Ultimate National Championship Preview: Can defense still win championships? Georgia is about to find out
Everything you need to know about Monday’s National Championship Game between Georgia and Alabama in Indianapolis.
All right, Georgia fans. You made it. You’re back! How y’all feeling?
Rested? Ready? Confident? Possessed by a pervasive existential angst spanning generations? Or maybe just sick of hearing about it?
It gets old, right? True, to love the Dawgs these past few years — well, decades — is to live with that nagging void where a national championship should be, sustained largely by the conviction that it really should be there. I mean, come on, 41 years: No program with Georgia’s tradition, resources, recruiting edge and religiously committed fan base should ever go that long without a turn on the throne, or even half that long.
That’s a straight-up Gen-X drought. That drought is old enough for a mid-life crisis. Every year it comes back a little paunchier, hair a little bit thinner, a little bit more out of touch with the kids, some of whose parents weren’t even born the last time the Bulldogs finished on top. Five other SEC schools, none of which have any clear inherent advantages over Georgia, and most of which have been far less consistent or stable in the long run, have claimed a combined 15 national titles in that span, 12 of them coming since 2003. (Alabama accounts for half of those; Florida, LSU and Auburn for the other half.) It’s also true that no other team has come as agonizingly close to the crown without managing to grasp it.
But some of the specific pathologies that come with all that can be a bit much. The controversies at quarterback, the underachievers, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens, and so on. The cursed track record vs. the Crimson Tide, in particular, is a narrative the Bulldogs would love to bury forever in the deepest grave they can find. To love the Dawgs is also, to some extent, to be haunted by the specter of Bama: The Tide have won 7 straight in the series — 4 of them by lopsided margins, the other 3 in almost mockingly painful fashion with championships on the line — in the process turning what by all rights should be a competitive, compelling rivalry between cross-state rivals into an ongoing, one-sided psychodrama. Blowouts in 2008 and 2015 marked Alabama’s arrival as a perennial power under Nick Saban and the beginning of the end of Mark Richt’s tenure in Athens, respectively. Alabama’s overtime win in the 2017 National Championship Game, a game UGA led 13-0 at the half, is in permanent circulation among the sport’s defining moments. Blown 4th-quarter leads in the SEC Championship Game in 2012 and 2018 prevented the Bulldogs from playing for a national title both years. The past two meetings, in Tuscaloosa in October 2020 and in last month’s SEC Championship clash in Atlanta, ended with the identical final score of Tide 41, Dawgs 24. (UGA led at various points in both of those, too.) Georgia hired Kirby Smart from Saban’s staff 6 years ago with the explicit goal of reverse-engineering the Bama Death Star, succeeded where every other attempt at cultivating a seed from the Saban tree has failed, and still, somehow, remains squarely in Alabama’s shadow, etc.
So, yeah, there is all that in play. This preview isn’t about all that. The good news, both for too-online Georgia fans and for those of us whose only rooting interest is in the “competitive and compelling” part, is that none of the above has much of anything to do with how Monday night’s game will actually unfold on the field, the most recent result included. Georgia’s loss in December didn’t stop Vegas from installing the Bulldogs as in the big one, a testament to just how thoroughly they’ve manhandled their other 13 opponents. Stripped of the angst, the game is what a championship game should be: A collision of the most complete rosters in the college game, coming off a pair of thumping semifinal wins that cemented their status as the season’s most dominant teams. The players, frankly, do not care at all about what happened in 2008, when they were small children, or very much about what happened in 2018, when most of them had yet to arrive on campus and most of the ones who had were all buried on the depth chart. The don’t see themselves as saviors for a tormented alumni base or vessels for settling old grudges. They see themselves as what they are, which is elite athletes who were recruited for this moment and have spent their entire careers preparing to make it count before they move on to the next level.
When Georgia has the ball
1. How much does Georgia need from Stetson Bennett IV?
Considering the volume of words I’ve devoted to chronicling Georgia’s ongoing quarterback saga over the past few years, I appreciate the irony of what amounts to an all-star roster leaving its championship fate in the hands of a Rudy-esque QB who began his career as a walk-on. I really do. But since I was also part of the chorus after the SEC Championship Game calling for UGA to bench Bennett for the Playoff run in favor of his blue-chip backup, JT Daniels, some credit where it’s due: Bennett is clearly a legitimate starter who has earned the right to see this thing through.
