By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
Alabama and Georgia won their College Football Playoff semifinals on Monday and will meet in the national championship next week in Atlanta, the home of the Southeastern Conference title game.
"Couldn't have scripted it better in some ways," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. "It will be one of the sweetest drives from Birmingham (Alabama, where the SEC offices are located) to Atlanta that we've ever experienced."
The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide smothered No. 1 Clemson 24-6 in their Sugar Bowl rubber match after the third-ranked Bulldogs won the first overtime in Rose Bowl history, a wild 54-48 victory that eliminated No. 2 Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.
It will be the second time in seven seasons that the national title will come down to two SEC teams. Alabama beat LSU in New Orleans to win the 2011 championship.
At least this all-SEC affair next Monday night won't be a rematch: Georgia and Alabama did not play in 2017.
Both will be making a return trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama started its season in the shiny new home of the Atlanta Falcons by beating Florida State. The Tide hoped it would be the first of three trips to Atlanta, but it let the second one slip away. Alabama's regular-season finale loss at Auburn cost the Tide the SEC West and spot in the conference title game against Georgia.
It did not, however, cost the Crimson Tide a playoff spot. The College Football Playoff selection committee gave Alabama the final spot even though the Tide failed to win its conference. Did Alabama deserve the benefit of the doubt after a season in which it was low on marquee victories? Ohio State fans didn't think so, and the Buckeyes finished fifth in the final CFP rankings.
Fueled by the doubters, Alabama smashed the defending national champions from Clemson. The Crimson Tide will be playing in the title game for the third straight season and looking for its fifth national championship under Nick Saban since 2009.
The Bulldogs made the playoff by avenging a late-season loss to Auburn, beating the Tigers in the SEC title game on Dec. 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, about 70 miles from its campus in Athens.
"Going back home to Atlanta," Georgia star tailback Nick Chubb said. "We've been there before and hopefully we can get the same outcome, but we've got a lot of preparation to do before that."
The SEC title was Georgia's first since 2005. The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since 1980 and they have also not beaten Alabama since 2007, Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa. They have only played three times since then with the Crimson Tide winning each, including a classic SEC championship game at the old Georgia Dome in 2012.
The Bulldogs' failure to win championships, conference and national, was the main reason Georgia pushed out longtime coach Mark Richt and replaced him with former Alabama assistant and Georgia alum Kirby Smart in 2016.
The Bulldogs were hoping replicate Saban's process and now they'll get to see how they measure up against the master.
"I'm proud of the job he's done," Saban said of Smart. "I'm sure it will be a great football game."
Smart's first season in Athens was a so-so 8-5 campaign, but the Bulldogs have taken off in year two, led by stellar group of seniors that includes 1,000-yard rushers Sony Michel and Chubb.
"It's crazy. This is what we all came back for," said Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who blocked a field goal in the second overtime of the Bulldogs' victory against Oklahoma. "We all have been working hard and this is what we were working toward."
The Alabama-LSU BCS championship game in New Orleans in 2012 turned out to be one of the final blows for the failing postseason system. Plenty of fans outside SEC country won't be thrilled to see one-conference affair for the title again — and it might not be great for television ratings outside of the Deep South — but it won't kill the four-year-old playoff. Sankey said he did not want to speak for the other conference commissioners, but "there's recognition we have put in place a good process and a good system."
The irony of the SEC monopolizing this national championship game is that the league is not regarded as the clear-cut best in college football this season. Unlike in 2011, when the conference was in the middle of a run of seven straight national titles, the SEC seemed top heavy with Alabama and the rest.
"The messaging in the preseason was down year, one-team league," Sankey said after attending the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
The two playoff victories give the SEC a 4-5 record in this year's bowl games. As Sankey pointed out, that included a one-point loss by Kentucky after its best tailback was ejected, a three-point loss by Texas A&M with an interim coach and competitive losses by Auburn and LSU.
But the SEC won the games the counted the most.
"Just a magnificent Rose Bowl and to finish it off with the Sugar Bowl victory, there is an incredible amount of satisfaction," Sankey said.