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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
SEC Championship - Atlanta, GA

SEC Championship Game not likely to lose its luster

4 hours ago
Joe Menzer | SEC Network
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

With the College Football Playoffs expanding to 12 teams from four beginning next season and conferences reshuffling across America these days, there appears to be a perception that conference championship games may be about to lose some of their luster.

That is not the way anyone from the SEC seems to see it, especially those from No. 1 Georgia and No. 8 Alabama that are set to square off in this Saturday's latest SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

"This is something you dream of as a kid," Alabama linebacker Deontae Lawson said.

Georgia defensive back Kamari Lassiter agrees.

"Being able to play in this game, it's a huge honor in my opinion," Lassiter said. "The SEC is one of the best conferences in the country, so just being able to play in the championship of one of the best conferences in the country is a testament to both teams -- how hard they work, how hard both teams have put in the effort and the training to be able to make it here. So it's a great opportunity and a huge blessing."

Don't tell either of the two coaches who will stalk the sidelines this Saturday that any of that is about to change.

"I think winning the SEC is always a big thing," said Saban, who will be coaching in his 13th SEC title clash. "Ever since I've been in this league, when you played in this game, when maybe the (College Football) Playoffs weren't the significant outcome that it is right now, it was still something special to be able to win the SEC."

Georgia coach Kirby Smart added: "It's an opportunity that was earned by our team and this program. I know our players are certainly excited for the opportunity. I tell them all the time it's one of the best venues, best atmospheres in all of sports."

This will be Smart's sixth appearance as head coach of the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship, all in the last seven years. Georgia defeated Auburn in 2017 and LSU last year, but lost to Alabama in both 2018 and 2021 with another loss to LSU sandwiched in between in 2019.

Georgia has not lost a game since dropping the title bout to Bama in 2021, ripping off a remarkable SEC-record 29 wins in a row since. 

Smart said he understands why some believe a broader College Football Playoff field might water down some conference championship games, but he doesn't believe it will happen. And certainly he does not believe it will happen in the SEC.

"I would think that other conferences will have conference championship games that will impact the 12-team playoff in terms of if a team wins, they jump into the 12, and if a team loses, they fall out of the 12," Smart said. "Certainly if you look over the history of the SEC, it might not impact the 12. It might impact who has to play when, who gets byes. You're playing for a bye, for a home game. You're playing to get in, to get knocked out.

"None of all of that matters to me as much as an SEC Championship does. I think that's lost on everybody. Nobody cares. All they want to know is who's the champion of the NCAA and the national champion, not who is the conference champion. Maybe that's lessened in value to the outside world. It hasn't lessened in value to the coaching world or the men in our room, the players."

Saban won his first two SEC Championship Games while head coach at LSU in 2001 and 2003, respectively. His 2003 LSU team went on to win the first of his seven national championships as well.

Since his arrival at Alabama in 2007, Saban's teams have appeared in 10 previous conference title games and won eight of them. He is quick to remind everyone that none of those were claimed easily.

"This is a great league. There are a lot of good teams," Saban said. "For your team to get in the position to play another great team in this league... it means a lot to me. I think it means a lot to our players.

"I think it will mean a lot in the future as well. Whether there's four teams in the playoffs or 12 teams in the playoffs, this game also has some significance in terms of what might happen in the (CFP)."

Lawson insisted that all the players involved understand the ramifications of Saturday's latest contest, and that it goes beyond likely deciding which of the two schools advances on to current four-team CFP to compete for a national title.

"It's going to be a great atmosphere," Lawson said. "This is always the type of game that you want to play in growing up, and I think it's going to be a challenge for us as a team. We love that."

Smart fully understands. But just to make sure all his players do, too, he recently reminded them of what is at stake.

"We had a team meeting not too long ago," Smart said. "I said we've won as many SEC championships as we have national championships around here. They're hard to win. You better appreciate 'em. They're really hard to do. So I have an appreciation for winning a conference championship. It's hard."