If you were a four-year senior playing football for Alabama, today you would be preparing for a seventh game inside a big dome in Atlanta.
You would have won games in a lot of places, of course. You’re Alabama. You’re better on the road than Springsteen.
But Atlanta, that’s special. There, the Crimson Tide holds sway over all the birds in the sky and the beasts of the field. Since only 2014, they have broken an opponent’s season in the first game (FSU, this season, in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game). They have won three SEC championships there, and one playoff semifinal. They are 6-0 over that span in Atlanta – and not by just a little, the average score of that six-pack being 34-13.
Linebacker Mack Wilson is but a tender sophomore, but he already knows it. “We treat Atlanta like it’s our home. We win a lot of games in there. We’re just happy we’re happy to play our last game down there,” he said in the afterglow of Alabama’s Sugar Bowl semifinal victory over Clemson late Monday night. By virtue of that 24-6 mauling of the playoff’s top seed, the Crimson Tide will make the short trip again to Atlanta to play for a fifth national title in nine years. No GPS will be required.
Georgia will play in its home state for its first national championship since 1980, a fateful convergence that may allow entrepreneurs on the “secondary ticket market” to purchase second homes in Monaco.
But, whose home game is it, really?
Alabama played its first game of this season in Atlanta, helping to break in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, along the way knocking out FSU’s quarterback for the season and pretty much finishing the Seminoles for the duration.
And now look at the Tide as they circle back around to the same address, intent upon doing some manner of arm to Georgia this time. Leaving on a high on the night of Sept. 2, could they have been certain they would be back Jan. 8, trying to add the best memory yet to their Atlanta scrapbook?
“We were hoping so. That was kind of our plan,” center Bradley Bozeman said.
The prep work for their return was unlike any other they had done before. Losing the season’s last game (26-14 to rival Auburn), being shut out of the SEC title game and depending upon some committee to place them in the playoff as they idled – that’s not exactly the Alabama Method.
In his coach’s poll, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney didn’t even vote for his Alabama alma mater in his top four, putting Ohio State up there instead. How did that work out?
In the 40-plus days since the Auburn loss, Alabama healed a little and got its head right, that second component seldom an issue under Nick Saban.
“I think, as a team, we had a mentality of: Don't remember the wins, remember the losses,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said. “We never forget what happened, but we wanted to take it in as a learning experience. We had the opportunity to do that and display it (against Clemson). We overcame it, and we got them.”
Looking back on Alabama’s semifinal victory over Clemson, it certainly bore an authentic signature. Nothing extravagant. Nothing certainly as end-to-end as the earlier Georgia-Oklahoma game. Just pound away with the patience and confidence of a good coal miner, certain that the rock wall must give way eventually. Even one as certifiably stout as Clemson.
“I think we looked like the Alabama team we were supposed to be,” said Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Tide’s accomplished safety.
It was the kind of win that made Saban famous.
“I'm proud of the way our guys competed in the game. And I think that was the difference in the game – the toughness that we played with, the effort that we played with,” he said afterward.
“We were able to affect their quarterback (five sacks), stop the run. Got off the field early in the game on third down quite a bit (the Tigers were 8-of-19 on third down). We played the kind of game we wanted to play on offense (controlled). We wanted to run the ball. And a 2-yard run wasn't a bad run because we didn't want to get in a lot of third-and-long situations. We did a good job of keeping the ball (a nearly five-minute advantage in time of possession) and scored when we had the opportunities to score (14 points off turnovers).
This is not the best version of Alabama. It does not overwhelm, as past editions. It has betrayed vulnerability throughout the season, as injuries mounted. If Georgia can avoid the kind of turnovers that sabotaged Clemson, no reason to believe it can’t stay viable to the finish.
Great parts of the country may disagree, but this is the game that had to be. Especially for a Bulldogs program seeking a new level. To claim you have legitimately arrived, it is Alabama that you must stand with, eye-to-eye.
As for the Tide, “If it was a community college, I’d be excited about this game,” safety Tony Brown said.
“The fact that it’s Georgia, the fact that it’s going to be SEC vs. SEC, it is going to be a great game,” he said.
That fact that it happens in Atlanta further encourages Bama. Its reign has outlived one dome there and is already making claim to another. Play this one in an abandoned warehouse, and the Tide might feel right at home, so long as it was somewhere in the friendly confines of Fulton County.