of Clemson — then ranked in the Top 10 — and began SEC play with a 49-14 blowout at Arkansas.

For Saban, this is another chance to prove his latest reclamation project has truly put the mediocrity of Mike Shula’s teams in the rearview mirror. The Tide has two of the SEC’s top 10 rushers (Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram), an experienced quarterback (the senior Wilson), one of the best freshman receivers in the country (Julio Jones), and 365-pound Terrence Cody anchoring the defensive line.

The Bulldogs look a lot like Alabama. There’s a dynamic running back (Knowshom Moreno), a three-year starter at QB (Stafford), an amazing freshman receiver (Green had eight catches for 159 yards against Arizona State), and a stout defense (allowing just 45.8 yards rushing per game).

Looking for an edge, Georgia coach Mark Richt called for a “blackout.” The Bulldogs will be in their black jerseys for only the third time in modern school history.

Alabama was unimpressed by the fashion choice.

“That ain’t no swag,” cornerback Javier Arenas said. “That’s uniforms, man.”