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Georgia eager to carve out new legacy vs. Alabama

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Georgia eager to carve out new legacy vs. Alabama

ATLANTA (AP) 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 Saturday'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.

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

- 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.)

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

- 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 Shawn Williams called out his defensive teammates before a big game against Florida, accusing them on playing ``soft.'' Over 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 over 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.

Over 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 over 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 over 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 over 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,'' cornerback Damian Swann. ``We know we're just as good as them, if not better.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

But Russia was 6-0 heading into the matchup with Sweden on Tuesday night and had outscored its opponents 29-3 in Group B despite just a goal and an assist from Ovechkin. 

There can be wild fluctuations in the competition level during the group stage at Worlds. The Russians beat Italy 10-0 last week. And the United States, Canada and Finland are all formidable opponents in Group A. 

Russia will likely play one of those teams in the quarterfinals on Thursday so nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they do win and then the gold-medal game - or the bronze-medal game - would be Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest and get ready for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.” 

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Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly sat down with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis about the head front-office opening on Friday.

On Monday, NBC Sports Washington confirmed that he decided to stick with his role as president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets

A day later, he spoke to the media at a press conference and answered questions about his meeting with Washington.

Clear in Connelly's comments were his respect for Leonsis, but commitment to continuity in Denver. 

"I had a really nice conversation with Mr. Leonsis and his staff. He's a fantastic owner, I think a real visionary. I was really impressed by who he was and his thoughts for the team. That team's going to be special quickly under his leadership. We just had a conversation and not much more than that."

As for the reason for the discussion with Leonsis, Connelly said it came down to his love for the franchise. 

"I spent 14 years there. Certainly it's where I'm from, it's where my wife's from, so I just wanted to have the conversation because I care about the organization," he said.

"I'd never had an audience with [Leonsis], so to have that conversation and exchange of ideas, you know, it's flattering." 

Ultimately, however, the Baltimore native emphasized that Washington couldn't entice him away from the franchise he'd spent the last six years building. 

"Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that's here in spades. Those things matter to me," he said. "I had a hard time envisioning myself elsewhere."

With Connelly out of the picture, the list of candidates for the Wizards front-office opening is narrowing. Currently, Tommy Sheppard, Danny Ferry and Troy Weaver remain in the conversation. 

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