Rival, threat or obstacle: What are Georgia and Alabama to each other?

Rivalry, in college football terms, doesn’t end when the clock hits 0:00. Rivalry doesn’t cool down when the season ends.

Rivalry is Alabama and Auburn fans getting in fistfights, knife fights and bar fights after Iron Bowls. Rivalry is Sunday dinners ruined by seething, simmering what-ifs left over from Saturday. Rivalry is workplace ribbing between opposing fans that verges on harassment the week of the big game, and bet settle-ups that veer close to fireable offenses afterward. Rivalry is a child declaring their independence from their bleed-Crimson bloodline by wrapping themselves in Volunteer orange. Rivalry is the daughter of a prominent Dawg-loving family keeping secret her love for a boy from Gator territory. Rivalry is heart and passion and fury and love and spite and exultation; reason, temperance and common sense haven’t been invited to the cookout for decades.

But does “rivalry” really describe Georgia versus Alabama?

They’re the two reigning heavyweight champions of the SEC, and over the past decade anyone wanting to escape the snake pit of the SEC East or the slaughterhouse of the SEC West had to go through either Athens or Tuscaloosa.

They’ve run up hard against each other on the way to the mountaintop several times in the past decade, and they’ll meet again Saturday in the SEC championship in Atlanta. At stake: a playoff berth for Alabama, pride and self-esteem for Georgia. Are they rivals, though, or are they fully armed, world-cracking aircraft carriers occasionally crossing each other’s path?

“I don’t think most Alabama fans consider Georgia a rival,” says Josh Chatham, editor of the SB Nation Alabama site Roll 'Bama Roll. “Georgia and Alabama share a mutual hatred of Auburn and Tennessee — it’s like, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ They’re a threat, not a rival.”

“It’s a modern-day rivalry,” says Ashlee Woods, sports editor of the Crimson White, Alabama's student newspaper. “People value the matchup. There have been some pretty close matchups in the last few years. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have some history. And Alabama fans know Georgia is going to come hard and compete.”

“They’re viewed as the giant that Georgia can’t beat,” says Drew Hubbard, sports editor of the Red and Black, Georgia's student newspaper. “It’s always been, ‘Georgia’s good, but they’re not Alabama good.’”

The rivalry is getting serious.  (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The rivalry is getting serious. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

For their 71st encounter, Georgia and Alabama will meet Saturday afternoon in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a billion-dollar retractable-roof palace. It’s an unimaginable distance from their first encounter back in 1895, in a tiny public park in Columbus, Georgia, less than 2 miles from the Chattahoochee River, Georgia’s border with Alabama.

In that game, Alabama — then known as the “Crimson White” (the Tide nickname was still years in the future) — blocked an early Georgia punt. One touchdown later, Alabama went up 6-0 … and then proceeded to give up 30 straight points to Georgia’s merciless run game. (The forward pass was not yet a component of football’s offensive schemes.) The star of the game: Georgia’s Rufus Nalley, who both scored and recovered a fumble in the 30-6 victory.

Georgia, Alabama and the other teams they played that season — Auburn and LSU, among other familiar names — have brawled, tussled, scrapped and scuffled for well over a century now, and that’s led to some longstanding, generational-level hatred. Alabama and Auburn have met 86 times; Alabama and Tennessee, 104 times. Georgia and Florida have battled either 99 or 100 times, depending on which school you believe; Georgia and Auburn, the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” have met 126 times.

But Georgia and Alabama? They’ve met 70 times, yes, with Alabama leading the series 41-25-4, but since the days of Vince Dooley and Bear Bryant, divisional scheduling has kept them apart, like feuding relatives. They’ve met only six times, counting this weekend, since 2008. Given that they play in different divisions, they’re infrequent opponents. There’s not the bone-deep hatred that exists between the Tide and Vols, or Dawgs and Gators, or both and Auburn. Not yet, anyway.

“I don’t know that Alabama fans would put it there yet,” says Matthew Allen, a longtime Bulldog season-ticket holder living in Birmingham, “but my feeling about Georgia fans is that Alabama has creeped up the list of public enemies.”

Roll Tide.  (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Roll Tide. (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Your typical SEC rivalry is like a battle between, say, two local barbecue joints in town; they’re bitter enemies, but they’re also bound together by shared history. Georgia and Alabama are more like a Target and a Walmart out by the interstate, relentless, distant behemoths with eyes on larger prizes and little regard for local day-to-day concerns.

“The cream rises to the top, and when the cream rises to the top enough, it turns into a rivalry,” says Jake Crain, host of the "JBoy Show," an SEC-focused radio show broadcasting out of Atlanta. “They’ve been the two best teams in the SEC for a long time. They measure their success off each other.”

Until this year, Alabama could carry itself with earned swagger, racking up championships while Georgia piled up disappointments. But Kirby Smart has transformed Georgia into a fully operational battle station, built on waves of five-star recruits and elite-level coaching … you know, exactly like what Alabama has been doing for every year of the Nick Saban era.

To Bama fans, Georgia’s surge is reminiscent of another occasional SEC giant, one that clambered up to the Tide’s level and kicked Bama in the teeth every so often: LSU.

