SEC CHAMPIONSHIP --- PREVIEW: Is it now or never for Richt?

Alabama coach Nick Saban, right, leaves the podium to give Georgia coach Mark Richt a chance to speak to reporters Friday on the eve of the Southeastern Conference Championship game in Atlanta. The winner will play Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. Alabama is the reigning national champ, while UGA hasn’t won a title since 1980.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, right, leaves the podium to give Georgia coach Mark Richt a chance to speak to reporters Friday on the eve of the Southeastern Conference Championship game in Atlanta. The winner will play Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. Alabama is the reigning national champ, while UGA hasn’t won a title since 1980.

Bainbridge’s Smart, Thomasville’s Bobo renew long rivalry

ATLANTA — They’ve shared a lot of things over the years, but one thing you can be certain best friends and former college roommates Kirby Smart and Mike Bobo didn’t share this week was any type of inside information about tonight’s SEC Championship game.

Smart, a native of Bainbridge and former UGA star who roomed with Bobo when the duo played in Athens between 1993 and 1998, leads the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide’s defense into battle tonight against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs and Bobo’s offense. It’s their fourth career meeting as assistant coaches.

The duo downplayed the head-to-head matchup to a degree this week during the leadup, but there was no denying that either wants to be on the losing end of today’s game — even if it means his best friend goes on to play for the national title.

It’s a competitive fire that’s burned for years, with no signs of going out.

“We’ve tended to compete at everything that we’ve ever done, from cards to golf to who can get to the store the fastest,” Bobo told AL.com this week. “It’s just one of those things. It never ends pretty, so let’s just see not really who wins or loses but who talks the most. That’s usually in golf, but he usually has the better partner, by the way.”

Bobo was raised in Thomasville just down the road from Smart — separated by a mere 50 miles. And while they’d been friends for years before ever coming to Georgia — Bobo signed as quarterback and played from 1993-97, while Smart was a safety who played from 1994-98 — the duo became best friends once they got to Athens.

They “were like two peas in a pod,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told the website.

They’ve met three times before, and Bobo is ahead — but just barely.

In 2004, Georgia beat LSU, 45-16, when Bobo was UGA’s quarterbacks coach and Smart was coaching LSU’s DBs.

In 2007, it was Bobo coming out on top again when — in his first year as the offensive coordinator — the Bulldogs beat the Tide, 26-23, in overtime Smart’s first year as Alabama’s DBs coach.

But in their most recent meeting in 2008, Smart and Alabama crushed UGA, 41-30, after jumping out a 31-0 halftime lead and cruising to a win.

Now No. 4 is here.

“There’s a lot of pride there,” Richt told AL.com. “They want to win. They’re both highly competitive guys, man. They love football. They’re great football coaches. They’re super competitive. They want to win. They certainly want to win against one of their best friends in life that they’re going to have to talk with and deal with the rest of the year and the rest of their careers. Yeah, that is an interesting matchup right there.”

Smart’s dad, Sonny, would agree.

“They are both such competitors,” Sonny Smart told the website. “That’s the way they grew up. It’s in their nature. They’ve been that way since they were little kids.”

ATLANTA — The national championship could be decided with a dream matchup between two of college football’s most storied programs: Notre Dame vs. Alabama.

Of course, Georgia might have something to say about that.

The third-ranked Bulldogs are eager to wake up some echoes of their own.

Coach Mark Richt’s team will take on No. 2 Alabama in a Southeastern Conference title game that essentially serves as a national semifinal. The winner of today’s contest at the Georgia Dome will surely land a spot against top-ranked Notre Dame in the BCS title game at Miami on Jan. 7.

While Alabama (11-1) is a seven-point favorite to remain on course for its third crown in four years, Georgia (11-1) wants to carve out its own legacy, something beyond the great teams of the early 1980s led by Herschel Walker.

“We respect and honor those guys that played ahead of us, but we really need to give the fans something else to talk about,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “If that’s all we have to talk about, we must not be doing anything special.”

Georgia won its only Associated Press national title in 1980, Walker’s freshman year. The Bulldogs were in position to win another two years later, the running back’s final season between the hedges, but Penn State knocked them off in the Sugar Bowl.

In an interesting twist, Walker announced this week that he’ll soon be opening a restaurant in Athens after the first of the year. By then, the Bulldogs hope they’ve cooked up another national title.

All those who’ve come along since Walker will be cheering on this team, including Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. He played at Georgia in the late ’90s and planned to give the Bulldogs a pep talk by phone.