Adjusted for the competition and the stage, his 313-yard, 3-touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl was the best of his career, and the first time he’s looked convincingly up to the task against a championship-caliber defense. He turned in a nearly flawless first half, going 16-for-22 for 234 yards on the Bulldogs’ 5 first-half scoring drives; he posted his best grade of the season on pressured dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus; he was accurate throwing down the field, connecting on 3-for-4 attempts of 20+ yards to 3 different receivers.
Back to this 57-yard TD SEND from Stetson Bennett ?pic.twitter.com/zK72OFEnQ1
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 1, 2022
Those are the kinds of throws that have been largely missing from Bennett’s previous big-game outings, and which his skeptics (again: hi) doubted he had the juice to make in the postseason against a defense ranked among the nation’s best against the pass. (On paper, in fact, Michigan’s secondary is statistically better than Alabama’s by a wide margin.) More or less the entire argument for making the move to Daniels was based on the assumption that the former 5-star prospect is equipped to challenge elite opponents deep where Bennett is not; if Bennett can make those throws with any kind of consistency, the supposed gap in their skill sets shrinks significantly.
Combine that with his stellar efficiency over the course of the season — he’s 4th nationally in pass efficiency, 2nd in yards per attempt and Total QBR, just ahead of Bryce Young on all counts — and the insistence that Bennett’s out of his depth at this level just because he doesn’t physically look the part of a big-time college quarterback at 5-foot-[redacted] feels like an argument that’s run its course. He’s justified his existence as QB1.
What he has not done, and what Alabama would very much like to force him to do, is win a game with his arm when the score dictates he has no other choice. On the rare occasions that the offense has abandoned the run, Bennett’s efficiency has plummeted. Six of his 13 interceptions over the past 2 seasons have come in Georgia’s 3 losses in that span; 5 of those 6 came with the Bulldogs trailing in the second half, including a couple of demoralizing INTs in last year’s loss in Tuscaloosa, where Bennett attempted 40 passes, and a game-clinching pick-6 in last month’s meeting in Atlanta, where he attempted 48 — easily a career-high, and more than twice his season average. Per PFF, he was pressured 15 times against the Tide, sacked 3, and went 1-for-10 for 11 yards and an INT on pressured attempts. Meanwhile, in Bennett’s other 11 starts this season the Bulldogs have led by double digits after halftime for all but 6 plays. Mandatory passing situations have been few and far between, and they have not gone well.
If Bennett has any chance of transcending his “game manager” rep against Bama, keeping him out of sitting-duck scenarios is priority one. Against Michigan, Georgia didn’t face a third down with more than 3 yards to go until its fourth possession of the game, by which point it led 17-3 and was already in position to extend the margin to three scores with a field goal.
The Wolverines’ hyped edge rushers, soon-to-be-first rounders Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, had no good opportunities to tee off, finishing with a combined 2 QB pressures and zero hits. Containing Alabama’s ferocious pass rush, led by national sack leader Will Anderson Jr. on one end and fast-emerging freshman Dallas Turner on the other, is a different challenge, as the Dawgs know first-hand. (Let me be sure to get DT Phidarian Mathis‘ name in here, too, who has been reliably collapsing pockets along the interior line all year long; Anderson, Turner, and Mathis accounted for all three sacks on Bennett in the first meeting.) But the blueprint is the same: Stay balanced, don’t put Bennett in the crosshairs when the down-and-distance is stacked against him, and hope like heck your own defense holds up its end of the bargain.
Key matchup: Bennett vs. The Scoreboard
Bennett has overcome just about every possible hurdle there is short of a major injury to put himself in the position he’s in here, but overcoming a substantial deficit with a national title on the line would fall into an entirely different category. Historically, that’s the domain of off-the-charts talents like Vince Young, Jameis Winston, Deshaun Watson, and, yes, Tua Tagovailoa. For Bennett, it’s critical that the night unfolds according to script — a line in the neighborhood of 18-for-28 for 245 yards, 2 TDs, and no turnovers seems ideal — which is only partly within his control. Last time, Bryce Young nuked the script by leading 5 consecutive scoring drives in a span of less than 17 minutes across the second and third quarters. If anything like that happens again, the final verdict on Bennett’s limitations is going to come due in a hurry.
