The Ultimate SEC Championship Preview: Georgia is playing for a chance. Alabama is playing for history
As long as it has been in the works, Alabama-Georgia II should need no introduction. The last time the Tide and Dawgs met, they staged one of the strangest and most dramatic championship games in recent memory, a twist-heavy affair so good it seemed to be setting up the sequel even as it was unfolding. The rematch has loomed over the 2018 season from the moment the confetti began to fall on Bama’s improbable, come-from-behind victory in January. It felt inevitable then, and at no point in the ensuing 11 months has that assumption changed.
Despite the blemish on Georgia’s 11-1 record, these are essentially the teams and the stakes we were promised. All 11 of the Bulldogs’ wins have come by at least 14 points, and they haven’t been threatened in the fourth quarter. Alabama has won every game by at least 24 points, sauntering nonchalantly into the discussion of the most dominant teams ever assembled.
Even more so than in the last game, the respective rosters are mirror images of one another, abounding with enviable, upper-crust athletes at almost every position. (Again, based on 247Sports’ composite recruiting ratings Bama and Georgia lead the nation by far with a dozen former 5-star recruits apiece.) The winner will indeed take all, this time in the form of an automatic ticket to the College Football Playoff.
If there’s a difference, of course, it’s the emergence of Tua Tagovailoa as a full-time headliner, which would have been unthinkable prior to his career-making turn against UGA with the national championship on the line. He’s a better quarterback now than he was then, which is terrifying; Tua is almost singlehandedly responsible for transforming Alabama’s offense into the elite, point-a-minute unit its raw talent level has always suggested it should be, as well as for the eye-opening 13-point spread in Bama’s favor. That’s a preposterous number against a top-5 opponent, much less one that played the Crimson Tide to a standstill the last time around.
Then again, every other number associated with Tagovailoa’s superb sophomore campaign is preposterous, too, and he continues to produce the receipts to back them all up. From a certain point of view, Alabama’s win in the championship game wasn’t so much the culmination of a season as it was the opening round in a rivalry that stands to define the SEC for the foreseeable future. Round 2 sets up as another instant classic that lives up to that promise. From a different perspective — Vegas’ perspective, apparently — it has the makings of a potential knockout. By Saturday night we’ll all have our stories straight.
When Alabama has the ball
Tagovailoa introduced himself to the broader American consciousness at Georgia’s expense, and somehow the initial hype that bloomed out of that performance now seems almost quaint. Even the most optimistic Tua stans didn’t quite grasp how thoroughly he would transform the backsliding Bama offense: In his first season as a starter, the Crimson Tide are well on their way to school records for total and scoring offense, easily outpacing the previous Saban-era highs by more than 10 points and 50 yards per game.
Whatever Alabama passing record he doesn’t already hold for a single season, he soon will. Twelve games in, he remains on schedule to break Baker Mayfield’s record for pass efficiency, and well within striking distance in terms of yards per attempt. What’s left to say that hasn’t been said? He’s going to win the Heisman.
OK, let’s revise that: Tagovailoa is probably going to win the Heisman, barring a) A scorched-Earth effort by Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray in his conference championship game, or b) An heroic effort Saturday by the Georgia defense, neither of which is outside the realm of possibility. In certain respects the Bulldogs are on par with the best defenses Alabama has faced — especially against the pass, where they rank third nationally in Pass Defense S&P+ and have yet to allow an opposing QB to throw for 300 yards or 3 touchdowns in a game. No other secondary in a Power 5 conference has allowed fewer passes of 20 yards or more. And the two defenses Bama has faced that are within Georgia’s range athletically, LSU and Mississippi State, are the only two that have made Tua look almost mortal. Almost.
But when the worst you can say about a guy is that a couple of top-shelf defenses managed to hold him (relatively) in check, on a bad knee, in games his team won by a combined score of 53-0, then yeah, that guy is who he’s cracked up to be. When he follows those outings up with a blistering, 5-touchdown bonanza against his team’s biggest rival, as Tagovailoa did last weekend against Auburn, everyone understands what they’re watching.
