As Southern-fried college football rivalries go, Alabama-Georgia doesn't quite evoke the kind of heat that radiates from the region's more storied hate-fests, and if you're going strictly by the records, it's debatable these days whether Tide-Dawgs really qualifies as a "rivalry" at all. In the 26 years since the SEC split into two divisions, the neighbors have met only nine times, once in the SEC title game. And like just about everything else over the past decade, when they have met, the series has been dominated by the Tide: Alabama has taken four straight over Georgia dating back to 2008 -- all of them, in one way or another, in soul-crushing fashion.
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From Georgia's perspective, in fact, success (or lack thereof) has been increasingly defined by life on the other side of the fence. More than anything else, it was arguably the failure to measure up to Bama's domineering standards that finally doomed Mark Richt, a widely respected coach whose fate was more or less sealed in a blowout loss to the Tide in 2015, a loss that convinced the Bulldogs to poach long-time Alabama assistant Kirby Smart to take his place. Two years later, Smart's record against his old team stands at 0-1.
In context, however, that one loss looks much more like a glimpse of a bright future than the latest mark on an underachieving past. As deflating as Georgia's skin-of-the-teeth, overtime loss in January's National Championship Game felt in the moment, it was unmistakably a collision of equals. More than equals, actually; more like mirror images. The big-picture takeaway was also obvious: Smart's Bulldogs had arrived, fully formed, as a kind of identical sibling to Nick Saban's Crimson juggernaut. Whatever gap still existed between the two sides had been effectively reduced -- after 60-plus minutes and a desperate quarterback change by Saban, who for the first time in his life seemed relieved by victory -- to one play, a coin flip on the sport's biggest stage.
Round 1 came up Bama; officially, Round 2 isn't scheduled until the next regular-season Tide-Dawgs tilt in 2020. But if the game and the season that preceded Tua Tagovailoa's winning OT heave were any indication, it's not going to take nearly that long. It was only the opening salvo in a border war that stands to define the SEC, and potentially college football as a whole, for the foreseeable future.
It seems so inevitable now, in hindsight. But it's worth remembering that when Georgia hired Smart as its new head coach, in December 2015, it looked more like an audacious gamble, one that was as likely to blow up in UGA's face as it was to pay off in an imminent playoff run. For one thing, it wasn't obvious that the Bulldogs would necessarily be better off with Smart, a first-time head coach, than they'd been under Richt, owner of the best career winning percentage at Georgia since the Great Depression. At 39, Smart was younger at the time than any of the SEC's incumbent head coaches. And it's not like hiring a Saban protégé to reverse-engineer the Alabama Death Star was some kind of novel idea: Tennessee and Florida had both gone that route -- twice, in the Gators' case -- and wound up regretting it. After Smart's uninspiring 8-5 debut in 2016, there was an even chance Georgia would, too, accompanied by a healthy dose of hubris.
Instead, the gamble has already begun to pay off in spades, more quickly than even the early believers could have predicted. Even the initial setback can be retrofitted to fit snugly within the larger narrative: After all, Saban's 2007 debut in Tuscaloosa was even worse, a 7-6 slog that gave no indication that the same team would emerge as a fully operational juggernaut in Year 2 en route to a national championship in Year 3. So far, Smart is almost eerily on schedule. Even more striking than the timing, though, is the product itself, where the full extent of Smart's influence (and, by extension, Saban's) was obvious and uncanny. By midseason, it was inescapable just how much Smart's new team really did look like his old one, athletically and philosophically, effectively mirroring the standard Saban outfit right down to the fact that Georgia's star quarterback, Jake Fromm, was once committed to play for the Crimson Tide.
Under different circumstances, the Bulldogs ascension might sound like too much too soon for a program that's managed only one year of championship-level success -- a relatively out-of-the-blue one, at that -- and which lost more than a dozen veteran starters from that team, almost all of them draft picks. After all, LSU, Auburn and Florida have had their turns in the championship circle in the past decade, too, without coming close to challenging Alabama's long-term dominance for more than a year or two at a time.
The timing of the Bulldogs' on-field arrival was perfect, given that it was preceded by a surge on the recruiting trail that only picked up steam as the new administration began to deliver tangible results. The 2017 signing class, the first at Georgia assembled entirely on Smart's watch, ranked third nationally according to 247Sports' composite rankings, and has already produced a trio of budding offensive stars in Fromm, offensive tackle Andrew Thomas and tailback D'Andre Swift, a dark horse Heisman candidate this fall after serving as an understudy to NFL-bound seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. This year's class achieved the near impossible, supplanting Alabama atop 247's national rankings for the first time since 2010, and will arrive on campus as one of the most decorated recruiting hauls in recent memory. The incoming crop includes seven prospects with five-star grades according to 247, a record number, plus five more ranked among the top-100 players overall. Aside from Bama, no other SEC team currently has more than four five-star players on its entire roster.
For one more year, at least, it's still the case that the majority of Georgia's front-line starters were recruited to Athens mostly or entirely by Richt, whose classes almost always rated highly in their own right. The holdovers laid the foundation for the program's return to the national spotlight. But with that foundation in place, the expectations for the younger half of the roster coming up behind them are as high as for any group of players in school history.
The most famous coaching rivalry in college football, the "Ten Year War" between Ohio State's Woody Hayes and his former assistant, Michigan's Bo Schembechler, was waged from 1969-78. Schembechler edged his old boss, five wins to four, with one tie in 1973 that cost both teams a shot at the then-mythical national championship -- and the winner claimed the Big Ten crown every single year. In the 21st Century, the notion of the same two coaches surviving a full decade at the helm of the same two annual contenders, at the same time, is almost quaint. Bob Stoops and Mack Brown had their run in the Oklahoma-Texas series, and ... that's about it. In the SEC, Saban has outlasted too many rival head coaches to count, many of whom were put out to pasture specifically for not being Saban-esque enough. At 66, with six national titles to his credit and no conceivable goal left to accomplish, it's hard to imagine Saban still grinding through the end of a second decade at Alabama in the mid-2020s.
Until proven otherwise, though, it's just as hard to imagine the Crimson Tide fading from national relevance anytime soon, either. Although the 2020 game in Tuscaloosa is the only regular-season meeting on deck until at least 2025, Georgia's rapid ascendance under Smart may be the last, best opportunity to spawn something like a sustained Bo-Woody dynamic in the SEC -- a Five-Year War -- before Saban calls it a career. The East, with Florida and Tennessee hitting reset in the wake of historic collapses, is as ripe for the taking as it has ever been. The West, while significantly more competitive, remains Alabama's domain. Right up to the end, nearly all of last season felt like the prelude to an inevitable Bama-Georgia collision in Atlanta, and the fact that it came a month later than expected didn't diminish the intensity or anticipation when it finally did. This season, they're runaway favorites to be back there, in December this time but with immediate national implications. Beyond that, there's no reason to believe that Tide-Dawgs for all the SEC marbles can't become an annual rite.
Of course, Auburn plans to have its say in the matter again after unexpectedly delaying last year's battle of the titans, and Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M all expect their investment in expensive new head coaches to begin paying off in Smart-like fashion sooner than later. Trajectories and narratives and all the assumptions that come with them can change very quickly. But the window is as wide open for Georgia now as it's been for any of the other would-be threats to Bama's throne at any point in the Saban era, and the Bulldogs are ideally positioned to make good. How fitting it would be if the Tide's most worthy rival finally turned out to be the one built most thoroughly in its own image.
Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.