2. Does Alabama have an answer for Brock Bowers?
Bowers, a true freshman, was Georgia’s only bright spot in the SEC Championship Game, hauling in 10 catches for a season-high 139 yards and bulldozing half the Bama defense en route to the Bulldogs’ lone second-half touchdown. In fact, he was the only consistent bright spot among their injury-plagued receivers all season: No other UGA player finished among the top 30 SEC receivers in receptions or receiving yards, where Bowers ranked 3rd nationally among tight ends (846). Big, fast and physical, he’s a matchup nightmare even against the best teams on the schedule — too big for opposing corners in the red zone, too fast for linebackers on seams and wheels, productive on screens, a breakaway threat in the open field, and more than willing to go up and get it in traffic.
Brock Bowers is a playmaker pic.twitter.com/Z7MyJmHJ3K
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) December 5, 2021
For Alabama, adjusting will require more than engineering the right matchup, which for once with the Crimson Tide involved might not exist. Bowers was an all-purpose mismatch in the first meeting, recording catches at the expense of 7 different defenders and first downs against 6 of them, per PFF, while splitting his time as usual between a traditional inline/H-back role, the slot, and wide receiver. When he’s in tight, assigning the outside ‘backers to prevent a clean release off the line risks watering down the pass rush; when he’s wide, doubling him up or even shading a safety in his direction risks leaving the corners on an island with a talented bunch of wideouts who are healthier now than they’ve been at any point this season.
It’s also worth noting that covering next-level tight ends has been a bit of a recurring issue for Alabama under 3rd-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding: In addition to Bowers, Florida’s Kyle Pitts torched the Tide for 129 yards and a touchdown in last year’s SEC title game, and Texas A&M’s Jalen Wydermyer averaged 16.7 yards per catch with 3 TDs in 3 career games vs. Golding’s defenses. Maybe Saban and Golding have a novel scheme up their sleeves; just as likely, Bowers is one of those guys who opponents just have to accept is going to get his and focus on containing everybody else.
Key matchup: Bowers vs. Alabama DB Brian Branch
Technically, Branch shares the nickel position (“Star,” in Sabanese) with fellow sophomore Malachi Moore, a preseason breakout candidate who started 9 of the first 11 games. Over the past 3 games, though, it’s been all Branch, with Moore being relegated exclusively to special teams following a rough afternoon against Arkansas. By PFF’s accounting, Bowers had more targets (5), catches (3) and yards (37) opposite Branch in the first meeting than any other Alabama defender — a squishy distinction, given that about half of those yards came on his rumbling, run-after-catch touchdown on a screen pass, for which Branch doesn’t deserve all the blame, but still one that’s likely to hold when Bowers is in the slot. Regardless, if Branch can keep everything in front of him and get Bowers on the ground with minimum YAC that will qualify as a win.
3. Where will Georgia’s explosive plays come from?
Among the wideouts, the role of Vertical Threat of the Week has been played by a revolving cast depending on who’s available and feeling it in any given week. Sophomore Jermaine Burton has had his moments since returning from a midseason injury, hauling in big gainers against Missouri, Georgia Tech, and Michigan (see above); RB James Cook is a matchup problem out of the backfield with long-ball potential under the right circumstances (see below); Kearis Jackson and Ladd McConkey took the top off against Florida and Auburn, respectively; and of course, don’t forget about George Pickens, who was on the receiving end of the Bulldogs’ only downfield connection in the SEC title game, a 37-yard bomb that set up their first touchdown, after missing nearly the entire regular season due to a torn ACL in the spring.
Pickens’ only other catch in that game went for just 4 yards, and his only catch against Michigan went for 9, leaving the jump ball against Bama as the only glimpse to date of the kind of over-the-top junior season he might have been in for at full speed. For what it’s worth, Pickens is not even listed in the official 2-deep for Monday night, but if he’s anywhere in the remote vicinity of 100% he has a chance to be a factor against a couple of gifted but gettable corners, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Kool-Aid McKinstry.