Perfect. Strike. pic.twitter.com/QifzCI90vG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 24, 2018
The Iron Bowl massacre was one of the clearest demonstrations yet of the exponential effect of Tua’s presence on the rest of the offense. Even by Alabama’s standards, the current wide receivers are a gifted, explosive group — as explosive as any unit Saban or anyone else has assembled in the past decade — and putting them at the disposal of the most effortlessly on-point downfield passer in the nation has yielded some absurd results. Tagovailoa’s top five targets — Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and tight end Irv Smith Jr. — all average north of 17 yards per catch with at least five touchdowns apiece. (All four receivers in the regular rotation had a TD reception against Auburn from more than 20 yards out, as did running back Josh Jacobs, the recipient of a ridiculous throw in the third quarter that signaled the rout was on.) Collectively, more than 20 percent of their receptions have gained 25 yards or more. As a team, Bama has more passing plays covering 20 yards, 40 yards, and 50 yards than any other FBS offense, despite putting the ball in the air less often than the average FBS team.
Georgia can man up all-everything cornerback Deandre Baker against anyone in that group and realistically hope for the best; Baker is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and almost certain first-rounder in the 2019 Draft. As for locking down the rest? Considerably less realistic. The Bulldogs’ other corner, Eric Stokes, is a true freshman playing in place of another true freshman, Tyson Campbell, who started the first 10 game of the season before he was benched against Auburn. The nickel corner, junior Tyrique McGhee, has been solid in the “Star” role, but isn’t an especially touted athlete by Georgia/Bama standards and will likely be the smallest player on the field.
Still, for all of the Tide’s firepower in the passing game, on paper Georgia matches up much more favorably there than it does on the ground. That might come as a surprise, because with the emphasis on Tagovailoa’s arm Alabama hasn’t quite earned the same domineering reputation on that front that it has in the past. Although the Tide go three-deep at tailback with future pros Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris, the ground game feels more like an accessory to the pass than at any other point in Saban’s tenure. (And possibly any other point in Alabama history.) But the Tide still rank among the top 10 nationally in several advanced metrics, including Rushing S&P+ and Adjusted Line Yards, where UGA’s defense lags well behind.
The most obvious lapse on that front came in the Bulldogs’ only loss, a 36-16 flop at LSU, where the Tigers churned out 275 yards rushing on 5.4 per carry, amassing a significant edge in time of possession in the process. Georgia also struggled at times to contain Missouri (172 yards on 4.7 per carry) and Florida (170 yards on 4.6) before the scoreboard dictated to them to stop running.
Personnel-wise, the mass exodus from last year’s front seven has been palpable, nowhere more so than at the middle linebacker position manned by Roquan Smith: Five starters have taken a turn this year at one of the two inside ‘backer spots, none of whom have registered outside of the fan base. The projected depth chart for Saturday lists multiple potential starters for both roles, as well as at both interior positions on the defensive line.
KEY MATCHUP: Alabama OT Jonah Williams vs. Georgia OLB D’Andre Walker
The outlier in Alabama’s trail of destruction was a 24-0 win over Mississippi State in which the offense scored on its first two possessions, bogged down for the first time all season, and gradually retreated into a shell as the Bulldogs turned up the heat on Tagovailoa — he absorbed 4 sacks and numerous other hits, eventually leaving after taking a direct shot to his ailing knee — while continuing to pose zero threat to put points on the board via their offense. If there’s a blueprint for bringing Bama back to Earth, it begins and ends with a pass rush that makes Tua’s life as uncomfortable as possible.
Easier said than done against a typically stalwart Crimson Tide front, anchored by Williams, a no-brainer All-American with 41 consecutive starts to his credit and no real challengers to his title as the best left tackle in the college game. With the exception of Walker, who’s had a hand in 7 of Georgia’s 20 sacks on the year, the Bulldogs have had surprisingly little success getting to opposing passers; no other player on the defense has more than 2 sacks to his credit. If they have any chance of disrupting Tagovailoa’s leisure time in the pocket, it’s hard to see it coming from anywhere else.
When Georgia has the ball
At midseason, Georgia looked like a team on the verge of an identity crisis. In their first major test, at LSU, the Bulldogs responded to an early deficit by effectively abandoning the run, shifting the offensive burden to QB Jake Fromm with sobering results: Fromm started ice cold, missed open receivers throughout, absorbed 4 sacks, and threw 2 picks in the loss. Not coincidentally, the pass-happiest outing of Fromm’s young career (34 attempts) was also the lowest-scoring, and yielded his worst individual passer rating to date. Five-star freshman Justin Fields, an afterthought in Baton Rouge, immediately became the most popular player on the team.
