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Saturday, September 27, 2008
Updated: September 29, 10:54 PM ET
Alabama delivers last rites to Georgia, arrives on title scene

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- Scott Cochran knew what he was cussing about after all.

As the Alabama strength coach famously predicted during practice last week, the blackout was a bleepin' funeral for Georgia, which lost 41-30. In fact, the blackout was a blowout until two late embalming-fluid touchdowns by the overwhelmed home team. Rest in pieces, Bulldogs.

Nick Saban
Nick Saban has Alabama rocketing up the charts thanks to his eternal intensity.
But in classic circle-of-life form, this upset romp wasn't just an interment. It also was a rebirth for the Crimson Tide as a full-on title contender. In near-record time.

It has taken Nick Saban all of 18 games as coach to rocket Alabama from having a losing record to digging graves for top-10 opponents. And it has taken this 2008 Tide team a month to go from unranked in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll to possibly No. 1 when the new rankings come out this week.

Has anyone ever done that?

During a wild, 2007 flashback weekend in which three top-10 teams lost to unranked opponents, Alabama suddenly has swaggered into that power vacuum at the top. Down went USC to Oregon State, Florida to Mississippi, Wisconsin to Michigan. Up rises the Tide after this beatdown of the nation's No. 3 team.

Alabama stands alongside Oklahoma as the two most impressive teams to date. On my ESPN.com power rankings ballot, I'll give the edge to the 5-0 Tide.

"So what?" was offensive tackle Andre Smith's spoilsport reply to the No. 1 possibility. "Just puts a bigger bull's-eye on our back."

There was no bull's-eye on Bama in August, but a stampede through September has changed that.

Alabama opened the season by ripping then-No. 9 Clemson in Atlanta. Although that's a bigger condemnation of preseason polls than anything else -- why were any of us stupid enough to rank those bums that high? -- killing Clemson still resonates far beyond beating Chattanooga, as the Sooners did.

Combine that with two road romps to open Southeastern Conference play and you have a team that has done more this month than anyone else. Alabama has hung a combined 90 points in Fayetteville and Athens, has outscored its opponents 74-0 in the first quarter this season and has not trailed since the 2007 Iron Bowl.

Murdering Arkansas is nice but not a huge deal. Dominating Georgia in one of the most-hyped games between the hedges in years -- that's a huge deal.

Alabama Celebrates
The Crimson Tide scored 41 points Saturday, the most they've ever scored against Georgia.
Alabama led 31-0 at halftime on its way to scoring the most points it ever has against Georgia. The first half was such a mauling that the Dogs were booed as they left the field. Those who weren't booing had already left, stunned by this series of unfortunate events.

The first-half drive chart summed it up perfectly:

Georgia: punt, punt, fumble, punt, interception.

Alabama: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.

"We probably played the best half of football we've played all season long," said the endlessly demanding Saban, who fumed at his team's second-half lapses as much as he praised its first-half brilliance. "It couldn't have come at a better time."

Understand this: Nick Saban could not have come to Tuscaloosa at a better time.

This is why you pay a guy $32 million over eight years. Because he's just that good.

He's that relentless as a recruiter, bringing in instant-impact players like freshman wide receiver Julio Jones (who had five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown Saturday) and juco transfer nose tackle Terrence Cody (who's just a scary man at 6-foot-5 and 365 pounds).

He's that painstaking in preparation, overseeing a game plan that rendered Georgia Heisman Trophy candidate Knowshon Moreno almost useless and burned the Bulldogs' defense repeatedly. Moreno got just nine carries as Georgia was forced strictly into the passing game.

Saban is that persistent in pursuit of perfection. It's why he treats praise like poison. It's why the thought of Alabama ranked No. 1 is at least mildly appalling. It's why he smiles less than Spock.

"I'm happy," he said, "even though I don't look happy."

He never looks happy. Public happiness might be construed as satisfaction, and satisfaction could lead to slacking off, and slacking off could lead to losing, and Nick Saban would rather sleep with snakes than lose.

Georgia
The black shirts didn't work for Georgia, which might have had its title hopes dashed.
Which is why he does it so rarely. And that is why he's a perfect fit with a fan base that takes football as seriously as Saban does.

"Once you lose your intensity, it's hard to get it back," Saban said. He was lamenting Alabama's third-quarter miscues that let Georgia back in the game, but he might as well have been describing his approach to football. Eternal intensity.

This game worked out perfectly for Saban. His team earned a huge victory but made just enough mistakes that he can nag his players all week leading up to a visit from 4-0 Kentucky. If the nagging works, expect Alabama to be 9-0 when it heads to Baton Rouge in November for a game that now has Armageddon stamped all over it.

Both teams could be unbeaten. Both are overpowering in the trenches. And both are familiar with Saban, who won a national title at LSU in 2003 and will return to Tiger Stadium as Darth Vader.

That's the potential game of the year in the SEC after Saturday's sudden westward power swing. Auburn beat Tennessee, Mississippi beat Florida, Alabama beat Georgia and the Cocktail Party game Nov. 1 shrunk in significance.

At least for now.

This is looking like another upset-intensive season when every one-loss team will get a second chance. But being routed at home leaves Georgia's national championship hopes in critical condition, and losing in The Swamp to Ole Miss does even greater damage to the Gators.

For Georgia, this was a crushing ending to a feverish weekend of anticipation and celebration. Athens was a raucous place Friday night and all day Saturday, when it became the land of 40,000 black cocktail dresses at tailgate parties all over campus.

But the overhyped color scheme backfired from the beginning, seemingly providing Alabama with the last little bit of motivation it needed. After Bama took the opening kickoff drive 80 sound-killing yards for a touchdown, all the cheering was done by the white-clad Tide fans sitting in the lower-left portion of Sanford Stadium.

Many of the Georgia fans on that side of the stadium later had to exit in front of the Alabama cheering section, turning it into a walk of shame. And occasional defiance. One girl in a black dress and red belt repeatedly flipped her middle finger at the taunting Tide fans on her way out.

That was just whistling past the graveyard. By then, the Bulldogs already were dead and buried.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.