The Southeastern Conference will stage its football championship game for a 32nd time Saturday afternoon, but it will be the final pairing of division winners and the last matchup to take place with a four-team playoff looming.
Yet it's still the SEC title game.
"This game will never lose its importance in a program that I'm coaching at because you're trying to win a championship," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said earlier this week, "and that becomes the focal point of a conference that's about to be even more powerful winning. I don't know why people try to demean the value and say, 'Oh, it's only important that you win the playoff and you win the national championship.'
"There's a lot of merit to winning an SEC conference championship, especially when you add the teams we're going to add."
Georgia won the final SEC East championship with an 8-0 record — the league is dropping divisions next season when Oklahoma and Texas join — and the Bulldogs are 12-0 overall and No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings going into Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the 4 p.m. kickoff that will serve as the final "SEC on CBS" telecast. There they will face Alabama, the most successful program of both the Bowl Championship Series and CFP eras, with the 12-team playoff set to begin next year.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide went 8-0 within the league to win the final SEC West crown, but they suffered an early September loss to Texas inside Bryant-Denny Stadium and haven't been able to move past their current position of No. 8 in the CFP rankings. No team ranked lower than No. 6 has been able to move into the top four on conference championship weekend, but Alabama certainly would warrant strong consideration by pulling a repeat of its 41-24 downing of Georgia two years ago in Atlanta.
Georgia rebounded from that loss and defeated the Crimson Tide in Indianapolis for the 2021 national championship.
The SEC dominated the final eight seasons of the BCS setup, with Alabama (three), Auburn (two), Florida (two) and LSU (two) combining for nine appearances in the national championship game from 2006-13. Ohio State's win over Oregon in the inaugural CFP championship contest that capped the 2014 season marked a rare finale-game exclusion for the SEC — Alabama was eliminated by the Buckeyes in the semifinals — but at least one league member has played for the crown since, which included Alabama-Georgia matchups after the 2017 and 2021 seasons.
An Alabama upset of Georgia could put the league in a precarious spot should Michigan, Florida State and Texas each look impressive along with Friday night's Pac-12 winner.
"I think that the SEC is one of the best conferences in the country," Saban said. "I think Georgia is one of the best teams in the country. I think they're one of the best four teams in the country, and I think if we beat them, we would be one of the best four teams in the country.
"With some teams, there is a transformation that goes through the season. How are you playing now? How good are you now? All those things come into play, and I think it would be a disrespect to the SEC if there isn't an SEC representation in the final four."
Alabama's surprise thumping of Georgia in the 2021 league championship game cemented the Heisman Trophy for quarterback Bryce Young under first-year Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. Tommy Rees is now Alabama's first-year offensive coordinator, and redshirt sophomore Jalen Milroe has shown in recent weeks that he can be as dangerous on occasion as Young.
"They don't have a lot of the same coaches they had three and four and five years ago, when (quarterback) Mac (Jones) was there or when Bryce was there," Smart said. "They've taken their players, and they've made their offense fit their players. They do a really good job of that. Their offensive line is the biggest, most physical offensive line in the country in terms of just sheer size and strength.
"Then their quarterback is able to make plays, and they know that. They allow him to make plays with his feet, and some of his best plays are on plays that are off schedule. That is very different than what they've had in the past."
Georgia may or may not have the services of tight end Brock Bowers, guard Tate Ratledge, and receivers Ladd McConkey and Rara Thomas due to various injuries, while running back Jase McClellan is questionable for Alabama.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].