TUSCALOOSA — Throughout the season, as Jonah Williams parsed through his weekly film study sessions, one team repeatedly stood out, even though it was never who Alabama was preparing to play.
Until this week, when the top-ranked Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC) sets its undefeated sights on No. 4 Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC), the reigning Southeastern Conference champion with a familiar makeup and modus operandi to its own.
“We know that Georgia’s obviously building quite a program over there, and they’ve done some really good things the past couple of years,” said Williams, Alabama’s starting left tackle. “Had an idea that if everything played out, we might be seeing them in the future. I think that if you start daisy-chaining games and saying, ‘Well, they played this person like this, we played them like this,’ it’s not really a fair matchup because we want to play our best game each week and they want to play their best game each week.
“So, that’s kind of what we’re expecting out of them.”
With four common opponents this season, a wide array of connections between both coaching staffs, and last season’s national championship game less than a year in the rearview mirror, there’s a feeling of familiarity between the two budding rivals as they set to square off for the second time in the last 11 months in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game from Mercedes-Benz Stadium — the same site of their last meeting, Alabama’s memorable 26-23 overtime victory Jan. 8.
“I think that there’s definitely a familiarity and we play a lot of guys who have coached here,” Williams said. “So I think that obviously there’s going to be some of that regard, but we look at every game as being a new challenge, being different.”
The last time these two teams met, it required a halftime gamble by Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban — a historic second-half comeback effort by then-freshman backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa just to force overtime before the now-infamous “second-and-26” 41-yard touchdown strike from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith to clinch Alabama’s 17th national title and second in the last three years.
And while there have certainly been a vast number of changes between both teams, especially when it comes to some of the coaches and players involved, there are just as many consistencies. A combined total of 56 players on both teams that participated in last season’s matchup that are likely to play Saturday — 29 from Alabama and 27 from Georgia.
“I mean, obviously personnel’s different,” Williams said. “They have the same coaches and everything. They play to the same standard. I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of differences aside from just the names on the jerseys, even though they have a bunch of returning guys.”
From the Bulldogs’ perspective, there’s much more familiarity with Alabama this time around than even last January given its firsthand knowledge of what Tagovailoa is capable of and, in turn, what the Crimson Tide offense is capable of with him at the helm, especially with all the tape it has on the sophomore starter, something it didn’t have much of last season.
“We kind of game planned for Jalen Hurts the whole time — we saw what kind of player he was, what kind of plays he made — and we really didn’t have anything to go off watching Tua,” Bulldogs senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said Monday. “It was in-the-game adjustments we had to make. We didn’t know (Tagovailoa) was that elusive or had an arm like that. I think watching tape on anybody kind of gives you a sense of comfortability, knowing kind of what they’re doing, knowing their tendencies. And the tape doesn’t lie.”
It also helps both teams follow a similar scheme defensively given Georgia third-year head coach Kirby Smart’s more-than-a-decade serving under Alabama head coach Nick Saban, including nine as the Tide’s defensive coordinator. In addition, the Bulldogs’ defensive staff includes coordinator Mel Tucker, who served as Alabama’s defensive backs coach in 2016 and started under Saban at Michigan State, and inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann, who spent two years in a support staff role with the Tide.
“I think they are similar. Obviously, Kirby came from here so there is obviously carryover,” senior linebacker Christian Miller said Monday. “We have kind of seen how they play. They have multiple pro formations. There are similarities. Just like you were saying last year, it’s interesting you know about them and they know about us. So there’s carryover still.”
Even Saban acknowledged some of those similarities between the programs.
“I think we all try to improve our system each and every year so there is some changes that we can always make,” Saban said Monday. “And they’ve certainly made some that have made them more effective. I think they do a really good job, (but) there are some similarities to what they do and what we do.”
Of course, as Alabama sophomore nose guard Quinnen Williams made clear Tuesday, how much that familiarity with the other team actually helps Saturday will only be determined by what takes place on the field and how the individual players execute.
“It’s similar, but I feel like every school in the country really has the same plays, the same inside zone, the same tendencies when it comes down to the running back being deep or the running back parallel,” Williams said. “It’s just about who can make the less mental errors and who can be more physical to me.”