No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia meet in the biggest game of the regular season

Due to the strangeness of the SEC scheduling model, Alabama and Georgia have spent the past dozen years eyeballing each other across the West and East divisions but only meeting on five occasions, with two coming during the regular season.

Whether in September or October, December or January, the five games have ended predictably: Alabama wins. Georgia loses.

One of those wins is not like the others. In a series recently defined by high stakes and pressure, Alabama scored two non-offensive touchdowns in the 2015 meeting and beat Georgia 38-10 with little fanfare or drama. 

In comparison, consider where the remaining four wins rank among the memorable games of the past decade-plus of college football:

►Alabama's 41-30 win in 2008 sent shockwaves through the SEC and ushered in the Crimson Tide's dynasty under Nick Saban.

►The 32-28 win in 2012 to claim the conference championship ended with Georgia running out of time on the lip of the Alabama end zone, in one of the indelible moments in SEC history.

►In early 2018, Alabama subbed in Tua Tagovailoa for Jalen Hurts at halftime of the national championship game and pulled out a 26-23 win in overtime.

►And the script was reversed 11 months later, when Hurts replaced an injured Tagovailoa in the 35-28 win to claim another SEC championship at the Bulldogs' expense.

No other non-annual rivalry game can even approximate the depth and meaning when the Crimson Tide meet the Bulldogs. This year is no different: No. 2 Alabama hosts No. 3 Georgia in the biggest game of the regular season.

More than just a potential preview of this year's SEC championship game — if not the first leg of a three-part series to be played in the next 90 days — the result of Saturday's matchup (8 p.m. ET, CBS) will echo across the Power Five landscape and wield a heavy influence on the makeup of the College Football Playoff.

"We have an established program, they have an established program," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "I'm sure it will be a real battle."

There will be one substantial difference. Unlike in each of the past five Alabama wins, the game itself will not include Saban, who has been in quarantine since testing positive this week for COVID-19. While Saban will work remotely to help prepare for Georgia, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will serve as the Crimson Tide's temporary head coach in his absence.

Nick Saban, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, won't be on the sideline when No. 2 Alabama meets No. 3 Georgia on Saturday night. (Photo: Bruce Newman, USA TODAY Sports)

Saban's ability to remain in contact will end Saturday, making the Georgia game the first time since the 2006 Independence Bowl that Alabama will play without the six-time national champion on the sidelines.

"We’re still doing everything possible to get ready for the game," Saban said. "I’m not sure how this will play out when the game comes."

His influence will remain obvious, however. 

With far more similarities than differences, the Tide and Bulldogs have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the nation's stoutest conference. Georgia is 39-7 since the start of the 2017 season with three division championships, one conference championship, one playoff berth and two other appearances in New Year's Six bowls. Over the same span, Alabama is 41-4 with one national championship and a second appearance in the national championship game.

Heading into the fourth week of play, Alabama and Georgia are the only unbeaten teams still standing in an SEC that has otherwise cannibalized itself during a conference-only schedule of games.

The clearest thread between the two programs is Saban's impact on Georgia coach Kirby Smart, one of seven former Saban assistants who served or currently serve as head coaches in the SEC. Hired to replicate or merely approximate Saban's success, these acolytes have discovered his form of program building and maintenance can be imitated in the SEC but never truly duplicated — though Smart has come closest.

Smart and Georgia have been able to mirror Alabama's recruiting success. The Bulldogs have signed the nation's top-ranked class in two of the past three recruiting classes, making Georgia one of only an elite few programs, and the only one in the SEC, capable of matching the Crimson Tide in an across-the-board talent comparison.

Amid this wealth of talent, the two offenses are led by unheralded quarterbacks. Stetson Bennett joined Georgia as a walk-on in 2017, transferred to a Mississippi junior college in 2018, returned to Georgia in 2019 and charged from fourth on the Bulldogs' depth chart in August to the starting role. Mac Jones was a three-star prospect just inside the top 400 nationally when he became the other quarterback in Alabama's 2017 signing class, joining former starter and eventual first-round draft pick Tagovailoa.

Yet there is a contrast in styles between these two specific teams. Alabama's explosive offense meets Georgia's aggressive defense. The Bulldogs' methodical, run-focused offense takes on the Crimson Tide's under-performing, error-prone defense.

Alabama averages 8.66 yards per play, the best in the Bowl Subdivision by a large margin, but is allowing 6.01, which over the course of the season would top the program's worst mark of the Saban era by more than a yard. Far more traditional on offense, Georgia is averaging 5.27 yards per play while leading the FBS in time of possession. Defensively, the Bulldogs are giving up just 3.70 yards per play, the nation's best mark among teams that have played multiple games.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is hit by Georgia linebacker Quay Walker after a pass during the second half at Sanford Stadium. (Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)

"The most dynamic offense in the country, or at least one of them, versus one of the most dynamic defenses in the country," said former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, an analyst with the SEC Network. "With NFL guys running around everywhere on both sides."

In the end, the winner when strength meets strength will be the team capable of meeting in the middle — whether that's an Alabama defense that rises to the program's normal standard or a Georgia offense that can keep pace should the Bulldogs be unable to slow the Crimson Tide's tempo.

"It’s two talented units," Chizik said. "Who is going to play mistake-free football? Who is the one that is going to make the least mistakes? Who is going to execute the calls?"

The winner will have a major case for replacing Clemson atop the Amway Coaches Poll while claiming pole position in the SEC and in the race for the national semifinals. Winning also supplies room for error as SEC teams prepare to play as many as three additional conference games during the regular season.

Meanwhile, LSU has imploded. Florida's defense has struggled. Auburn's offense has sputtered. Georgia has already beaten Tennessee; Alabama has already topped Texas A&M. Given the uncertainty found among the other contenders in the SEC, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs will collide in what is expected to be the first of two meetings during the 2020 season.

Or even three. During an unpredictable season without scheduling uniformity across the Power Five conferences, Alabama and Georgia could meet Saturday and in the SEC championship, swap competitive wins and put forward compelling arguments for the playoff. Fitting the recent history in the series, no game this season will carry a bigger impact.

"I know our guys are excited about the challenge," Smart said. "They've heard about our defense and our defense has heard about their offense, so it's a great opportunity for both units to go out and compete and go play … I'm excited to see it."

Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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