One way or another, Georgia badly needs one of the names in the last paragraph to go off, the earlier the better. The Bulldogs will certainly look to Establish the Run with their veteran backs, Cook and Zamir White, for Bennett’s benefit if nothing else. But in the pantheon of great UGA backfields, no one is about to confuse this one for, say, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
The running game was a slog the last time out against Alabama — Cook, White, and Kenny McIntosh averaged a combined 4.4 yards per carry with a long of 12 — and there’s not much reason to expect this time to be any more forgiving. The Tide finished 2nd nationally in both rushing defense and yards per carry allowed, vintage marks in columns where they’d dropped out of the national elite over the previous 3 seasons. Eking out enough of a living on the ground to keep the sticks moving, the pass rush honest, and the Heisman Trophy winner on the sideline might be the best-case scenario. In all the others, putting together sustained drives will prove very difficult without at least a couple of quick strikes.
Key matchup: James Cook vs. Alabama LBs Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o
Harris and To’o To’o have been a big part of Bama’s resurgence against the run from their inside linebacker spots. They’ve been more vulnerable when the ball is in the air, posting the two worst individual coverage grades on the team per PFF while allowing a combined 844 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in their respective directions.
Opposite Cook, they’re up against a proven target who has made a big part of his reputation on embarrassing linebackers in space in various capacities, including as an occasional wide receiver. In last year’s game in Tuscaloosa, Georgia succeeded in getting Cook isolated against Harris in man coverage along the sideline, with predictably grim results for the latter:
This year, they managed to scheme up identical looks against linebackers from Tennessee …
If a linebacker EVER goes one-on-one with James Cook on the perimeter, it’s over. O-V-E-R pic.twitter.com/ulZddJWYEB
— Logan Booker (@LoganMBooker) November 13, 2021
… and Michigan …
Stetson Bennett DIME to James Cook for 53 yards! pic.twitter.com/nmF7ol7obx
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) January 1, 2022
… with identical results, save Cook getting caught from behind on that last one. (The drive subsequently stalled and the Bulldogs settled for a field goal; I’d still mark down that play as the moment it was GAME OVER.) Presumably, Alabama has seen that enough times now to be on high alert anytime Cook is split wide and avoid stranding their linebackers on an island at all costs. But Cook is equally dangerous out of the backfield: A highlight reel of his big plays at linebackers’ expense over the past 2 years includes a 37-yard touchdown at Missouri in 2020, on an angle route over the middle of the field; a 19-yard TD against Kentucky in October, also on an angle route; and his second score against the Wolverines, a wide-open wheel route that covered 39 yards when Cook caught the same player he’d roasted earlier in the game, true freshman Junior Colson, in a poorly timed blitz on 3rd-and-1.
Have a night James Cook ? pic.twitter.com/DaiJBlTWg9
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) January 1, 2022
Harris and To’o To’o are not true freshmen in their first big game; they’re future pros with more than 4,400 career snaps between them. They only align outside of their comfort zone in the box for a handful of plays per game. But those plays could be ones the Bulldogs have an opportunity to exploit.
When Alabama has the ball
1. Can Georgia get to Bryce Young?
The most shocking aspect of the SEC Championship Game was Georgia’s failure to lay a hand on Young. Coming in, Alabama’s offensive line was the Achilles’ heel, having struggled in the Tide’s midseason loss at Texas A&M and nearly collapsed in the Iron Bowl, where Auburn sacked Young 7 times and hit him a half-dozen more in a near-upset.
For the year, Young has faced pressure on more than a third of his total dropbacks, per PFF, a significant increase over the heat faced by Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa over the previous 3 seasons. (Altogether Bama has allowed more sacks this year, 37, than in 2019 and ’20 combined, 31.) Once they settled in against Georgia’s vaunted front seven, though, out of nowhere the front gave Young all the space he needed to make the Bulldogs look ordinary — throwing lanes, running lanes, room to improvise, even time to direct traffic from the pocket.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 4, 2021
For most of the season, including the Cotton Bowl win over Cincinnati, Young has appeared to be in cruise control, content to distribute the ball in point-guard fashion with a minimum of the flair implied by his massive recruiting hype. But the hype, clearly, was real. The second-quarter run that defined the first meeting and clinched the Heisman was the fullest expression of his talent we’ve seen to date, and if the Bulldogs have any chance of reversing the outcome it’s a version they must find a way to disrupt and contain.
