Early impressions on the SEC Championship
For the third time in 4 years, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart will meet in Atlanta.
Of course, 1 of those meetings was a College Football Playoff National Championship for the ages, another was an SEC Championship for the ages and the other one, well, that’ll be on Saturday.
History suggests that popcorn will indeed be necessary for Alabama-Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The hurdle, AKA the Tide, is staring Georgia in the face. Overcome it and suddenly, ending the 1980 jokes seems a whole lot more realistic. Saturday shouldn’t be a Playoff-or-bust game for UGA (more on that in a second), but it is a chance for the year of the Dawgs to have their most signature moment to date.
Will that happen? We’ve got plenty of time to dig into that.
For now, let’s dig into some early thoughts about Saturday.
1. Let’s talk Playoff
A ton is on the line on Saturday. That much we know. Both teams have Playoff implications, albeit in a different sense.
Georgia is already in. Lose by 30? Still in. No other Power 5 team went 12-0, but it’s the dominance we saw from the Dawgs. Take away the non-offensive touchdowns that UGA allowed, and it was actually only 69 points surrendered in 12 regular season games. Georgia became the first team since 1979 Texas to hold each of its first 12 opponents to 17 points or less. UGA beat 8 Power 5 teams who are bowl eligible (Michigan had 3 and Oklahoma State had 5), and those wins were by an average of 25 points.
In the event that UGA falls behind by 14 on Saturday, don’t let a Danny Kanell tweet get in your head. The Dawgs have earned their place in the final 4.
As for Alabama, I think it should be pretty black and white. Beat UGA? In. I’d argue the 1-seed should be awarded to the Tide if that happens considering all of those aforementioned stats about how dominant Kirby Smart’s team has been. But lose? No, I don’t think the Tide deserve to be in, and I think the selection committee dropping Alabama to No. 3 last week was an early indication that there are holes in that résumé.
I hate to keep bringing this up, but I don’t think the first 2-loss team to ever make the field will be a team who fails to win its conference championship. And here’s the other thing. Six of Alabama’s 8 SEC contests were 1-score games in the 4th quarter. This is far from vintage Alabama dominance. Even that 2017 team who made the field after the Iron Bowl loss was only involved in 3 such SEC games in the 4th quarter.
The only way a 2-loss Alabama team should even be considered for this year’s field is if Kirk Herbstreit’s chaos scenario were to unfold:
Just thinking of the craziest of scenarios. Not predicting (relax) simply asking WHAT IF:
Who would be the 4???
Baylor maybe as Big 12 champs?
What if Oregon won big over Utah could they get up there?
Bama, UM, or OSU?
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) November 29, 2021
Hey, never rule out anything. If that happens, 2021 will suddenly have an even more 2007-like feel to it.
2. Bryce Young’s Heisman Trophy bid is there, but it’s complicated
I thought Young’s comeback drive was a Heisman moment. Look beyond the box score. On a day when nothing went right, he marched 97 yards on the road against Alabama’s biggest rival to keep his team’s national championship hopes alive. If that’s not a Heisman moment, I don’t know what is.
In the latest Heisman odds on FanDuel, Young is the prohibitive favorite at -220. Here’s how that shakes out:
- Bryce Young, Alabama: -220
- CJ Stroud, Ohio State: +450
- Matt Corral, Ole Miss: +2000
- Kenny Pickett, Pitt: +2000
- Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State: +2000
- Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: +2000
- Will Anderson, Alabama: +5000
- Jordan Davis, Georgia: +5000
In a sense, those odds are telling you it’s between Young and Stroud. Young will play in a conference championship game this weekend and Stroud won’t. Hence, why those odds are the way that they are.
Where it gets complicated is how and when these votes are being decided. Heisman voters received their ballots on Monday.
If they wanted to, they could react to Rivalry Week and decided that Young is worthy of the award, regardless of how the SEC Championship plays out. We always hear about voters filling out their ballots early, and this year could be no exception. But on the flip side, maybe that could benefit Stroud, who played well in a hostile atmosphere on Saturday at Michigan and as some voters will likely point out, Ohio State’s offense put up far better numbers than Alabama’s (I’d argue Stroud had a bit more help than Young after Jameson Williams was ejected for targeting).
There’s also something else worth remembering. Let’s say Young can’t lift Alabama to a win against Georgia. When was the last time a player lost in the conference championship and then won the Heisman? Jason White in 2003. Sure, we’ve seen players win the award without even reaching a conference championship, but it’s a narrative-driven award. Voters like players to follow a certain trajectory and when that closing argument just before the vote is due, sometimes that matters.
