It had to end like this, right?

Alabama vs. Georgia. Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart. Master vs. disciple. Alabama West vs. Alabama East. Established program vs. on the rise program. SEC vs. SEC.

OK, just kidding on the last one. Believe it or not, the regular season didn’t provide overwhelming evidence that the SEC was certainly going to have two teams in the national championship game. To be honest, Alabama and Georgia making the national championship doesn’t suggest that the conference was suddenly dominant throughout the regular season. It just suggests what we already knew.

Alabama and Georgia are extremely good football teams. How fitting it is that they’ll finally square off with everything on the line.

It’ll be the fifth time that the teams will face off since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. It’ll be the first time that the teams face off since Smart left Saban’s staff for Athens.

The latter is more important for discussing this year’s matchup. Saban knows he’s not preparing to shut down Mark Richt’s squad. He’s preparing to face a Georgia squad that’s been almost more Alabama-like than his own team in 2017.

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As much as I disagree with the 8-game conference schedule, it did help things work out this way. In a way, it’s better that Alabama and Georgia never played in the regular season or in the SEC Championship. They both got to travel on this linear path that will finally collide next Monday night in Atlanta.

It’ll be different than 2011, when Saban’s game plan for LSU was making adjustments off the 9-6 overtime loss his team suffered against the Tigers in November. This is the first chapter in this new rivalry with these two coaches.

Though based on the numbers, Saban could already be one step ahead of Smart come Monday. Saban is 11-0 against his former assistants. Few spent more time on his staff than Smart, who was the last defensive coordinator to lead Alabama to a national title in 2015. Smart and Saban were on the same sideline for four national title games. They never lost one together.

Yeah, something tells me that you’ll hear more about that this week. They’re probably both sick of answering questions about each other already.

But as they’ll tell you, this game is bigger than two coaches finally battling on opposite sides. This is about a Georgia team trying to steal that torch from Alabama. This is about two fanbases who are desperate to hold on to what they have.

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What Smart and the Dawgs have is more momentum than any program in America. Winning the SEC, winning the Early Signing Period and earning a national championship invite tells the story on that. Alabama can only claim one of those three things.

What Alabama can claim is, in my opinion, one of the top achievements in the sport in the 21st century. Reaching the national championship 3 consecutive years is new territory, even for Saban. An accomplishment like that doesn’t suggest that the Tide is ready to just willingly pass the torch to Georgia. At least not yet.

Besides, did anything we saw from Alabama against Clemson look like a dynasty in its final chapter? Certainly not. And did anything about Georgia’s seniors willing them to a comeback victory against Oklahoma suggest they were nothing more than a fun story? Absolutely not.

Obviously, one of those things has to give Monday. Alabama will either complete its redemption tour or it will fall victim to another up-and-coming program. Georgia will either complete its fairytale story or it’ll be another team to fall victim to big, bad Alabama.

It’s going to be fascinating to see this chess battle. That’s what this is going to be. With a week to prepare for a game on a neutral site, there won’t be any excuses. Neither team will have a Jordan-Hare disadvantage. Well, that’s assuming the Georgia fans don’t completely overtake Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

They might. They waited 37 long years for this. Alabama fans waited 12 long months. The rested of us waited 4 months for this matchup.

Finally, it’s here.