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Atlanta hosts SEC's play-in game

ATLANTA -- While we count down the days until college football has a real playoff in 2014, leave it to the SEC to once again stage its own play-in game this season.

Consider it an appetizer for what the whole scene will look like two years from now, when four teams play it off on the field for that coveted crystal trophy.

The SEC championship game has long been a precursor for the BCS National Championship Game, which carries great irony. When former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, the father of the BCS, came up with the idea of a league championship game more than two decades ago, coaches in the SEC liked the idea about as much as they liked the idea of boosters and media members sitting in on their coaching meetings.

The general consensus among SEC coaches at the time was that a league championship game would kill their chances of competing for a national championship.

In unison, coaches all asked the same question: We're going to beat up on each other all season, try to make it through the league unscathed, then have to win another game against a league foe to win the SEC championship?

Yep, that was the plan, and it has worked out just swimmingly for the SEC, which is poised to play for its seventh consecutive national championship.

This time, it's No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia meeting Saturday in the Georgia Dome for a berth in the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Miami.

The SEC championship will never lose its luster. There's always something to be said for being the top dog in the toughest conference in the land.

But it's what an SEC title leads to that has become the most treasured prize in college football.

The last time the SEC champion wasn't in line to play for a national championship was in 2005, when Georgia beat LSU 34-14. The Bulldogs were the highest-ranked SEC team in the final BCS standings that year at No. 7.

Since then, the SEC title game has been a segue to the national championship festivities, and there's nothing to suggest that's going to change when the playoff era in college football arrives two years from now.

In fact, with six of the top 10 teams in the current BCS standings, the SEC would be in prime position this year to have two teams on the big stage if the playoff were in effect this year.

The process will obviously change some when a selection committee replaces the BCS standings in 2014 for picking the teams. Schedule strength will become more important than ever. Marquee wins out of conference will carry considerable weight.

But expanding to four teams will only help the SEC, not hurt it, and the SEC championship game will endure as the unofficial play-in game to the national playoff.

The players in this league know the stakes. They're too dialed in on this game to spend much time talking about what it leads to, but they all start the season with a keen understanding that winning an SEC championship opens the door to winning a national championship.

"This is the position we all work so hard to be in," Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. "When you come here, you know that if you can win the SEC, you're going to have a chance at the national championship.

"That's always been our goal at Alabama, and it's never going to change."

So while other conferences stage their championship games this weekend, the SEC will be the only one staging a championship game that carries national championship implications.

That's how it has been for the last six years for the SEC, which has made its championship game a spectacle.

Anybody priced tickets lately for Saturday's Alabama-Georgia tilt?

And although nobody else outside the SEC's borders will probably admit it, it's the game everybody will be watching Saturday and THE game of record in college football.

Somewhere at his Lake Tellico home in East Tennessee, Kramer is wearing a very contented smile.