To that end, Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning (coaching in his last game as an assistant before moving on to become the head coach at Oregon) have some big decisions to make about how aggressively they want to come after him. Blitzing Young is a high-risk prospect: PFF has him down for 20 touchdowns vs. just 3 interceptions when blitzed, and if the extra rushers don’t get home asap, Alabama’s receivers are most assuredly going to get open.
Not blitzing Young, on the other hand, might be suicidal. In the first meeting he was 17/23 for 308 yards, 14 first downs and 3 touchdowns on un-blitzed attempts, and added 40 yards and a 4th TD as a scrambler. You can attempt to account for his legs with a quarterback spy, but then he might just outrun the spy (in the clip below, no. 88 DT Jalen Carter).
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 4, 2021
The ideal scenario for Georgia is generating some sustained heat via its interior line rotation of Carter, Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis, which overpowered almost everyone else on the schedule but was a non-factor in the December loss. Pressure from the front line would dramatically reduce the pressure on the back end, and Alabama’s interior o-line is still a question mark with LG Javion Cohen struggling down the stretch, RB Emil Ekiyor Jr. questionable with a shoulder injury that sidelined him against Cincinnati, and center Darrian Dalcourt working his way back from an injury that’s kept him out the past 2 games. (Sophomore Seth McLaughlin has held down the job in Dalcourt’s absence; the current depth chart lists them as co-starters. If Ekiyor can’t go, his spot will like be manned by true freshman JC Latham, who would be making his first career start after playing most of the way in the Cotton Bowl.) But if that plan disintegrates again as quickly as did in Atlanta, they’d going to have to get creative.
Key matchup: Georgia LB Nakobe Dean vs. Alabama’s blitz pick-ups
Dean is the most complete defender in the college game, and it’s not close. At 6-0, 225 pounds, he evokes mandatory comparisons to Roquan Smith — an undersized, heat-seeking middle ‘backer whose game combines old-school violence between the tackles with sideline-to-sideline range and legitimate DB skills in coverage, a perfectly evolved skill set for the spread era. Also like Smith in his last season on campus, Dean emerged this year as one of the nation’s most efficient blitzers, generating 28 QB pressures and 8 sacks on just 107 pass-rushing attempts. He’s instinctive, explosive, and smart, and any blocking scheme that leaves it to a running back to pick him up does so at its quarterback’s peril.
Nakobe Dean is a relentless heat-seeking missile when assigned to blitz the QB! Such an impactful downhill defender! pic.twitter.com/KkS2pKy2IE
— Damian Parson (@DP_NFL) November 21, 2021
Man Nakobe Dean is smart. Watch him call out the reduced split and orbit motion to his teammates before getting the sack. pic.twitter.com/GxPFqOmBbd
— Bud Elliott (@BudElliott3) January 1, 2022
The defenses that have successfully disrupted Young, namely Texas A&M and Auburn, did it in large part with blitz schemes that short-circuited Alabama’s protection calls and created mismatches and/or free rushers from the confusion. The first time around, Georgia wasn’t able to replicate that, and not for lack of trying; PFF credited Dean with a season-high 16 rushes, but only 3 pressures, a credit in part to Bama RB Brian Robinson Jr., a 5th-year senior who matches Dean pound-for-pound and definitely is not easily shucked aside in protection. The gap between those two numbers needs to close substantially or the secondary could be in for another long night like the last one.
2. Does Georgia have an answer for Jameson Williams?
Smooth, fast, and electric after the catch, Williams’ star was clearly on the rise throughout the season. But his 184-yard, 2-touchdown performance in Atlanta is the one that sealed his place in Alabama’s lineage of All-America wideouts over the past decade (the fact he somehow wasn’t a consensus pick is a joke) and the one that’s kept the Dawgs awake at night ever since. In a few months, Williams has gone from an expendable name on Ohio State’s stacked WR depth chart to the poster boy for the new transfer rules, the most coveted receiver in the draft, and arguably the last guy in the sport an opposing defense can afford to leave on an island.