“We can’t let this one slide,” Bailey said. “This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because I’m tired of people talking about Herschel Walker. That was 30-something years ago. There’s been a lot of things happen between now and then, but no championships. That’s why they still talk about him.”

Indeed, even though Georgia finished No. 2 in the AP rankings in 2007, this is the best shot at finishing No. 1 since the Walker era. If the Bulldogs win the next two games, they’re the champions.

“We’re hungry,” Robinson said. “We’ve got something to prove.”

So does Alabama.

A year ago, the Crimson Tide didn’t even make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game — LSU won the Western Division — but Alabama got a do-over against the Tigers for the BCS title. Even with a resounding 21-0 victory, there are still those who think the Tide didn’t deserve a second chance after losing to LSU in the regular season.

If Alabama beats Georgia and Notre Dame, no one can say the Tide didn’t earn it, despite an upset loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.

“There is a lot more pressure, but that is what we like,” running back Eddie Lacy said. “You come to Alabama to be in situations like this and play in games like this.”

The SEC finalists are remarkably similar on paper.

g Georgia’s Aaron Murray is the nation’s top-rated passer, just ahead of Alabama’s AJ McCarron.

g The Crimson Tide has a dynamic running back duo with Lacy (1,001 yards, 14 touchdowns) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (847 yards, 10 TDs). So does Georgia with a pair of freshmen, Todd Gurley (1,138 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Keith Marshall (720 yards, eight TDs.)

g Each squad has lost a couple of key receivers to injuries.

g Alabama leads the nation in points allowed (9.2 per game) and total defense (233.7 yards). Georgia has been just as stout since senior safety and former Early County star Shawn Williams called out his defensive teammates before a big game against Florida, accusing them on playing “soft.” During the last five weeks, the Bulldogs have surrendered just 43 points.

“This matchup is right on,” Georgia receiver Tavarres King said. “These are two great teams, two physical teams that get after it every Saturday. It should be a fun game.”

Alabama has played in plenty of epic contests during the last five years, and coach Nick Saban is one of the best at preparing his players for these sort of pressure-packed settings.

In fact, from the way the Crimson Tide was talking all week, this is no big deal.

“Just another game,” McCarron said. “That’s the biggest thing everyone just needs to remember. Don’t make the game bigger than what it is. Just another Saturday.”

This is still rather new for the Bulldogs.

In Murray’s first two seasons as the starting quarterback, Georgia failed to beat a team in the Top 10. That steak continued in the only loss this season, a 35-7 blowout at South Carolina. But a 17-9 victory against then-No. 3 Florida propelled the Bulldogs to the top of the SEC East, and a favorable schedule helped keep them there.

“Before that Florida game, nobody thought we could win a big game,” Robinson said. “Well, we did that. So we can mark that off and go on to something else — winning a championship.”

This game will likely be decided in the trenches, especially by the performance of Georgia’s young offensive line.

The Bulldogs have a sophomore at center (David Andrews) and a freshman at right tackle (John Theus), so they could have their hands full trying to control an Alabama front that is so dominating, not much blitzing is required to get pressure on the quarterback and clog up the running lanes.

But the Crimson Tide was exposed a bit in a last-minute win against LSU and the shocking loss to the Aggies, giving up more than 400 yards in each game. Georgia will be counting on Murray to finally come up big on the biggest stage, a goal that has eluded him during his record-breaking career in Athens. He was awful against South Carolina, completing just 11 of 31 for 109 yards. He threw three interceptions against Florida, but the defense bailed him out.

Showing how much this game meant, Murray — normally one of the most media-friendly players on the team — has done no interviews since a 42-10 win against rival Georgia Tech last weekend.

Alabama will have to keep an eye on Jarvis Jones, a terror in Georgia’s 3-4 defense. Despite being nagged by injuries and missing two games, the junior linebacker has 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He is up for numerous national awards and perhaps has a chance to earn his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony if he comes up huge against the Crimson Tide.

“You certainly have to have a plan to try and help the players that have to block him, so hopefully he can’t just get in one-on-one situations where it’s a difficult circumstance for somebody,” Saban said. “There have been games this year where he has made a phenomenal amount of plays, like sacks and causing fumbles. The guy is probably one of the best defensive players in the country in terms of his play-making ability.”

Jones and his teammates want to show they match up well with a team such as Alabama.

And mess up that dream matchup in Miami, for good measure.

“All you hear is Bama this, Bama that,” UGA cornerback Damian Swann. “We know we’re just as good as them, if not better.”