What immediately jumped out at Rennie Curran when he recently rewatched the 2008 Alabama-Georgia game -- aside from the disappointing end result, a 41-30 Alabama win -- was the amount of talent on the field that night.
We’re not talking about a handful of All-SEC performers here. There were several dozen future NFL players between the two teams -- first-round picks, future Heisman Trophy winners, All-Pros. Names such as A.J. Green and Julio Jones, Andre Smith, Mark Ingram, Justin Houston, Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. Dont'a Hightower and Rolando McClain were there, too, as was Geno Atkins.
This was a star-studded cast, all on hand the night that Alabama truly began its ascent to the top of the SEC heap.
“You could have literally had an NFL team out of both sides offensively and defensively,” recalled Curran, a Georgia linebacker who recorded 14 tackles and forced a fumble that night. “It was one of those games where you knew you had to show up every single play. As hard as we fought, they found a way to just continue making plays when they needed it most. It kind of got away from us.”
That it did, and it happened almost immediately. A series of early penalties and botched opportunities by Georgia allowed Alabama to continuously extend scoring drives, and it’s not as if the machine-like Crimson Tide needed much assistance from its opponents. By halftime, Alabama had built a 31-0 lead on an enormous stage -- much like the one that the two programs will share Saturday, when the Crimson Tide makes its first appearance in Sanford Stadium since that game.
Only, the teams are in opposite positions this time around.
A year after finishing second in the final rankings, Georgia had opened the 2008 season as the nation’s No. 1 team. The Bulldogs were 4-0 and ranked No. 3 when second-year Alabama coach Nick Saban brought the No. 8 Tide (4-0) to Sanford Stadium.
Alabama had posted an unsightly 7-6 record in Saban’s first season, but mowed down No. 9 Clemson 34-10 in a season-opening win in Atlanta. Momentum seemed to be building for Saban’s program, and the nation had taken notice. ESPN College GameDay was on hand to hype the game, and Georgia’s team and fans planned a blackout -- a motivational ploy that worked well in 2007 wins against Auburn and Hawaii.
Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran was having none of it, however. He was caught on tape during game week saying that the Georgia fans in attendance would be wearing black because it would be the Bulldogs’ funeral. Curran said the Bulldogs certainly were aware of Cochran’s comments, and of the general buzz surrounding the game.
“There was a lot of buildup off of that, and the media hyped it up,” Curran said. “We were ranked pretty highly at that time. We had put ourselves in a pretty good position and then adding the blackout to it just added to the excitement and suspense and anticipation from the fans of seeing a good show. It was definitely tough to not take care of business and get that win.”
Georgia made it respectable in the second half, rallying to within 31-17 early in the fourth quarter before Alabama pulled away again, but Saban had sent his message. Alabama went on to enjoy an undefeated regular season and claim the first of four SEC West titles in a seven-year period.
“We all know how that game went,” Alabama’s 2008 right tackle, Drew Davis, told ESPN.com recently. “We’re like, ‘This really does work. We’re on the right path. We’re doing things right.’ That’s when that Georgia game solidified in everyone’s mind that, ‘OK, this works. This is the new Alabama. This is the way it will be moving forward. Everything needs to be done on this level.’”
Meanwhile, Georgia has never truly bounced back from that crushing loss. Alabama claimed three BCS titles under Saban and appeared last season in the first College Football Playoff. Mark Richt’s Bulldogs were among the SEC’s top teams before the 2008 game, having won two conference titles and three SEC East titles in the previous five years, but they have been second-class citizens behind Alabama ever since.
However, Curran believes Georgia has gotten itself back to the point it can compete with Alabama from a coaching and talent standpoint. In fact, No. 8 Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) is a slight favorite to beat Alabama (3-1, 0-1) on Saturday, the first time the Tide has been a betting underdog since 2009.
The stage will be similarly immense as their 2008 meeting, with a national TV audience watching to see what should be one of the biggest games of the year within the SEC. This time around, it’s Georgia wearing the underachiever label, needing a win to validate the notion that it is Alabama’s equal.
“I definitely know one thing: it’s not going to be a blowout,” Curran said. “I really believe that in games like these, this is where good players become legendary. Guys just step out and make that one big play that everybody talks about as being big. This is where the David Pollacks and David Greenes are created, in games like this. That’s the kind of game I believe it’s going to be.”