SEC leaders Georgia, Alabama gearing up for final challenges

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Missouri quarterback Tyler Macon (10) is sacked by Georgia’s defensive lineman Travon Walker (44) in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Georgia beat Missouri 43-6. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Top-ranked Georgia and No. 3 Alabama appear headed for a showdown in the Southeastern Conference title game.

That scenario follows the preseason script. But before the powerhouse programs clash on Dec. 4 in Atlanta they must clear a few remaining hurdles in the season’s final weeks for the showdown to have national championship implications.

Alabama (8-1, 5-1), which holds a one-game edge over No. 11 Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2), in the West Division, was pushed to the brink by last-place LSU before the Crimson Tide escaped with a 20-14 win. They get a break from the league grind on Saturday against New Mexico State before resuming SEC play against improved Arkansas and at archrival and No. 16 Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

Alabama coach Nick Saban hopes to fix “a lot of things” against the Aggies after a subpar performance against the Tigers.

“It didn’t look like an Alabama team out there in some phases of our team,” said Saban, whose squad rushed for just six yards against LSU. “We struggled to run the ball. We didn’t pass protect very well. We didn’t protect on third down. We didn’t do as well on third down, which is something that has been really good for us all year long.

“And I think we’re all responsible for that. It starts with me. We need to get those things fixed.”

Georgia (9-0, 7-0) secured its berth in the SEC title game a couple of weeks ago. The Bulldogs now seek their first 8-0 SEC finish on Saturday at Tennessee (5-4, 3-3) before closing against Charleston Southern and in-state rival Georgia Tech.

They’ve beaten the Volunteers four consecutive times but face a squad rejuvenated under first-year coach Josh Heupel and his fast-paced offensive scheme. Tennessee used just 37 seconds to score its first two touchdowns at then-No. 18 Kentucky and left Lexington with a thrilling 45-42 win though the Vols had the ball just under 14 minutes in the game.

Georgia’s stingy defense leads FBS allowing just 6.6 points per game and is second in yardage allowed (231.8). The Vols, who appear to have found their quarterback in mobile Hendon Hooker, enter the game posing perhaps the biggest offensive threat to the ‘Dawgs this season.

“We are going to have to play well on all parts of the defense,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week. “It’s a great challenge for this group because no matter how good you are up front, guys in the back end are going to have to make plays, and no matter how good you are on the back end, the front guys are going to have to control the quarterback and run game.

“They’ll test you; they’ll test you everywhere.”

Texas A&M also remains in the chase for the West Division crown. The Aggies, who handed the Tide their lone loss (41-38) a month ago, are on a four-game roll and visit No. 12 Mississippi (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday night. Texas A&M finishes the season at LSU on Nov. 27 after a non-league meeting against Prairie View A&M.

“When you get to November and you’re relevant, it’s a playoff,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said this week. “So, you forget about everything else. One week at a time, one day at a time, one practice at a time, one play at a time. And it’s that simple.”

Most of the attention is on Georgia and Alabama, who are 1-2 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. While both have been overwhelming favorites in their games, SEC Network analyst Matt Stinchcomb said both have also looked vulnerable at times.

He noted Alabama’s shaky play in road games at Florida (31-29) and Texas A&M (a loss), with perhaps its most hostile environment looming at Auburn. Georgia is top-15 in scoring and has trailed just twice this season, thanks to its dominant defense. The Bulldogs’ offense has looked pedestrian at times.

With Tennessee having the most explosive offense the ‘Dawgs have seen, they’ll need to be clicking in all phases of the game to get a win at Knoxville.

Said Georgia senior defensive back Ameer Speed: “We are focusing on being prepared and keeping our eyes up in places where we can react and do everything we need to the right and proper way.”

Stinchcomb believes Georgia and Alabama will be able to avoid missteps down the stretch, but the SEC analyst said there are plenty of worthy challengers would like a shot at the title contenders.

“I don’t want to call it parity,” Stinchcomb said. “I want to say the gap between what is perceived to be the top teams and the next click down, the next tier, it’s not that big. It’s felt cavernous at times in the past where you’re sitting there going, ‘Man, can I compete with ‘Bama or Clemson or Ohio State this year?’

“The answer this year is quite a few teams, it looks like. Which makes a lot more interesting.”

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AP Sports Writers Charles Odum, Teresa M. Walker and John Zenor contributed to this report.

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