SEC football title game participants come as no surprise

SEC football title game participants come as no surprise

No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia return to scene of thriller

Kirby Smart offered some insight into his team’s health during his weekly Monday press conference. The latest update includes his thoughts on the availability of junior guard Ben Cleveland.

“Ben is in the same boat he has been in,” Smart said. “You guys ask about Ben every week. Ben’s fighting to get back. We think that Ben is not 100 percent but he is closer to 100 percent than he was yesterday. We keep trying to keep him back and doing all we can to get him back.”

The Georgia Bulldogs are pitted as underdogs against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Saturday’s SEC Championship (4 p.m., CBS; News 95.5 and AM-750 WSB) in Atlanta.

Another pressing update looked to be sophomore ILB Monty Rice. Rice has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He was on crutches on the sideline for the Georgia Tech game but was no longer immobilized in a walking boot.

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“Monty wasn’t able to play Saturday,” Smart said on a Sunday night SEC teleconference. “He’s down to one crutch, and he’s trying to get back. I was talking to him after the game. He feels much better, but he’s not 100 percent. I’ll know a lot more probably tomorrow after practice.”

In 13 games against former assistants, Saban is a remarkable 13-0. In those games, Saban teams have outscored opponents an outlandish 498-157.

Smart provides updates on offensive linemen Hill, Cleveland

Rice has not played in the last two games. Yet the Alabama native still ranks second on the team with his 59 tackles.

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Smart also addressed the prospect of Mays returning to action on Saturday against the Crimson Tide during that session.

“Bens in the same boat hes been in. … Bens fighting to get back,” Smart said. “We think Bens not 100 percent, but hes closer to 100 percent than he was yesterday. So we keep trying to get him back and doing all we can to get him back.”

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Freshman right guard Trey Hill has started the last two games for the Bulldogs since Mays went down. Hill limped off the field on Saturday afternoon against the Yellow Jackets and was immediately greeted by the training staff when he reached the sidelines.

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“Trey is good to go,” Smart said. “He was pretty much out and about and moving around. I expect Trey to be fine.”

Smart said Monday there is no significant change to report regarding Ben Cleveland. Cleveland has struggled with a fibula injury this season. 

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Hill earned that starting nod after Mays left the Auburn game with what Smart described as a shoulder stinger. He did dress out for Georgia Tech but did not see action. The 5-star freshman offensive tackle has played every position except center for the Bulldogs this fall.

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Cleveland has been out with a slightly broken left fibula since Sept. 22 at Missouri. He has dressed out for the last few games and been on the punt shield team. He also saw action late in the Auburn game as an injury replacement for senior OL Kendall Baker.

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Georgia football injury report OG Ben Cleveland (left fibula) probable OL Cade Mays (shoulder) questionable OL Kendall Baker (knee) out DB Divaad Wilson (knee) questionable DE David Marshall (foot) out DT DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (unknown) questionable after missing the last seven games DB Ameer Speed (unknown) out DE Justin Young (unknown) out SS Jarvis Wilson (unknown) out DB Tray Bishop (internal team issue), out RB Zamir White (knee), out for season

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For the second time in less than 11 months, the two Southeastern Conference powers are set to meet at Atlantas Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a championship on the line in a mentor-versus-protege coaching showdown. Tua Tagovailoas back, too, this time as anything but an understudy.

In his 12th season as the Crimson Tides head coach, Nick Saban has tutored some of the most elite weapons in college football – including Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley; however, not even this trio accomplished what a tandem of sophomores has done this year. 

Kirby Smarts fourth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (11-1, 7-1 SEC) get another crack at Nick Saban and No. 1 Alabama (12-0, 8-0) on Saturday in the SEC championship game. They put on quite a show in an overtime thriller with a national title on the line back in January.

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Tagovailoa came off the bench to lead a second-half comeback and returns as perhaps the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

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A rematch almost seemed inevitable with both teams clearly the cream of their divisions. But Smart says the Alabama rematch couldnt be a focal point because certainly both teams had to win some football games to get to it.

That future-oriented mentality wouldnt fit The Process, Sabans acclaimed methodology that Smart absorbed as his longtime assistant at Alabama, LSU and the NFLs Miami Dolphins.

Ive never been around really good teams that are focused on other teams, Smart said. The good teams Ive been around are focusing on whoever they play that week. And its really not been different for us this year.

— Alabama’s SEC Championship Game opponent, the Georgia Bulldogs, leads the SEC in a few categories. Georgia has the league’s top rushing offense, averaging 259.83 yards per game. The Bulldogs also lead the SEC in punt returns, averaging 17.5 yards return, and have the most forced fumbles this season with 15. Other stats: scoring offense is second (40.1 ppg), passing offense is seventh (221.0 ypg), total offense is third (480.8 ypg), scoring defense is fourth (17.2 ppg), rushing defense is fifth (128.42 ypg), passing defense is tied for third (175.1 ypg) and total defense is third (303.5 ypg). The Tide and Bulldogs play Saturday, Dec. 1, at 3 p.m. CT (CBS).

Weve really tried to hone in on what weve got to do and what weve got to do to get better. Our concern cant be with Bama all year. We wouldnt be here. Its a concern now because weve got to go play them.

— Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings and his fourth-quarter interception against Auburn gives the Tide at least one forced turnover in 54 of its last 56 contests, dating back to the start of the 2015 season. During the current run, UA has forced 93 turnovers (63 interceptions, 30 fumbles) and returned 22 of those miscues for touchdowns. The Tide has forced at least one turnover in 15 consecutive games and ranks first in the SEC with 14 interceptions this season.

Both teams dispatched their in-state rivals with relative ease leading up to this game. Georgia raced to a 38-7 halftime lead in a 45-21 win over Georgia Tech . The Tide struggled in the first half but ran away from Auburn, 52-21.

But theyve known this meeting was coming since Nov. 3, the earliest the title game matchup has been set. Really, theyve been on a collision course since that national title clash.

Saban called the Bulldogs probably one of the most complete teams in the nation in terms of offense, defense, special teams.

This will be the most challenging game that we have all year, he said. Im really proud of our guys for what theyve been able to accomplish this year. Why guys come to this school is they get to play in games like this against great teams, and this will be a great challenge for us.

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Alabama has won every game since the national title game by 20-plus points, a 12-game streak that is the longest to open a season in NCAA history. The previous record of 10 consecutive 20-point wins at any point during a season was set by Boise State in 2002.

The Bulldogs havent had that kind of sustained success, but theyve been awfully good the past two years.

They have won five straight by 17-plus points since dropping a similarly lopsided game to No. 12 LSU.

The January meeting ended with Tagovailoas winning, second-and-26 touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime. Now, Tagovailoa could perhaps cement the Heisman if hes as good for four quarters as he was for two on that last visit. He wasnt particularly interested in talking about either the Heisman or the end of last season after Saturdays win over Auburn.

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That was last year, Tagovailoa said. For me, I just want to enjoy this win with my team, with that 24-hour (celebration) rule. And coming back into the office on Monday, we want to focus on Georgia.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, likewise, resisted the temptation to talk about Bama after the Georgia Tech game.

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