A battle between the nation's second- and third-ranked teams is on tap for the SEC Championship Game when the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs meet on Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
With Alabama ranked No. 2 and Georgia No. 3 in the latest BCS Poll as well, the winner of this matchup is projected to move on to play Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, 2013 in Miami.
Alabama's season got off to a tremendous start, with wins in each of its first nine contests, but it suffered a 29-24 setback on Nov. 10 at home against Texas A&M. Despite the loss, the Tide was able to clinch the SEC Western Division title last week with a 49-0 victory over Auburn to qualify for their eighth SEC Championship Game appearance.
"I was really pleased with the way our players responded and competed in the last game," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "We talked about how this time of the year (we) are playing our best football and (our) team in continuing to improve."
"The SEC Championship Game is a great competitive venue," he continued. "Georgia has an outstanding team...This is a great opportunity for our players, and we are certainly looking forward to helping them and trying to put them in the right places to prepare well and to play our best football game."
Georgia won its first five games of the 2012 campaign before suffering a 35-7 loss on the road at South Carolina on Oct. 6. The Bulldogs were temporarily bumped from the national radar following that defeat but they quietly went about their business from there, winning six games in a row to win the SEC East and rise all the way to No. 3 in the rankings, with a 17-9 win over Florida on Oct. 27 being the key win during the stretch.
"It's an opportunity and we have to take advantage," Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. "We have to see (the SEC Championship) as just another game. Sure, where we're ranked might mean certain things, but bottom line is that it's just another week. We're still in it and this is everything that we've worked for all year."
The Crimson Tide holds a 36-25-4 advantage in the all-time series with the Bulldogs. The two teams haven't met since 2008 when Alabama claimed a 41-30 win in Athens. The programs have never before met in the conference championship game.
The Alabama offense was unstoppable in last week's win, scoring touchdowns on each of its first seven possessions against Auburn. On the season, the unit has been very efficient (39.0 ppg, 433.0 ypg) thanks in large part to the elite play from its quarterback.
A.J. McCarron threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions last week, giving him 25 scoring strikes to just two picks, both of which came in the loss to Texas A&M. The junior signal-caller has completed more than 67 percent of his passes for 2,507 yards, and his 176.3 efficiency rating ranks second behind only his counterpart in this game, Georgia QB Aaron Murray (177.1).
McCarron typically spreads his passes out to many different receivers, but Amari Cooper has stood out from the pack with team-highs in catches (45), yards (767), and touchdowns (eight). The freshman logged his third 100-yard receiving game of the season last week (five reception, 109 yards, two TDs).
The Tide has a lethal two-headed monster in the backfield. With 131 yards last week, Eddie Lacy broke the 1,000-yard mark on the season and he has 15 total touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon, another sensational freshman on the Alabama offense, is hot on his heels with 847 yards and 10 scores.
Alabama's defense has been virtually impenetrable for most of the season as it ranks first in the nation in both points allowed (9.2) and yards allowed (233.7) per game. Its shutout of Auburn last week was its second straight and fourth of the season, marking the first time since 1979 that it has put together four shutouts in a single season.
C.J. Mosley has made plays all over the field with a team-high 92 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Robert Lester (four INTs, fumble recovery) and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (three INTs) have been active in the turnover battle, while Adrian Hubbard has team-highs in tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (five).
The Georgia offense (38.0 ppg, 463.7 ypg) has been a record-setting one. With 42 points last week against Auburn, it now has a school-record 456 points in 12 games this season, passing the old record of 450 set in 14 games in 2002.
Murray has been one of the few quarterbacks in the nation who has been better than McCarron, as he's completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 3,201 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. The junior became the first QB in SEC history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in three straight seasons.
Much like the Tide, the Bulldogs have a potent running back combination in freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley has emerged as the top back with 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns, but Marshall still garners plenty of work with 720 yards and eight scores.
Murray has an array of talented receivers to throw to, with 10 different players eclipsing 100 yards receiving. Malcolm Mitchell (532 yards, four TDs), who also sees time at cornerback, has hauled in a team-high 36 receptions, while Tavarres King (34 receptions, 704 yards) is a big-play threat and has caught eight touchdowns.
After an underachieving first half of the season, the Georgia defense (17.7 ppg, 337.8 ypg) has morphed into one of the best units in the nation down the stretch thanks to a handful of elite playmakers.
Bacarri Rambo is the reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week after recording eight tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception against Georgia Tech, and the safety now has six takeaways on the season (three INTs, three fumble recoveries). Jarvis Jones has been one of the best players in the nation with 10.5 sacks and 30 QB hurries to go along with 71 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles.