Clemons: National Championship memories rolll in

The last time Alabama and Georgia met in Atlanta, it was for the conference championship in 2012 and the game was an instant classic.

The lead to my story that night: “Wow.”

If you’ve forgotten, third-ranked Alabama took a late 32-28 lead but No. 2 Georgia was driving. The Bulldogs’ Chris Conley caught a deflected pass from Aaron Murray at the Alabama 5-yard line and time ran out before Murray could marshal his team to get off another play.

The Tide went on to destroy Notre Dame in the national championship game, and if Georgia had won I have no doubt it would have done the same.

Being an Alabama fan behind enemy lines on the east side of the Chattahoochee isn’t easy. The teams don’t play too terribly often despite both being in the Southeastern Conference. Now that they are, the Atlanta media have dispensed with any pretense of being neutral about the two teams the city is playing host to in the big game.

They’ve met in the SEC championship game just the once, which is surprising for a 26-year event. And the growth of the conference by adding Missouri and Texas A&M for 2012 means it’s even more rare the teams in opposite divisions meet.

Alabama has won three such games since Georgia’s last win over the Tide, an exciting overtime game in 2007.

So fans of Alabama and Georgia don’t have the back-and-forth of more natural rivals. There’s a heightened sense that the games mean more, and maybe there’s a little mystery.

My first exposure to the rivalry came in 2002 when former Georgia player Pat Dye went on Paul Finebaum’s radio show in Birmingham and said he didn’t think the Bulldogs were “man enough” to beat Alabama in the teams’ upcoming game.

I don’t know if he meant it as motivation for Georgia, but it sure had that effect. That was a tough game and the Bulldogs won it in Tuscaloosa. I met David Greene at a fundraiser a few years later and only because he is super nice did my grudge wear off just a bit.

Frankly I’d love to see Alabama and Georgia play every year, or at least more regularly than they do. But I can’t say I’m feeling a lot of joy right now — more like existential dread, as one friend put it.

I can barely get this written for my Facebook notifications going off over comments about a picture where a guy in our church stuck an Alabama decal on the mailbox of our youth minister, an Athens native.

(The notifications are coming, by the way, because I commented, because I can’t keep my mouth shut.)

I would love for my Georgia friends to experience the joy of a national championship. Most haven’t, as the last was won on New Year’s Day 1981. I was two months from being born.

It would be the height of Alabama arrogance — a redundancy, I admit — to acknowledge Tide fans have tasted success more recently, but it’s true. Alabama has won national championships in 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015.

And it would be really gracious of me as a lifelong Alabama fan, who saw Derrick Thomas nearly obliterate the Penn State quarterback in my first in-person game at age 7, to suggest that maybe we’ve won enough for a while and Georgia should have this one.

But, no. I don’t want that. Sure, if Alabama can’t, then I’m all for Georgia winning a national title. But not this year.

I won’t make a prediction on Monday night’s game, other than it will be close and low-scoring. Expect to hear the names of Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick called, a lot. Defense will rule the day.

It’s going to come down to who can capitalize on a mistake, and as an Alabama fan my fear is Georgia’s better prepared in the kicking game.

Just like the 2012 game, I think we’ll be talking about it for years to come. Promise me it won’t be (too much) trash talk.

David Clemons is the editor and publisher of The Covington News. His email address is dclemons@covnews.com. Twitter: @scoopclemons.