Alabama football: 5 things that will most dictate the Tide's chance to upset Georgia
Alabama will arrive in Atlanta with everything imaginable on the line.
- An SEC championship trophy and the Tide’s general dominance of the conference that’s lasted for the past 15 years.
- A College Football Playoff berth
- The opportunity to reclaim the sport’s national penthouse.
There is a dynasty to be preserved.
There is the architect of that dynasty, Nick Saban, trying like heck to keep one of his pupils, Kirby Smart, from becoming the new king of college football — although some would argue he already has.
There is Jalen Milroe trying, once and for all, to make Crimson Tide fans forget Bryce Young with a late push for a Heisman Trophy to match the one Young claimed 2 years ago.
There is the chance for Bama to show everyone that the 10-game win streak, the 11-1 regular-season record, the 8-0 march through the SEC, wasn’t just a mirage capped by a miracle at Auburn.
And there is the ultimate opportunity to be the team that denies Georgia its 30th straight victory and an unfathomable 3rd straight national championship, something that hasn’t been done since Minnesota did the hat trick in the mid-1930s.
With 1 seismic victory over its neighboring state rival, Alabama can put a stop, at least temporarily, to the shift that’s taken place over the past 2 seasons as the Bulldogs won their 1st national title since 1980, repeated in 2022 and then came back for thirds in 2023.
It’s not a best-of-7, or a best-of-5 or a best-of-3.
It’s a best-of-1.
One Saturday afternoon that sneaks into early evening, one 4-hour war of attrition that will seem like a blur but have everlasting rewards and far-reaching effects.
One block of time with everything in the balance for Bama against the program that is on the brink of becoming the New Bama.
With one gargantuan performance inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Tide can deny the top-ranked Bulldogs a repeat SEC title and — if things break a certain way elsewhere on Championship Weekend — possibly even a Playoff spot and a shot at that historic 3rd straight national championship.
Alabama can accomplish all of that, in 1 fell swoop, but it won’t be easy. It’ll be really hard, and it should be.
Georgia is only a 5-point favorite, but don’t let that early week point spread fool you. Saban knows his team got away with one last Saturday on The Plains, and he knows that a bunch of things will need to happen for his team to take down the program that hasn’t lost since the Tide toppled the Dawgs in this very game 2 years ago.
With that in mind, we’ll pick out the 5 things that will most dictate Bama’s chances of upsetting Georgia, because though it sounds really weird to say, the Alabama Crimson Tide are an underdog in a really big game.
1. Will Jase McClellan play?
No, the senior running back didn’t live up to his preseason Maxwell Award billing. But, yes, McClellan was still vital to the Crimson Tide offense throughout 2023 and his mere presence as a threat against a vaunted Georgia defense would be beyond huge. His absence, because of a lingering foot injury, would be beyond crushing. Right now, the Tide are calling McClellan questionable for Saturday’s game.
McClellan barely snuck above 800 yards rushing this fall and his 6 rushing touchdowns in 12 games weren’t overwhelming. But he did average a hair below 5 yards per carry, he’s got a ton of experience in enormous games like, oh, Saturday’s, for example, and not having him available would be a huge blow not just for the Tide offense in general but specifically for Milroe, who could very well have some early jitters in his 1st SEC title game.
Yes, Bama still has other very talented, very capable running backs, like fellow senior Roydell Williams, who’s been around the block in crucial situations like Saturday’s. Sophomore Jam Miller can be electrifying at a moment’s notice, but he only has 31 carries to his name in 2023, so expecting him to carry the ground game in an SEC Championship Game is a little unrealistic. Justice Haynes and Richard Young both have bright futures in Tuscaloosa, but they’re freshmen who’ve only seen very limited duty, so what can you really expect?
Saban said on Sunday that McClellan has been dealing with this foot problem all season and tweaked it on Saturday against Auburn. McClellan was seen on crutches afterward, and Saban isn’t sure how much or even if his starting running back will practice this week. The skeptics and cynics will say this is all a ploy to somehow catch the Dawgs off guard, but the realists will look at McClellan’s failure to fully bust out this fall and start thinking that maybe it was this foot issue that’s held him back. Whatever this really is, it’s a nuisance and a concern as championship week progresses.
2. How will Milroe respond to the stage?
This one is arguably the most important one, because as important as McClellan is to everything Alabama will attempt to do on Saturday, nobody is more crucial in a championship setting than the starting quarterback, and particularly a starting quarterback who’s never been in a game of this magnitude. Yes, Milroe has ascended from the benched QB who couldn’t hack it as Young’s successor to being Milroe the miracle worker in the Iron Bowl and even a fringe Heisman candidate.
All of that is well and good and wonderful for the young man. He answered the bell through the SEC gauntlet when many doubted him and called for Ty Simpson or Tyler Buchner. Milroe will always be remembered for being the guy who sucked it up and helped the Tide find their way back to Atlanta after a 1-year hiatus. But how will he really be remembered when it comes to championship moments, when there is a trophy in the waiting and a dynasty to be preserved and the current biggest, baddest college football team on the planet is standing in the way?
