Sport The First All-SEC National Title Game Was Bad, but the Second Doesn't Have to Be

20:43  08 january  2018
20:43  08 january  2018 Source:   si.com

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Nick Saban holding a microphone© Provided by TIME Inc.

When the College Football Playoff Selection Committee gave the fourth and final playoff spot to Alabama instead of Ohio State, it set the stage for what many fan bases thought of as a doomsday scenario: two SEC teams playing for the national championship. Standing in the way of that all-SEC matchup was a Heisman Trophy winner leading the nation’s most explosive offense, not to mention the defending national champions peaking at the right time. But Georgia got the last punch in an exhilarating blow-for-blow bout with Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, and Alabama stifled Clemson in dominating fashion. So here we are, with a Southeastern-flavored national championship game on our hands.

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Both teams’ semifinal wins were impressive for different reasons. Georgia beat the Big 12 champs at their own game—a defense-optional shootout, the type of contest SEC teams want to avoid, as the conventional wisdom goes—while Alabama at times made Clemson look like the junior varsity a week after the Tigers won the ACC title game by 35. It’s one thing to be upset with the committee’s choice to go with ‘Bama over a conference champion, but it’s difficult to dispute that Monday’s matchup is anything but a game between the two best teams in the country. Both teams validated their status by scoring big-time victories over conference champions on the biggest of stages, and these wins make the all-SEC matchup a bit more palatable.

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Whether you’re still bitter that Ohio State or USC or even UCF didn’t get a chance, we can all come together in hoping that this year’s national championship game will be a more entertaining contest than the last time two SEC teams fought for it all.

Following the 2011 season, Alabama beat LSU 21–0 in an absolute snooze-fest that nobody really wanted to see. That national championship game wasn’t the first time those two teams had faced each other that season. The two SEC West programs faced off roughly two months earlier in that season’s “Game of the Century”, with the Tigers and Tide undefeated and ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

That first meeting itself was polarizing. Depending on whom you ask, LSU’s 9–6 overtime win was either a gloriously anachronistic defensive standoff or a borderline unwatchable field goal bonanza.

Because the game was so close, Alabama only dropped to No. 4 in the AP Poll and, more importantly, No. 3 in the BCS rankings. That meant that if the Tide could win their final three games, they would need only a little help from the field to get into the title game. Like this season, a regular-season loss kept them out of the SEC title game, so all that stood between them and a likely national championship game bid was unranked Mississippi State, FBS Georgia State and an always-tricky Iron Bowl matchup at Auburn. Alabama took care of business the rest of the way, as did LSU, which entered the title game unbeaten after smashing Georgia 42–10 in the SEC championship game.

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LSU was a no-brainer for one national championship spot, but there were three teams that had legitimate cases for the second spot. Oklahoma State was 11-1 and had just beaten No. 10 Oklahoma by 34, but a bad loss at unranked Iowa in Week 13 loomed large. Stanford was also 11-1, with the lone loss coming to No. 6 Oregon, but didn’t win the Pac-12 North and thus didn’t make the Pac-12 title game. Then there was Alabama, an 11-1 team whose only loss came by three to the top team in the country. The decisive BCS standings (remember those?) went with the Crimson Tide, and the rematch was on.

That year’s SEC-on-SEC final was certainly less justifiable than this year’s. It’s hard to get past the fact that the teams had already played each other, especially with two other extremely worthy teams waiting in the wings. Plus, the first game between LSU and Alabama was so boring, so why not give Oklahoma State, a team that averaged 48.7 points per game that year, a shot at LSU’s vaunted defense? The problem was that no human or committee had the power to step in as the voice of reason to stop it from happening—what the BCS rankings spit out was the final decision.

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To make matters worse, while defense once again ruled the day, the rematch itself did not replicate the intrigue of the regular season meeting. Alabama took a 9–0 lead into halftime on three field goals, no touchdowns were scored until there were less than five minutes remaining and, famously, LSU didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The Tigers’ offense, despite having Odell Beckham Jr. and Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and Jarvis Landry at its disposal, managed just 92 total yards and picked up five first downs the entire game. It was truly a Les Miles special.

The entire contest was a regrettably unentertaining and uninspiring way to end a season, and Oklahoma State’s 41–38 overtime victory over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl left fans wondering what a final with the high-octane Cowboys might have looked like.

There’s reason to be more optimistic about the 2018 edition of SEC vs. SEC. First and foremost, the teams haven’t played each other and don’t have the familiarity of division rivals, even though Georgia coach Kirby Smart worked under Nick Saban for years before moving to Athens. We have no idea how Alabama’s terrific run defense will fare against the Nick Chubb-Sony Michel duo, nor do we know how Georgia plans to contain top Tide wideout Calvin Ridley.

There’s something special about those first few minutes of a championship game, when both teams are feeling each other out and seeing what will and won’t work. That electric beginning wasn’t there six years ago. And unlike their 2011 counterparts, this Crimson Tide squad did handle the No. 1 team in the country, a win that validated their controversial admission to the playoff party.

There is also a real chance we’re in for another slog: Alabama is the nation’s top scoring defense, giving up just 11.5 points per game, while Georgia’s is fourth-best in that category (13.2). But at least if this national championship turns out to be a dud, it will be the first terrible game we watched between these two SEC foes. One awful game can be stomached. Two leaves a lingering bad taste.

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