For the better part of two years now, Georgia’s dreams and wishes have slipped away because it couldn’t find a way to beat Alabama. The Bulldogs had them beat a year ago in the National Championship Game, but let it slip away, The same scenario played out again this year in the SEC Championship Game, when another Georgia lead vanished late.
So after Clemson took down the mighty Crimson Tide 44-16 Monday night to win its second national title in three years, there’s one obvious question that jumps out:
What was so different about Clemson’s game plan to beat Alabama that Georgia didn’t do?
The answer, quite honestly, is not much. Clemson was brimming with confidence heading into this game because the coaches felt like it had the pieces to beat Alabama. They dismissed all that “Alabama greatest team ever” talk. In December’s SEC title game, Georgia’s coaches felt the same way, too. They felt good about matching up with the Tide.
The only real difference is that Clemson saw it through to the finish. Georgia’s similar approach in December started out great, but then the Bulldogs diverted from it and then got caught in some Jalen Hurts magic and wound up losing.
But for the most part, those two games were eerily similar for a long time. The game plans on how best to deal with Alabama, and most notably quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, were very similar.
For instance, check out the similarities in game plans for Clemson and Georgia:
Confuse Tua early with a different look, force a turnover
- What Clemson did: On the third play of Alabama’s first possession, Clemson rolled a cornerback up on an inside receiver and picked off Tagovailoa. It was a look they hadn’t shown all year and it clearly surprised the Alabama QB on his first third-down throw. A.J. Terrell took it back for a pick-6 to give Clemson a 7-0 lead just 1:40 into the game.
- What Georgia did: On the fifth play of Alabama’s first possession, and its first third-down attempt, Georgia safety Richard LeCounte read Tagovailoa’s eyes and jumped a throw into the end zone for an interception. It, too, was a huge momentum shift in the game.
Test Alabama’s questionable secondary early and often
- What Clemson did: On the Tigers’ first possession after the interception, freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed three consecutive passes to wide-open receivers on a scoring drive, zipping down the field for 74 yards. It became clear early that Clemson’s receivers had the upper hand on the Alabama secondary in jumping out to a 14-7 lead.
- What Georgia did: On the Bulldogs’ third possession, quarterback Jake Fromm completed 4-of-5 passes for 58 yards, including a 20-yard strike to tight end Isaac Nauta for a touchdown to give Georgia an early 7-point lead.
Keep pushing the ball downfield until Alabama could stop you
- What Clemson did: Lawrence just kept firing away and Alabama couldn’t do anything about it. By halftime, the Tigers had already rolled up 31 points, only the second time ever in Saban’s 12 years with the Crimson Tide that Alabama had allowed so many points in a half. The Tigers had a 15-point lead at halftime, leading 31-16, and scored two more touchdowns on their first two possessions of the third quarter to go up 44-16.
- What Georgia did: Counting their first possession of the third quarter, the Bulldogs scored touchdowns on 4-of-5 possessions to grab a 28-14 lead. On the four scoring drives, Fromm was nearly perfect, completing 12-of-13 passes for 131 and 3 touchdowns. Alabama’s secondary could not stop them.
And then, where it all went completely wrong for Georgia
- What Clemson did: Clemson’s defense never buckled against Alabama, preserving its big lead by stopping the Crimson Tide repeatedly on critical fourth-down tries. Three times, Alabama turned it over on downs, and never threatened. The No. 1 team in the land had met its match.
- What Georgia didn’t: We all know what happened to the Bulldogs. On offense, they completely went away from their game plan and got too conservative down the stretch. They got stuck in too many 3rd-and-long situations, and never scored another point on their final five possessions. During that time, Hurts came on for the injured Tagovailoa and led the Crimson Tide to a magical comeback, throwing for one score and running for another to win 35-28. Alabama had met it match — but only for a while.
What it all means going forward for the Bulldogs
What Clemson showed us Monday night was that Alabama was beatable. I had been saying that for months. I picked Georgia to beat Alabama in the SEC title game, and laid out all the reasons why. Georgia did everything but finish.
Not to brag, but I was the only one of here to pick Clemson to win Monday night. (OK, I’m bragging just a little bit.) The first way-too-early projections have Clemson, Alabama and Georgia ranked 1-2-3 to start 2019. It will be shocking if Georgia and Alabama don’t see each other again in the SEC Championship Game — and maybe again in the College Football Playoff.
Maybe next year it will be different. Just learn that final most important lesson from Clemson.