"Jameson down there somewhere." – Bryce Young, probably pic.twitter.com/hdCRpnzus3
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 4, 2021
Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl is the first opponent since early October to hold Williams both a) below 20 yards per catch, and b) without a touchdown, ending a streak of 8 straight games in which he’d one or both of those marks; that’s a good reflection on Cincy’s decorated corners, Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, but probably had more to do with Alabama’s willingness to keep the downfield passing game under wraps in favor of running right at the Bearcats’ undersized front seven. (Young was just 1-for-2 in that game on passes traveling 20+ yards, the lone completion coming on a 44-yard touchdown to true freshman Ja’Corey Brooks, who made a seamless transition into a starting role at X receiver with John Metchie III done for the year.)
That certainly won’t be the case against Georgia, whose strength is up front. The Bulldogs can solve some of the busts and mental errors that cost them last time, but without more from the pass rush, keeping the lid on at the expense of giving up more of the short-to-intermediate stuff makes up the bulk of Alabama’s offense might be the only viable trade-off. And with speed like Williams’, it only takes one false step to send the plan up in smoke.
Key matchup: Williams vs. Georgia CB Derion Kendrick
If not for Williams, Kendrick, the blue-chip transfer from Clemson, might have won the title of Most Valuable Transfer: He started every game, didn’t allow a touchdown, earned a second-team All-SEC nod from league coaches, and won Defensive MVP of the Orange Bowl with 2 interceptions. He was also the only Georgia defender targeted in coverage against Williams in Atlanta who managed to hold him without a catch. That doesn’t necessarily make it a favorable matchup for the Bulldogs, especially considering they typically don’t match their corners against individual receivers. (Williams was only targeted once with Kendrick in coverage.) But even just a couple of key wins that get the defense off the field would be a step in the right direction.
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3. Is the running game a factor?
Most signs point to a fairly obvious no. Alabama’s production on the ground generally declined after midseason, wasn’t a notable factor in the first meeting — roughly half of the Tide’s 115 rushing yards were the result of a handful of Bryce Young scrambles — and Georgia’s defense has yet to allow any opponent it’s faced to run for anywhere near its season average. Michigan, one of the top rushing offenses in the country at the end of the regular season, went to halftime in the Orange Bowl with 29 rushing yards and facing a 27-3 deficit. If not for the Crimson Tide piling up 301 yards on 47 carries in the Cotton Bowl it probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. And there’s no reason to expect a game plan designed to overpower Cincinnati’s defensive front (average weight: 279 pounds) to translate against UGA’s (average weight: 310).
Still, even if Brian Robinson Jr. isn’t exactly a breakaway threat, at 225 pounds he is the kind of bankable presence between the tackles who can win collisions in short-yardage and crank out 3-to-6-yard gains on demand all night if Georgia’s safeties are too reluctant to creep into the box.
With Metchie on ice, Robinson’s career day against the Bearcats (204 yards on 7.9 per carry) took the onus off Ja’Corey Brooks to replace Metchie’s production all by himself in the first extended action of his career. Alabama would love for Brooks to take another step in that direction vs. Georgia, but unless the freshman turns out to be a revelation on a massive stage, it needs Robinson to take care of his share, too. And as determined as the Tide have been to minimize Young’s role in the designed run game, maybe pulling the ball on a zone read a time or two wouldn’t hurt, either, just to reassure the defense that he will. If it’s in the playbook, it’s time to smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Key matchup: Alabama’s interior OL vs. Georgia’s interior DL
With all 3 interior line positions in flux due to injuries, Alabama’s o-line hardly looks like a strength on paper, at least outside of All-American mainstay Evan Neal at left tackle. Georgia’s front, on the other hand, is the strength of the team. In that context, Bama pounding out a living on the ground would be absolutely demoralizing. More likely, whatever the Tide manage in the running game will count mostly toward keeping the edge rushers and the secondary honest.
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
Statistically, the kickers are a wash. Alabama’s Will Reichard is 32-for-37 on field goals over the past 2 years with a long of 52; Georgia’s Jack Podlesny is 33-for-41 with a long of 53. The closest thing to an edge on that front is one of the strangest statistical anomalies in sports: Nobody misses against Alabama. Opposing kickers are 15-for-15 on field goals vs. the Crimson Tide this season and 49-for-54 over the past 3. (They were perfect in 2019, as well.) Even Cincinnati, which posted the worst field-goal percentage of any FBS team in the regular season, was 2-for-2 in the Cotton Bowl. A completely random trend with nothing real behind it and no basis for continuing going forward, but there it is.