That was barely six weeks ago, but feels like a lot longer. In the meantime, UGA has gotten back to first principles, beginning with sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift’s emergence as the first among equals in the backfield. Swift spent the first half of the season limited by injuries, with limited stat lines to show for it; since the bye week, he’s looked like the bona fide star he was expected to be coming into the year, headlining the wins over Florida (104 yards on 8.7 per carry, including a 33-yard TD run), Kentucky (156 yards on 9.8 per carry, including an 83-yard TD run), Auburn (186 on 11.0 per carry, including a 77-yard TD run), and Georgia Tech (105 on 7.5) despite continuing to split carries with nominal starter Elijah Holyfield.
Swift is a true home-run hitter; together, he and the burlier Holyfield have powered an attack that leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (259.8) and per carry (6.3), eclipsing last year’s dominant ground game on both counts.
In that context, it’s still true that the less Fromm is asked to do in the passing game, the better. Like last year, he’s accounted for a smaller individual share of his team’s total offense this season (38.4 percent) than any other full-time SEC starter. But that probably says more about Georgia’s run-first philosophy than it does about Fromm himself, who — Baton Rouge debacle notwithstanding — has continued to mature as a sophomore into one of the most bankable passers in the country. In his first game back from the LSU loss, he delivered arguably the best performance of his career against Florida, one that transcended his plays-within-the-offense rep: Opposite one of the most athletic defenses on the schedule, Fromm excelled against the blitz (10-for-12 for 121 yards, according to Pro Football Focus), on throws of 10 yards or more downfield (7-of-10 for 140 yards), and on third downs (6-of-7 with five conversions and three touchdowns) in a reassuring, 36-17 win in which Fields didn’t take a single snap. That’s a version of Fromm the Bulldogs can win big with.
Compared to the version that flopped at LSU, it’s also much closer to the one Georgia fans have seen the rest of the year. Against Auburn, Fromm completed two-thirds of his attempts with two touchdowns, including a clutch fourth-down strike that extended UGA’s lead to 10 points just before the half and permanently swung the momentum in the game. In Saturday’s hyper-efficient win over Georgia Tech, he finished 13-of-16 with 4 touchdowns, leading seven consecutive scoring drives before calling it a day in the third quarter. For the season, Fromm comes into Saturday’s game ranked third nationally in yards per attempt, overall efficiency, and Total QBR, trailing only Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray in each category. In a less run-oriented scheme, that kind of productivity might put him in the same orbit as Tua and Murray in the December awards circuit; in the one Fromm actually plays in, it gives the Bulldogs a chance every time out.
The other half of that equation is Georgia’s blue-chip receiving corps. Individually, UGA’s quality-over-quantity approach in the passing game limits Fromm’s top targets on the stat sheet, but as a group the combination of Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin, Jeremiah Holloman, and tight end Isaac Nauta rivals Alabama’s both for depth and for raw talent. (Hardman, Godwin, and Nauta all arrived as 5-star recruits, as did backup Demetris Robertson, a former Freshman All-American at Cal who’s still waiting on his first catch of the year after missing several games with an apparent concussion.) Although no member of that rotation has put up All-SEC numbers week-in, week-out, each has had their moments and is fully capable of stretching the field — especially Hardman, an electric run-after-catch threat with deep speed to burn, as Alabama fans will no doubt recall from the national title game:
That still ranks among the best throws of Fromm’s career, if not at the very top. It was also a better night for Georgia’s other wide outs than you might remember, with Ridley and Godwin hauling in another 10 receptions between them for 130 yards. (Hardman also scored the game’s first touchdown on a jet sweep.) It would be nice to get Nauta and Swift more involved, but however the distribution breaks down the Bulldogs have play-making options in spades.
The more pressing issue as far as the passing game is concerned is keeping Fromm upright. Georgia is just OK in pass protection, ranking 48th nationally in Sack Rate despite the presence of soon-to-be All-SEC left tackle Andrew Thomas, a future first-rounder.
