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November 30, 2012

HURT: Tide a step away from 'Missing Ring'

In University of Alabama football history, the Missing Ring refers to a specific season, 1966, when an undefeated Crimson Tide was passed over by Notre Dame for what would have been a third consecutive national championship.

Along the way, though, there is another ring missing from the collection, one that Alabama cannot replace - although a win today would help. Last year's quirk in the rankings allowed Alabama to win a BCS championship, but not an SEC title. Certainly, the BCS crown eases the pain of missing out on Atlanta, but if you think it doesn't matter, know this: Nick Saban disagrees.

"It was definitely a disappointment not being in this game last year," Saban said. "When you aren't here, you have no self-determination, no control of your own destiny. You have to wait on someone else to help you."

Actually, Alabama was pretty safe at this time last year, but Saban's point still stands. This afternoon's game between the Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs is, as Saban said, "a playoff game." Those are the implications for this season, and they are significant.

Many observers have said there could be more than that involved. The buzz in Atlanta - and Atlanta is a Georgia Bulldogs town, make no mistake - has it that this is "Georgia's time" and fate has smiled on the Bulldogs ever since their one-sided loss to South Carolina to give them their best chance to win an national title in 30 years.

Alabama doesn't think in those terms. Even at the annual Coaches Luncheon, a Friday fixture at this event, Saban took some good-natured ribbing. A media member asked Saban if he would rather play the "underdog" role than being favored in every game for the past four years, and Georgia coach Mark Richt chimed in quickly.

"What does he know about being the underdog?" Richt quipped, and while he was looking for a laugh, he had a point. Alabama, as Richt pointed out this week, has dominated college football for the past four years, even with a hiccup in 2010. With no disrespect to Notre Dame, most people think it is Georgia who has the best shot at derailing the Crimson Tide this year. If it doesn't happen today, nothing will stop Alabama from establishing what, by any standards, would have to be called a dynasty.

Saban, though, refuses to think in those terms.

"You don't win a gold medal by thinking about winning a gold medal," Saban said. "You win it by running the best race you can run."

The game may come down to which team can keep its focus. The approaches have been different. Mark Richt has talked about emotion this week, while Saban has talked about controlling emotions. His Friday analogy was a heavyweight fight - "you can throw a lot of punches in the first round, but you still need to be punching in the 15th round." He talked about control, about not being outcome-oriented, the same theme he has sounded all season.

It has worked, not perfectly, but well enough. Now, Alabama is here, controlling its destiny - and in a position to recapture the Missing Ring, the SEC championship, that eluded it a year ago.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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