I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that up until Monday, Nick Saban had never called a true freshman tight end “one of the premier players in college football.” It’s rare to hear that said about any freshman, much less one who plays such a demanding position like tight end.

Spending 60 minutes trying to cover Brock Bowers will make a man say some unprecedented things.

“Trying” is the key word right there. The Georgia tight end was the lone offensive bright spot for the Dawgs in the SEC Championship. He had a career-high 10 catches for a career-high 139 yards and a score. Beyond that, Bowers owns virtually every meaningful record for a Georgia tight end, and he’s riding a streak of 4 consecutive games with a touchdown. That 12th touchdown of the year, which happened on the first drive of the Orange Bowl, broke UGA’s single-season record for receiving scores.

Again, he is a true freshman. Last year, we rightfully praised Arik Gilbert for hauling in 35 catches for 368 yards as a true freshman tight end, which is roughly what Bowers had just in UGA’s past 4 games.

Bowers is so good already that it didn’t even make headlines that Saban called him “one of the premier players in college football.” So what would stopping him actually look like?

One would assume that on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Saban will do everything in his power to make sure that Bowers doesn’t torch the Tide defense again. The Alabama coach won’t put that on the back burner, even in the event that Bowers is somewhat limited with a nagging shoulder injury. Kirby Smart said that Bowers is good and that “it’s something you have to deal with.”

Bowers has been “something you have to deal with” for defensive coordinators all year. He’s had either 4 catches or 50 yards in 9 of UGA’s 14 games. Alabama did become the first team to prevent Bowers from gaining 10-plus yards on that end-around that Todd Monken likes to draw up for him. As for containing him in the passing game, well, that’s a different beast.

Alabama never really found that answer. It’s hard to contain someone who can turn this type of play into a touchdown:

No individual matchup will work for Alabama against Bowers, especially not Henry To’o To’o, who has struggled mightily in coverage (only 15 qualified Power 5 linebackers had a worse PFF coverage grade than To’o To’o in 2021). Putting a linebacker on Bowers is asking for problems.

Ask Michigan about that:

It’s also not a situation where the Tide will hope that Bowers’ passing game prowess will be neutralized in an effort to provide extra protection against Will Anderson. In 609 offensive snaps, Bowers was only asked to pass protect on 27 snaps (4% of the time). That’s for a guy who faced Anderson and Aidan Hutchinson the past 2 games (he did at least chip block both of them). If Bowers is on the field for a passing play, he’s running routes and you’d better figure out how to prevent him from capitalizing on a mismatch.

The one major instance in which Alabama got the better of Bowers came on Bennett’s most costly mistake of the game. Anderson didn’t bite on the fake swing pass, and a rushed Bennett targeted Bowers in zone coverage. The problem? Bowers didn’t recognize the situation and he stopped the route behind the defender instead of in front of him. That led to Bennett forcing the throw, which was picked off by DeMarcco Hellams:

That’s the downside of having a true freshman as your best receiving option.

Ideally, Alabama would play a ton of zone coverage while forcing pressure without sending extra rushers. That would force Bowers to have to adjust his routes and put pressure on Bennett to make those quick decisions. We’d see more plays like the one Hellams made. Jordan Battle, who PFF graded as the No. 3 FBS coverage safety in FBS, should be heavily involved in any plan to contain Bowers, as well.

But that’s ideal, and perhaps not sustainable. Hence, why Bowers still went off in the 4th quarter when the Dawgs were in obvious passing situations. If zone coverage was his downfall, he would’ve been figured out months ago. Instead, Monken showed he could get him involved with screens and quick outs. Expect more of that, especially on the left side, where Bennett is 15-of-16 for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns when targeting Bowers (via Bill Connelly).

Remember that time when he showed off that absurd speed and split essentially the entire Georgia Tech defense for a 77-yard touchdown? It came against drop-8, zone coverage on the left side of the hash:

Mercy. Can’t teach that type of explosiveness.

Perhaps we should simply expect more of Alabama struggling to stop explosive tight ends. That trend goes back to 2020. Look at some of these tight end performances against the Tide since the start of 2020:

  • Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M (2020), 8 catches, 82 yards
  • Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss (2020) — 7 catches, 181 yards, 2 TDs
  • Kyle Pitts, Florida (2020) — 7 catches, 129 yards, 1 TD
  • Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M (2021) —  3 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD
  • Brock Bowers, Georgia (2021) — 10 catches, 139 yards, 1 TD

(Alabama literally attempted to triple team Pitts on his 4th quarter touchdown in last year’s SEC Championship. That’s different than letting Wydermyer run free against busted coverage, even if the result was the same.)

It’s also worth mentioning that Alabama won 4 of those 5 games. Wydermyer’s 2021 showing was the only one of those tight end performances that resulted in a defeat of the Tide.

As great as Bowers was, his career day (so far) came in a 17-point Georgia loss. It’s possible that Alabama’s defense will keep giving Georgia that if it means nobody else goes off. That’s essentially what happened in the SEC Championship. By day’s end, Bowers looked like the only UGA offensive skill player who deserved to share the field with Alabama.

For Georgia, that formula cannot repeat itself. If he’s again the lone source of game-changing offense for the Dawgs, we’ll see Smart’s team held to less than 30 points for the 5th time in as many chances against Saban. Bowers might be, as Saban said, “one of the premier players in college football,” but he needs more help than he got a month ago against Alabama.

The list of national champions with an offense led by a true freshman tight end, well, it’s not a list at all. On the other hand, Bowers has developed a propensity for rewriting the record books.

Perhaps he’ll have enough left in the tank to do that again on Monday night.