This year’s College Football Playoff field could’ve been expanded to include eight teams, 12 teams, 16, 24, 48, 96 or 128.
In the end, regardless of the number of contenders in the bracket, the road was going to end with Alabama and Georgia meeting in the latest iteration of this one-sided rivalry.
The most talent. The Heisman Trophy winner. Nick Saban. Kirby Smart. The best defense in the country. An almost unstoppable offense.
In the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, the playoff gets the ultimate matchup of two powerhouse programs with layers of depth, years of shared history and enough storylines to easily fill the space between New Year’s Eve and the championship game on Jan. 10.
While not negating the argument for playoff expansion, the inevitability of this pairing makes the concept of doubling or tripling the current four-team field seem like window dressing — whether it took one game or two or three, the Tide and Bulldogs were destined to meet to decide this year’s championship.
For Alabama, the 27-6 win against Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl was driven by a rejuvenated running game. This level of production against one of the top defenses in the FBS showed the Tide with a newfound offensive balance; already effective, an offense that can lean on the traditional ground attack is suddenly even more dangerous.
Georgia’s 34-11 demolition of Michigan in the Orange Bowl was a stark reminder of how this group dominated the regular season, in the process drawing comparisons to some of the best teams in recent history.
This perception was shattered by Alabama’s 41-24 win in the SEC championship game, which destroyed the national image of Georgia as a juggernaut marching toward perfection and raised serious questions about the Bulldogs’ odds in a projected rematch against the Crimson Tide.
How the Bulldogs tore apart the Wolverines answers the second part: Georgia is clearly as good as advertised in September, October and November, and just as obviously the only team capable of stopping Alabama.
But the recent and not-so-recent history of this series, the quarterback comparison between the two teams and Saban’s unprecedented success against his former assistants could make Alabama the favorite to win yet another national championship.
Georgia has dropped seven straight in this rivalry, with several of these losses easily ranking among the most painful in program history.
Alabama’s 41-30 win in 2008 christened the Saban dynasty. Four seasons later, the Tide won 32-28 in one of the great SEC championship games in conference history. In early 2018, former quarterback Tua Tagovailoa tossed a long touchdown in overtime to hand Alabama the 26-23 win. The following year, Alabama turned to then-backup Jalen Hurts to spark the 35-28 win for yet another SEC championship.
For all of the program’s historic success and huge strides under Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, Georgia as a program is still largely defined by two interrelated failures: the inability to beat Alabama and the swings and misses at bringing home the program’s first national championship since 1980.
That makes next Monday’s game an opportunity to rewrite recent history and set Georgia in position to become the next program to dominate the FBS.
After his banner performance against Michigan, which included 234 passing yards in the first half alone and three touchdowns, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV may have quieted the same doubters who questioned why Smart hadn’t turned the offense back over to JT Daniels, the starter heading into the season.
Yet the quarterback matchup very clearly favors Alabama. The highlight of sophomore Bryce Young’s Heisman Trophy-winning season was his performance against the Bulldogs: 421 yards, three touchdowns and a dozen or more throws that threaded the needle between the levels of Georgia’s defense.
What will decide the national championship is whether Georgia has learned something from the loss to Alabama. Has the game plan changed for how to handle and attack the Crimson Tide? Can the Bulldogs win if Bennett has to do the heavy lifting, as was the case in early December? What new tricks and wrinkles can Georgia bring to the table to fool a program that has owned this series?
The idea that Georgia is better for losing to Alabama is erased by the belief that Alabama keeps improving after being dismissed for a good chunk of the regular season as being very good but not great — good enough to play for an SEC championship but not good enough to bring home another trophy.
Based on the ease of Alabama’s win in the Cotton Bowl, the impressive victory against Georgia can no longer be seen as a flash-in-the-pan performance. On offense and defense, the Tide have morphed into a team more than capable of handing Georgia another double-digit loss.
Doing so would add yet another footnote to the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport and cement Saban’s place as the best to ever do it on the college level.
Alabama has won six national championships since 2009 and Saban has won seven overall, counting his one crown while the coach at LSU. This wouldn’t be the first to come out of left field, relatively speaking — twice Alabama has won the national championship without even taking home the SEC West. It still might be the most unexpected of the Saban era.
But the Tide have a tall task ahead: beating Georgia for the second time in just over a month.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: It’s Georgia and Alabama again. Will this time finally be different?