The Tide turned against Bulldogs on grand stage

ATHENS, Ga. --- Remember the climactic scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ? Paul Newman and Robert Redford are pinned down by the entire Bolivian army but still seem hopeful they can shoot their way out of another impossible situation.

"For a moment there I thought we were in trouble," said Cassidy before they burst into the courtyard, guns drawn and blazing, and meet their demise.

It was like that Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs burst out of the end zone tunnel dressed in black. Just as Alabama's strength coach famously predicted with a complete presence of malice, it was for a funeral.

Georgia's hoped-for football empire falls before it even got to October. To paraphrase native Augustan and former Auburn coach Pat Dye from a few years ago, Georgia clearly wasn't hombre enough to beat back the Tide.

It's too bad. Georgia had a lot on the table for this one. With No. 1 Southern Cal's upset loss on Thursday and No. 4 Florida's semi-annual meltdown in Mississippi earlier in the day, the stage was set for the Dawgs to stake their claim in the national polls and the SEC East.

Mark Richt should have seen this coming. Maybe he senses it, which is why he closed practices to the media all week. Richt helicoptered into Atlanta last month in time enough to see the faces of the beaten and bedraggled Clemson Tigers after they absorbed Alabama's opening-night Sockarooni at the Georgia Dome.

But these were the Bulldogs. This wasn't an ACC team. This was the program that turned a page last mid-season and was picked to win it all this year. Surely they wouldn't get pushed around between the hedges by team that lost to Lousiana-Monroe last year.

So after a long, hot summer, the weather broke enough for Richt to comfortably call on another inspirational blackout. For UGA merchandisers, black is the color of money. Sales of black jerseys, black T-shirts, black sundresses and black paint must have made products scarcer on local shelves than gas at the pumps.

Alabama got the memo as well. They posted the funeral notices on the Georgia bulletin board this week and backed it up. The Tide fans more than filled their ticket allotment on a second bruising road trip across state lines into Georgia this season. And they all wore contrasting white as a message: it's their field, it's their hedges and it's their town, but tonight we got our fans with us.

And the 'Bama fans had just as much to cheer about as they did a month ago against the Tigers in the Georgia Dome. It was an eerie repeat of their demolition of the Tigers and inspired even more stunned silence. Dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage will do that. This was not a bunch of fast Eddies that was making Georgia look so bad. These were just big, solid football players playing the kind of fundamental football that would have made Bear Bryant proud.

You half expected Richt to walk into a dazed locker room at halftime and put up a bounty for anybody who really nails any one of the creeps on the other side of the line.

Alabama defensive lineman Terrence Cody -- all 6-foot-5, nearly 400 pounds of him -- looks as though he might have eaten 50 eggs for breakfast. He's a natural born world-shaker and a disruptive presence for an offensive line still coming of age. He and the rest of his teammates were too hard a case for the Bulldogs to crack. They all looked like the Hanson brothers, putting on the foil and putting a beating on the Bulldogs that was hard to believe.

Georgia needed its right-handed gun Matthew Stafford to have a cool hand in the face of such turmoil. He didn't.

The Bulldogs certainly needed a defense to play with a little discipline. They didn't. After a penalty-plagued first quarter, it looked like the young men in the silver britches would have to do what Florida's Tim Tebow did earlier in the day and apologize for the performance.

It was 7-0 after one Tide possession; 10-0 after two; 17-0 after three; 24-0 after four; 31-0 after five. Somewhere between the game-planning and the execution, there was a failure to communicate.

Nick Saban, on the other hand, is nobody's fool. Given an entire off-season to game-plan for Clemson, he made the ACC's presumed best look like a Division I-AA team. But given only a week to get ready for the SEC's presumed best, he actually made the Bulldogs look even worse.

At the end of this much-anticipated night, there would be an exodus through every hole in the wall of Sanford Stadium with a lot of black-clad Bulldogs fans shaking their heads and feeling hustled. Did somebody up there not like them?

This loss would sting. Fans hoped to toast another step toward the national title. Instead, all they were left with is a bunch of empty cups.

By the time this was over almost before it started, the verdict was in on the preseason No. 1 team. The Crimson Tide might be the SEC's best team on the road to the national championship game. The Bulldogs may not be on the road to perdition (or Shreveport), but the road may not be leading where everyone hoped.

As Mike Tyson once said, the title dreams may have faded into Bolivian. That place didn't work out so well for Butch and Sundance, either.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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