ATLANTA — In the brief history of the College Football Playoff championship game, the first three matchups presented teams with contrasting styles from different conferences.
And then there is 2018.
When No. 3 Georgia (13-1) and No. 4 Alabama (12-1) take the field Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they will display a similar style and philosophy.
Southeastern Conference champion Georgia has become the Alabama of the SEC East in many ways. With a “punch you in the mouth” ground game and a hard-nosed defense, Nick Saban disciple Kirby Smart, the second-year coach of the Bulldogs, has his team believing it can win the school’s first national championship since 1980.
Georgia will be facing an Alabama team whose nearly perfect season often has emphasized the Crimson Tide’s deficiencies and limitations more than its triumphs.
“I think that’s the one spot that Alabama has a competitive advantage,” Smart said Sunday. “Because they’ve got a huge chip on their shoulder, thanks to some of you guys saying they shouldn’t have been included. So they’ve got something to prove.”
Monday will be either a landmark night for Georgia or another coronation for the 11-season Saban era at Alabama. A Crimson Tide championship would be its fifth in the last nine seasons and the 17th for Alabama going back to the murkier days of competing polls that determined mythical championships.
It would be the sixth championship for a Saban-coached team, including the 2003 title at LSU, which would tie Alabama icon Paul “Bear” Bryant.
In the 26 seasons since the introduction of the Bowl Coalition in 1992, the initial effort to match the top two teams in a postseason game, Nebraska (1993-95) and Florida State (1998-2000) are the only other schools to play three title games in a row.
To win their first national championship since the Herschel Walker era and a third in program history, the Bulldogs will have to defeat a team they have not beaten since 2007. A thrilling two-overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl advanced the Bulldogs to the final.
A series of injuries forced the Tide to develop depth throughout the defensive unit. Alabama gained the final spot in the four-team playoff and cruised past defending national champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl to make it to Atlanta.
“I’ve been really, really pleased with what this team has been able to accomplish this year,” Saban said. “We had to overcome a lot of adversity. Each and every time, guys have stepped up and continued to compete at a high level. We have a tremendous appreciation for what they’ve done and the opportunity they’ve created for themselves to play in the championship game.”
The 68th and most highly anticipated meeting in a series that began in 1895 could become Alabama’s fourth straight victory over Georgia. Alabama leads the series 38-25-4, including a 38-10 rout in Athens in 2015.
It’s the 12th time that Saban has squared off against one of his former assistants. His teams won the 11 matchups by a combined score of 430-111.
Georgia fans hope Smart, whose Alabama finale was the title-game victory over Clemson two seasons ago, will end that streak.
“Definitely go out with a bang,” Georgia senior tailback Nick Chubb said. “It would definitely be the great ending of not only my story but a lot of these guys’ stories here at Georgia. Just through all of the changes and the adversity, to go out with a title would mean a lot.”