What then? Those aforementioned early jitters could be a reality for Milroe, and that would be OK and even expected. Because he’s never started a football game for Alabama quite like this, or even close to it. This is the real thing. We know how Young responded. He had a lot of practice in the biggest moments and he succeeded a lot and failed some (see the national title game against Georgia 2 years ago). We don’t know how Milroe will respond until the Tide are either SEC champs and Playoff bound or neither one. Of course, Milroe could respond just fine, play a fine football game and still see his team fall short.
But for Bama to truly have a shot at taking down the Dawgs, it’s going to have to get the best version of Milroe, the version we’ve seen for many weeks now who isn’t afraid to make a play and, more importantly, isn’t afraid to make the crucial mistake with the game on the line. And look, 1st-year Georgia starter Carson Beck is going to have the same deal, because despite the 12-0 record and top ranking, Beck has never played a game of this magnitude either. Stetson Bennett is long gone. If Milroe can outplay Beck, if he can respond better than his counterpart to those certain-to-be-there nerves, then Bama could be the last one standing in this ultimate SEC heavyweight slugfest.
3. Where there’s a Will there’s a way
About 11 months ago, after Bama blasted Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl to end a disappointing 2022 season, longtime Tide kicker Will Reichard said his goodbyes and was seemingly off to the Senior Bowl. Then he had a sudden change of heart and returned to Tuscaloosa for 1 more season. The Hoover native just couldn’t leave his beloved school quite yet.
He wanted more. He wanted to be in T-Town for another year, and he wanted to make field goals and extra points for another fall. And, of course, he wanted the opportunity to kick in the biggest of moments, to potentially have a game or, ahem, an SEC title riding on his right leg. Well, here we are, and here Reichard is. Bama is back in Atlanta, and Reichard will have a shot to be the difference maker with his big-game experience and poise.
Saturday could end up being a blowout, but you would think it’ll be just the opposite. In a potential down-to-the-wire scenario, the Tide have a kicker who’s been around forever and kicked in the biggest of games. Reichard was good yet again in 2023, making 18 of 21 field-goal attempts, including all 3 from 50-plus yards. He’s only missed 2 extra points in 5 seasons. And he’s got the ultimate motivation to try to end his long career in T-Town the right way. Nobody should ever take Reichard for granted, and nobody should underestimate Reichard’s potential impact in a setting like Saturday’s.
4. Will the Tide defense never rest?
Georgia’s offense is obviously explosive, even in its current banged-up state (see Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and RaRa Thomas). The Bulldogs started slow transitioning from Bennett to Beck, but they started humming during the meat of the SEC grind, and they’ll be an enormous challenge for a Tide defense that has answered every call after laying that Week 2 egg against Texas.
Since allowing 34 points (and 454 total yards) to the Horns in the season’s lone loss, Bama has kept everybody under 30 points. LSU put up 28 on the Tide but only managed 7 in the 2nd half and 0 in the 4th quarter. The Crimson Tide shut down the high-octane Tigers when it mattered most, in 1 of the season’s biggest wins. Now come the Dawgs and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who’s answered the call himself after the early season insults from now-spoiled Bulldogs fans.
Dallas Turner said way back during SEC Media Days in July that he was the best defensive player in the SEC. Well, all these months later, he’s got the perfect opportunity and stage to prove it. If he can just be the best defensive player on the field Saturday, that might be good enough. The Bulldogs haven’t been held under 30 points since late September. If 30 can be the magic number again for the Tide defense, then it might just be a magical evening in Atlanta.
5. Can Jermaine Burton be part of the solution?
It took until the SEC title game of his senior year, but, finally, Burton and the program he bolted from a few years ago have found each other again. The wide receiver helped the Bulldogs topple the Crimson Tide in the national title game 2 seasons ago, chipping in 2 catches for 28 yards. Burton got his chip, at Bama’s expense, and then he transferred to Tuscaloosa to catch passes from Young.
His 2 seasons in T-Town have been an adventure, to be frank. He’s never quite exploded like many thought and hoped. But he’s had his moments, like last Saturday against Auburn when he hauled in an electrifying 68-yard touchdown pass to give Bama a halftime lead. Like in early October in College Station, when Burton went ballistic, catching 9 passes for 197 yards and 2 TDs. Burton had an underwhelming 33 catches for 749 yards and 7 touchdowns this season, but he’s got it in him. He’s shown it, just in brief bursts.
Presumably, situations and stages like Saturday are why Burton up and left a potential dynasty program to join the longtime dynasty in the neighboring state. He doesn’t need to repeat his heroics against Texas A&M. Just a few timely Burton bursts might be enough. If he can manage that and help the Tide knock off the Dawgs, it would totally change the narrative surrounding his time in Tuscaloosa. He’d suddenly turn from enigma to savior.