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Tide rolling at the right time

Jalen Milroe Alabama Jalen Milroe - The Canadian Press

The Tide is rolling at just the right time.

Ten straight wins – including one of the most dramatic in program history – and Alabama finds itself one step away from returning to the College Football Playoff (CFP) after missing out a year ago.

It’s been an uphill climb for Nick Saban’s team in 2023. A loss to Texas in the second game of the season left Alabama with zero margin for error, and, at the time, without a quarterback.

Jalen Milroe, filling the void left by former Heisman winner Bryce Young, was benched in favour of Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson, before returning for a Week 4 win over Ole Miss. Since then, he hasn’t skipped a beat.

Milroe’s signature moment came last weekend against Auburn in the Iron Bowl – the latest chapter in one of college football’s greatest rivalries, and one the folks in Tuscaloosa are already referring to as “The Milthrow.”

Facing fourth-and-goal and backed up to the 31-yard line following a bad snap and a penalty, Milroe found receiver Isaiah Bond in the back corner of the end zone, lifting the Crimson Tide to a 27-24 win, and putting them on the doorstep of the playoff. 

But here’s the catch: The remaining roadblock is the biggest juggernaut in college football, and for Alabama, it’s another familiar foe. The Crimson Tide faces top-ranked Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday in the SEC Championship with that CFP spot at stake, as well as an opportunity to derail a dynasty that’s in pursuit of its third straight national title.

“These rivalry games, some of them are instilled in the culture, like the Auburn game, the Iron Bowl,” Saban said this week. “Some of these other rivalry games aren’t traditional rivalries, but because there’s two really good teams playing, they become those kinds of games. That’s kind of what this has become. You don’t get an opportunity to play against a team who’s won 29 straight games very often.”

Coincidentally, the last time Georgia lost was against Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship – a defeat that was avenged a month later with a win over the Crimson Tide in the National Championship. Georgia followed that by going 12-0 last season, beating LSU to defend its SEC crown, before sneaking past Ohio State in the Peach Bowl and blowing out TCU for its second straight national title. 

Much like Alabama, the Bulldogs have been challenged more than they may have bargained for this year, but the return of standout tight end Brock Bowers from an ankle injury and comfortable wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee in recent weeks have them in the best shape they’ve been in all season. And unlike Alabama, Georgia is undefeated and has the luxury of losing the SEC title game and potentially still making the playoff, as it did two years ago.

A handful of teams will be making their bids this weekend, including a pair of other teams that are currently on the outside looking in.

There’s Oregon, which faces undefeated Washington in the Pac-12 Championship on Friday, and can avenge its lone loss of the season, which came against those same Huskies in October. And then there’s the Big-12 Championship between Texas and Oklahoma State, with the Longhorns hoping to punch their ticket to the playoff with a win and some help.

The path might be uncertain for Texas, as well as for fellow one-loss team Ohio State, which is standing by after last week’s loss to Michigan bumped it from the current playoff picture. But for Alabama, it’s clear: beat Georgia, and you’re in.

For Milroe, it’s another opportunity to build on what’s turned into an impressive first season as a starter in the SEC. For the Crimson Tide, it’s a chance to dispel any notion that they’re content having conceded the title of college football’s team to beat. 

“The biggest thing is we’re not a finished product,” said Milroe. “I think that’s a scary thing. When we’re all clicking as a football team, that’s a scary sight.”