Young will have all eyes on him. Tua Tagovailoa lost his stranglehold on the award with his disappointing performance and late injury against Georgia in the 2018 SEC Championship. Let’s see if Young can finally become the first Alabama quarterback to break through.
3. So about that Alabama offensive line …
Be honest, Alabama fans. Since the Tide got rolling in 2008, have you seen an offensive line perform quite as poorly as it did in the Iron Bowl? I certainly hadn’t. Maybe the LSU game? Against Auburn, Young was out there running for his life, the running lanes for Bama’s backs were few and far between. It doesn’t help that Brian Robinson is dealing with a pulled muscle, leaving Trey Sanders as the lone healthy scholarship running back.
That seems like a bad formula going into a matchup against Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt. We have yet to see an offensive line handle UGA’s front. Whether that’s stuffing the run or applying pressure on a quarterback to limit downfield throws, that group takes care of business as well as any in the sport. Do we really think that this Alabama offensive line is built to handle it?
And if that’s the case, one would think that limits Alabama’s ability to target someone like Jameson Williams, who can stretch the field, but only if his quarterback actually has time to let the route develop. This feels more like a John Metchie game, if anything. Plays are going to break down, much like they did on Saturday. Metchie stepped up in some of those key spots. If Alabama wants any sort of chance to combat that Georgia front, which doesn’t need a ton of extra rushers to get home, it needs that offensive line to play the game of its live.
That might be wishful thinking.
4. What can George Pickens do?
Copy and paste this question from 8 months ago, right?
Pickens returned to action against Georgia Tech for the first time since suffering a torn ACL in spring practice. That was huge for a UGA team who has been dealing with all sorts of injury issues at the pass-catcher spots. You can tell it provided an emotional lift within that locker room, as well (via DawgNation).
“It meant a lot,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said of seeing Pickens play. “Just seeing the work he put in in the offseason and going through rehab. How positive he’s been at it. A lot of guys can look up to the type of attitude he had and the way he attacked his rehab to get back. It meant a lot to see him get back and play again.”
Pickens only logged 1 catch for 5 yards in his return, and he played 7 snaps. Expecting a vintage Pickens performance 8 months removed from a torn ACL is ambitious.
So again, what can Pickens do? I wouldn’t expect the full route tree. I also wouldn’t suddenly expect him to get 40 snaps. But what he can do is run a lot of those straight-line routes, which was where he excelled pre-injury. He can still pose a threat and perhaps open up underneath routes for the likes of Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey, Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson. Those 4 should still be the main targets for Stetson Bennett IV.
It’s not fair to call Pickens a classic “decoy” because we know that if he’s out there, he can still make plays. Lord knows Todd Monken would love to dial up a big passing play to Pickens not just to get his confidence back, but to also show to UGA’s future Playoff opponent that he can still take the top off the defense.
5. The perfect game script for Georgia? It might actually be a down-to-the-wire victory
Don’t get it twisted. Georgia fans shouldn’t be upset if Saturday is a beatdown. That would confirm what we’ve thought all year. That is, nobody is on UGA’s level. Georgia fans would sleep well on Saturday night if that happened.
But think big picture about this. If Georgia is indeed already in the Playoff, win or lose, wouldn’t it be ideal to get some late-game experience in this game instead of the Playoff semifinal? I think it would. Remember that with Bennett as the starter, no team has been within 2 touchdowns of the Dawgs in the 4th quarter. Even if you’re sold on Bennett being a much improved player compared to last year (he is), that’s still a fair question to have about him.
There’s also the other point about not coming into the Playoff overconfident. If the Dawgs win this by 28, you’ll have to search far and wide for someone picking a non-UGA team to win it all. They’ll get 4 weeks of noise about it being their year and how unstoppable they are. Even with a close loss, that might still be the case. That’s not to say Georgia can only win a national championship if it gets humbled a bit by Alabama. Georgia fans know all too well that 2019 LSU didn’t need any nail-biter game late in the season to serve as a wakeup call.
Still, though. With a close win, Smart won’t have to convince his team that it can be beat if it doesn’t show up for 60 minutes. That’s straight out of the school of Saban.
No matter the result, we’re in for another epic chapter of this rivalry. There’s really only 1 other question we can ask at this point of the week.
Is it Saturday yet?