ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt likes the way Nick Saban thinks.
At least he did Saturday night, while watching Saban’s Alabama team come back to beat Arkansas 41-38 — after blowing a 21-point lead — with a touchdown pass in the closing seconds.
Only minutes before, Saban made the exact same decision Richt made in the closing minutes against South Carolina just over a week ago. He elected to kick a field goal with just less than 5 minutes remaining and hoped the defense could get a stop with enough time on the clock to drive for the winning touchdown.
The strategy worked for 16th-ranked Alabama (3-0, 2-0 SEC). If it had worked for No. 22 Georgia (2-1, 0-1), this Saturday night’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium would be between a pair of unbeaten teams.
"I thought it was the right thing to do for us and it turned out to be the right thing to do for them because they got their stop," Richt said.
As much as Georgia’s 16-12 loss to South Carolina was a reality check concerning the shortcomings of the Bulldogs’ team, the Alabama game could be an even greater indicator of where this season is headed.
Richt’s is a team short on experienced depth in many spots — and Saturday’s nationally televised game will be many of those youngsters’ first game away from Sanford Stadium’s hedge-lined turf.
"There’s an awful lot of guys that will be playing away from home for the first time. They’ll be playing in a very hostile environment for the first time," Richt said. "There’s a lot of things that we are gonna learn about this team, absolutely."
In his first season at Alabama, Saban — who along with Richt is one of only six coaches to win two Southeastern Conference titles in his first five seasons — has already made an enormous splash. The Crimson Tide made it into the recently released Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season and hardly seem to be the same team as the one that finished 6-7 last season under Mike Shula.
"They’ve got a lot of momentum," Richt said. "It’s hard to get it started sometimes, but once you get it rolling, it’s also very difficult to slow down. So that’s gonna be our challenge."
Saturday’s nailbiter against Arkansas was the first time the Tide has been truly tested after an easy win over Vanderbilt and a blowout over Western Carolina in the opener.
Western Carolina, Georgia's 45-16 victim on Saturday, has a good vantage point on the two teams, having already played both.
Alabama defeated the Division I-AA Catamounts more soundly, 52-6, but Western Carolina quarterback Todd Spitzer said Georgia was a more imposing opponent.
"Alabama was great, but Georgia was faster and stronger," Spitzer. "These are tough games, but it can be expected to go like this when you play an SEC team."
Physicality figures to be one of the most important dynamics this week — even moreso than usual. Georgia’s developing offensive line must perform more consistently than it has thus far, while the Bulldogs’ defensive line will have its hands full with Alabama’s gifted, veteran front line.
Containing redshirt freshman tailback Terry Grant and pressuring quarterback John Parker Wilson will be difficult for the Bulldogs without consistent pressure up front.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, the D-line play and O-line play will be huge," Richt said.
Georgia will benefit from the probable return of at least two starters who missed Saturday's game with injuries. Safety Kelin Johnson (ribs) and cornerback Bryan Evans (knee) should both be back, and tailback Kregg Lumpkin could be back to at least contribute on special teams, and possibly to carry the ball.
Lumpkin has missed the last two games since breaking his thumb in the season-opening win over Oklahoma State.
Contact David Ching at 706-571-8571