“Just OK” isn’t going to cut it against Alabama, which leads the nation in Sack Rate and notched at least 3 sacks against every SEC opponent except Arkansas. The Crimson Tide can bring heat from every position in the front seven: Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings are cut-from-the-mold edge rushers, Quinnen Williams is an unblockable force up the middle, and ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis have yet to meet a pocket they can’t collapse. The Tide do blitz, but mainly for fun, not out of necessity.
The problem multiplies for Georgia on passing downs (defined as 2nd-and-8 or more and 3rd-and-5 or more, and 4th-and-5 or more), in which case their situational Sack Rate plummets to 89th; in the same situations, Alabama records a sack on fully 15 percent of passing-down snaps, best in the nation.
“Establish the run” is as worn-out and dead-obvious a cliché as they come, but in UGA’s case it has to be the baseline assumption behind every aspect of the Bulldogs’ plan. If they can match their rushing production on January’s championship game (166 carries on 4.1 per carry, not including sacks), Fromm should have some room to work downfield via play-action. If not, they’ll find themselves find behind the sticks early and often and Fromm will be fighting for his life.
The other situational issue that has dogged Georgia’s offense is its lackluster efficiency in the red zone. In conference games, the Bulldogs managed touchdowns on just 50 percent of their opportunities inside the opposing 20-yard line, including multiple stall-outs against Missouri (1 TD in 3 red-zone trips), LSU (1/3), Florida (2/5), Kentucky (3/5), and Auburn (1/4). Their epic goal-line failure against Florida was an extreme example of a broader trend: In general, the closer they’ve moved to the goal line, the worse the result.
Barring a barrage of big plays that wind up in the end zone, how UGA finishes drives will be a leading indicator of how competitive this game is in the fourth quarter.
10/13/18—Missouri's Drew Lock sacked for a safety by Alabama's Quinnen Williams. pic.twitter.com/UYMBJt3vYB
— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) November 28, 2018
KEY MATCHUP: Georgia C Lamont Gaillard vs. Alabama DT Quinnen Williams
Williams has been the best defensive player in college football this season, full stop, and possibly the best of a long line of All-American, first-round d-linemen on Saban’s watch. (Coming from a guy who thought Jonathan Allen should have won the Heisman over Lamar freakin’ Jackson, that’s really saying something.) He combines the power of a traditional 2-gap nose tackle, the explosiveness of an elite 3-tech, and the versatility to line up anywhere on the line. He frequently looks like a man among boys as a 19-year-old redshirt sophomore; he’s already a lock to go among the top handful of picks in next year’s draft after just one season as a starter. He ought to win every award he’s up for next week, which is just about all of them.
Gaillard is … uh, less decorated. Still, at 6-2, 308 pounds, he boasts next-level size, and as a fifth-year senior with 40 consecutive starts he’s been around the block opposite his fair share of elite defensive tackles, including the guy Williams replaced at nose, Da’Ron Payne. He has a documented nasty streak in the run game, where he should have plenty of help dealing with Williams from his interior line mates. If any opposing center in the SEC is up for the job, it’s Gaillard. But 12 games deep into the season, there’s a reason that scenario remains strictly hypothetical.
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
There’s something deeply ironic about the fact that a team as monolithically talented as Alabama can’t find a kicker, which is part of the reason the Crimson Tide’s eternal place-kicking issues tend to be treated like a joke. (That, and the fact that they rarely find themselves in a game where making or missing kicks makes any difference.)
But the inconsistency is real, and maddening. The original starter, grad-transfer Austin Jones, missed two routine kicks in the season opener — one chip-shot field goal, one extra point — and was permanently benched after clanging two more PATs in a Week 2 win over Arkansas State. His replacement, true freshman Joseph Bulovas, has also been a basket case on extra points, missing 4 PATs in the month of November alone.
Bulovas does have a reasonably big leg, having connected on all 3 field-goal attempts this season from between 40 and 50 yards; altogether, he hasn’t missed from inside of 50 since the last weekend in September. But all 3 of his early misses came on relatively short kicks (from 38, 24, and 31 yards, respectively), and combined with his ongoing struggles on extra points he remains a threat to shank one from anywhere on the field.
