Coming back full circle

ATHENS, Ga. -- When Georgia and Alabama last met, one was the resurgent program trying to return to the ranks of the elite, while the other was already at the top and hoped to stay there.

The outcome that Sept. 2008 night -- Alabama won 41-30 after leading Georgia 31-0 at halftime -- remains a sore spot for the many Bulldogs fans who wore black that night to match their team's black jerseys, as the humiliating loss triggered a tailspin that took Georgia coach Mark Richt three years to reverse.

And it remains a punchline for Alabama fans who, even four years later, love to needle their counterparts in red and black about how they celebrated their return to college football's mountaintop by turning Georgia's "Blackout" into a years-long funeral.

"Win or loss, it's huge. It just splits the paths to where you go in different directions," said fifth-year senior linebacker Christian Robinson, one of only nine current Bulldogs who were members of the 2008 team -- one that later suffered a blowout loss against Florida and imploded against Georgia Tech after opening the season with a No. 1 national ranking.

"It's just funny how that game really just set the tone for where things went. When you realize that you're out of certain stuff and when there's a chink in the armor, it's hard to just deal with that. We had a rough season after that point."

Flash forward to the present. The second-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) and third-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) will meet in Saturday's SEC championship game for the first time since the 2008 Blackout -- only this time, their roles will be reversed.

Having won two of the last three BCS championships, Alabama is the program that is firmly established as one of the nation's best. Meanwhile, despite Georgia's 21-5 record during the last two seasons and consecutive SEC East titles, plenty of critics still wonder whether it belongs in the same class as the conference's recent championship programs such as Alabama, LSU and Florida.

The Bulldogs were just 6-7 two seasons ago, after all, and started to develop a reputation for shrinking from the big-game spotlight that night against Nick Saban's Tide -- a reputation they still have not shaken completely thanks to their unsightly 7-13 record against ranked opponents since.

"It's been a tough road, but we stuck by each other," said All-America safety Bacarri Rambo, who also redshirted in 2008. "We knew we were going to have better days by the way we just kept fighting and just kept trying to get better."

In fact, they were determined to keep what happened to the veterans early in their careers from happening to them, as well. Georgia's 10-3 record in 2008 was a supremely disappointing result after finishing the 2007 season with a No. 2 national ranking and opening 2008 as the No. 1 team. But 2009 and 2010 were even worse, with Georgia posting 8-5 and 6-7 records, respectively, in those seasons. An embarrassing 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the 2010 Liberty Bowl clinched Richt's first losing season as a head coach.

The Bulldogs started their slow climb back to national relevance last season, when they won 10 in a row after an 0-2 start to earn their first spot in the SEC championship game since 2005. And they set their goals even higher this season.

The many upperclassmen who turned down a chance to play in the NFL have openly discussed for months their goal of playing for a BCS championship in Miami -- a goal that would become a reality with a win against Alabama on Saturday.

"We've definitely been through a lot of wins and a lot of losses. It humbles you, that's for sure," said defensive end Cornelius Washington, a fifth-year senior who serves as one of the Bulldogs' emotional leaders. "I think this year we made it a point to aim higher than we usually do. We usually kind of just try to win the East and then move from there. But this year we started out with the frame of mind to go to Miami, to win the whole thing. We fought for that dream and we're going to keep fighting for it [against Alabama]."

Fifth-year senior receiver Tavarres King agreed, adding, "It's something that we've worked for and something that we've wanted to do for a long time, and it's right in front of us."

Georgia's fifth-year players' careers have now come full circle. Their college experiences started as members of a championship-caliber team before they collectively endured severe disappointment. Now they're back again, just one step away from the championship opportunity most of them expected to arrive much earlier in their careers.

Alabama -- the same program that sent Georgia careening off course four years ago -- represents the final hurdle the Bulldogs must clear before their championship goal can become a reality. If it's possible for Saturday's game to carry even greater meaning for the Bulldogs, it does for the seniors, who endured the embarrassment of a 31-0 halftime deficit the last time these teams met.

"I would say [there is extra incentive], especially just a chance to play the team that for our college career, everybody has thought to be unbeatable and have a chance to prove to them that Georgia needs to be considered," fifth-year senior snapper Ty Frix said. "I think that in itself is enough motivation for that game, and even more so for the fact that they did come in here and might have ruined that season in '08."