“LSU became a rivalry when they started recruiting on Alabama’s level,” Chatham says. “LSU was respected as an equal. Kirby Smart has recruited at that same level. So it’s not a nasty rivalry like with Auburn or Tennessee, it’s more of a mutual respect.”

What the Georgia-Alabama rivalry lacks in familiarity, it makes up with intensity and importance. Four of the six most recent meetings between Alabama and Georgia, including this Saturday, have come in a conference or national championship. Alabama is riding an overall six-game win streak, and the Tide has ripped out Georgia’s heart the past three times the schools have met with serious hardware on the line.

The 2017 season's national championship stands out — that’s the one where Georgia had Alabama down in overtime, pinned at second-and-26, and Tua Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith for a championship-winning touchdown.

In the 2012 and 2018 SEC championships, just like in 2017, Alabama came from double-digit deficits to win. You don’t need familiarity to summon up contempt, you need to just have skin in the game.

“That almost makes it a little spicier,” Crain says. “You make too many sequels of movies, they end up being bad. Fried turkey is great on Thanksgiving, but that’s because you don’t eat it year round.”

The fried turkey is on the table again Saturday. A victory for either team will change what Crain calls the “living room dynamic” — the point in recruiting when Smart and Saban are coveting the same five-star recruit and can point to a legacy of success or an upward trend. It would also tilt the balance around dining room tables, offices, sports bars, barbershops, garages, pews … anywhere Georgia and Alabama fans cross paths.

Georgia rolls into Atlanta a 6.5-point favorite, possessing a gravedigging defense, a multifaceted offense and a roster so deep that the Dawgs’ second team would probably be ranked in the top 10. Alabama is battered, vulnerable, beatable. Really, the best thing the Tide have going for them this year is history and psychology, the ability to plant doubt in the skulls of Georgia fans, who last celebrated a national title in 1980.

Give the Dawgs faithful credit, they’re achieving the balancing act of enjoying the ride while keeping expectations in check.

“‘Cautiously optimistic’ is probably the best way to put it,” Hubbard says. “These are the same people that watched 28-3 [the Falcons' Super Bowl debacle] and second-and-26. They don’t know what it’s like to win a national championship. We won’t believe it until we see it happen.”

“This year, it’s been interesting,” says Allen. “People see me out and about [in Birmingham] with a Georgia shirt on, or see the Georgia flag on my house, and say, ‘You’re going to kill us this year.’ I’m not ready to go there. I’ve been a fan for 40 years, I’ve been down this road before.”

Oh, and there’s one more aspect now in play, Allen notes: “A lot of Auburn fans who can’t stand Georgia are gritting their teeth and saying, ‘Go Dawgs.’”

Auburn fans are still salty over last weekend’s four-overtime loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl, but over in Tuscaloosa, that game has bred optimism of its own — misplaced, perhaps, but optimism all the same.

“It’s a different mood [around the Alabama campus] than what I’ve been used to,” Woods says. “Before we went to Auburn, we didn’t think we’d beat Georgia because we’d struggled against Arkansas. Now people have convinced themselves they’re going to win. I don’t know how to feel about it.” (Ashlee notes that Saturday will be a landmark day for Alabama, as the Tide men’s basketball team will be facing highly ranked Gonzaga. “It’ll literally be either the best day for Alabama fans or the worst day.”)

There's history in this matchup. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
There's history in this matchup. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A Georgia victory would ramp up the Tide-Dawgs conflict to another level. Bama doesn’t get stiff-armed often, and a Georgia victory would reset the stakes for these two schools heading into the meat of the 2020s.

“A win would make it so much more fun,” Hubbard says. “It would fix the 'little-brother' attitude. Alabama has 18 national championships, Georgia is the laughingstock of the conference having all this talent but nothing to show for it. But [a win] would make this a much more level playing field.”

“If Georgia does [beat Alabama] and becomes the top dog in college football, they would have taken down Alabama, the defending SEC champion and national champion,” Woods says. “They could shut the door on the past and establish themselves. If they got a dominant win, that would bode well for Georgia for the future.”

There’s always the threat that a Georgia win could reinvigorate Alabama after what — for the Tide — has been a less-than-spectacular year. “Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is to piss Saban off,” Crain says. “That might just make him come back and coach for even longer.”

But what if Alabama shocks the Bulldogs and pull out another victory? Nothing short of defection to the NFC South will keep Georgia out of this season's playoff, but the psychic damage from another Alabama win in the SEC championship would linger.

“That will continue to push the narrative that Kirby can’t get over the hump,” Crain says. “Georgia’s got one obstacle left. They’ve climbed every mountain you can climb, but now it’s time to climb Mount Everest. And they think they’ve got the team to do it this year.”

This is Georgia’s moment. Alabama is in the rare position of playing spoiler — always a necessary component of any good rivalry — but for now, the Dawgs believe they’re controlling the narrative. And like all good heroic quests, they’ll have to slay the dragon themselves before they can truly claim victory.

“It was inevitable that it had to be Alabama,” Hubbard says. “If Georgia wants to win the national championship for the first time in 40 years, it will have to go through Alabama.”

One way or another, some hopes will soar, others will crumble like dried clay. If Georgia-Bama isn’t a rivalry yet, it’s well on the way.

One way or another, people are going home happy Saturday. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
One way or another, people are going home happy Saturday. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.