By contrast, Georgia’s kicking game is in the much more reliable hands (feet?) of Rodrigo Blankenship, who’s hit 19-of-22 attempts on the year and 8-of-10 from 40 yards and longer. Blankenship was a rock in last year’s Playoff run, connecting on clutch kicks in both the Rose Bowl (from 55 yards, a career long, and from 38 yards in overtime) and the National Championship Game (from 51 yards, also in overtime), and shouldn’t have any issues with rising to the stage. He’s also consistent on kickoffs, forcing touchbacks on 74 of his 88 attempts on the year, one of the highest rates in the nation. And just for the record, he’s never missed an extra point.
Both teams have potentially lethal options in the return game. On Georgia’s side, there’s Hardman, who somehow has just 1 career TD on special teams (a 70-yard punt return against Middle Tennessee State earlier this year) but is undeniably a threat to take it to the house every time the ball is in his hands. For its part, Bama has touchdowns on both kickoff and punt returns this season courtesy of Jacobs and Waddle.
But that’s only relevant if the speedsters get a chance, which is hardly a given: In addition to Blankenship’s penchant for driving kickoffs out of the end zone, only 4 of UGA punter Jake Camarda’s 32 punts have actually been returned, for a whopping 28 yards. Alabama, which rotates between punters Skyler DeLong and Mike Bernier, has allowed 6 returns for a grand total of 3 yards.
Injury-wise, there’s not a whole lot to report. Alabama is down one opening-day starter, cornerback Trevon Diggs, who’s been out since early October with a foot injury; at this point, 5-star freshman Patrick Surtain II is pretty well entrenched in his place.
Georgia’s original 22 remains intact with the possible exceptions of linebacker Monty Rice, who remains doubtful after missing the past two games with an ankle injury, and offensive lineman Ben Cleveland, who’s been limited to spot duty the past few weeks after missing more than a month with a fractured fibula. Cleveland’s replacement at right guard, true freshman Cade Mays, was well on his way to Freshman All-America status before injuring his shoulder against Auburn. If he can’t go on Saturday, that spot will likely to another freshman, Trey Hill, for the third consecutive week. (Senior guard Kendall Baker, a full-time starter in 2017 who’s played a utility role off the bench this year, is likely out with a bad knee.) Otherwise, the nagging injuries that have limited the headliners at times this season appear to be in the past.
It’s more fun to think about a game like this in black-and-white, winner-takes-all terms, and in Georgia’s case that happens to be true. No team in the brief history of the Playoff has made the final cut with two losses, and the way this year’s field of contenders is shaping up there’s no good reason to expect the Bulldogs to be the first. For them, Saturday is all-defining, must-win game.
For Alabama, that’s not necessarily the case. The Crimson Tide made the cut last year with a loss in their final game, at Auburn, and this year’s team arguably has a much stronger case than that one did. They have not played the most relentless schedule, but they have been relentless themselves, never once playing down to the opposition, or suffering a random lapse on the road, or escaping by the skin of their teeth in overtime.
Bama has looked like a Playoff-level team in every single game it’s played. Oklahoma and Ohio State certainly can’t make that claim, and if it comes down to a decision between Alabama and either of those teams (or both) for the final slot, the Tide’s week-in, week-out consistency over the course of the regular season should carry the day again.
If it does come to that, though, it would be more than a little disappointing, wouldn’t it? Backing into the field would defeat the entire point of this outfit, which is that it has the potential to go out as the best of the Saban era, and therefore one of the best of any era.
With Tagovailoa entrenched, this is the type of team that should be playing for history as the first undefeated playoff champion. (If they get there, the Tide would be the first college team to go 15-0 in a season since 1899.) It’s not the type of team that should be grateful for a mulligan.
1. Damien Harris takes on his heaviest workload of the season and hits the century mark on the ground for just the third time.
2. D’Andre Swift breaks a run or short pass for a long touchdown in the first half, but is otherwise quiet as Alabama forces Jake Fromm to put the ball in the air more than 30 times.
3. Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields both make brief but successful cameos, Fields in a Wildcat/read-option role and Hurts in a package that gets him on the field at the same time as Tagovailoa to either catch a pass or throw one on a trick play.
4. Fromm is sacked at least three times, and commits at least on turnover under pressure in the second half.
5. Tagovailoa will play from start to finish for the first time in his career, eclipsing 300 yards and 3 TDs passing.
6. Alabama wins, 36–24