When he’s gotten a chance, Jameson Williams has flashed some explosiveness as a return man, taking 2 kickoffs to the house in a September win over Southern Miss. In the subsequent 10 games, though, he’s only logged 5 returns, primarily due to touchbacks. Randomly, both teams have had some issues fielding punts, with 4 muffs apiece by multiple players. Although neither team has returned a punt for a touchdown, they have both scored on blocked punts — Alabama has 3 blocks on the year, Georgia 2. On the other end, Bama’s JoJo Earle and UGA’s Kearis Jackson are potentially dangerous punt returners if they get a shot.
Unusually for this time of year, Georgia’s two-deep is almost completely intact; only one potential starter, OLB Adam Anderson, is unavailable due to a midseason suspension following an accusation of sexual assault. Alabama can’t say the same, with John Metchie III and CB Josh Jobe both out due to knee and foot injuries, respectively. As discussed above, the offensive line could be without as many as three regular starters —center Darrian Dalcourt, RG Emil Ekiyor, and RT Chris Owens are all game-time decisions. A patchwork front could wind up looking very different from the one that handled Georgia’s defensive line in the first meeting.
The bottom line
In other sports it’s routine business, but postseason rematches in college football are rare, and with a national championship on the line almost unprecedented. The last time it happened: 1996, when the arcane bowl system in place at the time matched up No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl with a Florida team the Seminoles had already vanquished to close out an undefeated regular season; the Gators won the rematch in a blowout, claimed the school’s first national title, and never thought twice about what if the two head-to-head results had been reversed.
The second one was the one that mattered, that definitively enshrined Florida as the season’s superior team for all-time. The first one, the one where Danny Wuerffel was beaten to a pulp by the same FSU defense he’d go on to triumphantly shred just a few weeks later, is just a footnote no one bothers reading. The way it went last time isn’t the way it has to go every time.
With that in mind, Georgia is (narrowly) favored on Monday night for the same reasons it was less narrowly favored in December. All the advanced stats and rankings systems still like the Bulldogs. They’ve been more consistent over the course of the reason, dominating week-in, week-out virtually from start to finish, while in November alone Alabama repeatedly found itself going down to the wire against the likes of LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. Last time out, they made a worthy Michigan outfit look indistinguishable from, say, Missouri. They’re as healthy as ever while Bama is banged up, they have options and depth on offense in areas (quarterback, running back, wide receiver) where Alabama is thin, and outside of essentially one bad quarter in Atlanta they still boast one of the great defenses in recent memory.
Two things the Bulldogs don’t have: 1) A Heisman-caliber quarterback, and 2) A track record of winning games that don’t follow their standard, defensively-driven script. Dominance is one measure of a great team, but another is consistently finding different ways to win based on the opponent and the circumstances. Almost no two Crimson Tide victories this season have been exactly alike – they’ve won throwing the ball like an Air Raid team and running the ball like it’s 2011; they’ve won shootouts when the offense shows up and the defense doesn’t, and slugfests when it’s the other way around; they’ve buried opponents quickly and driven the length of the field in the dying seconds. And they’ve won putting the torch to one of the great defenses in recent memory.
At the end of the day, when your quarterback is Stetson Bennett IV, you’re playing for one specific type of game that keeps him in his comfort zone. When your quarterback is Bryce Young, you can adapt to any game because he’s the kind of talent who’s never been out of his comfort zone in his life. The kind of elite, first-round quarterback who, since Tua Tagovailoa emerged from the bench to sling his way into history 4 years ago, virtually all of college football agrees you need to win a championship in the spread-offense era. Georgia’s M.O. from the very first game, a 10-3 rock fight against Clemson featuring zero offensive touchdowns, has been a challenge to that assumption.
Smart has made some concessions to the spread revolution but never embraced the premise quite as fully as his old mentor. The Bulldogs’ insistence on sticking with Bennett behind center when most of the outside world expected his run as QB1 to be temporary was implicitly a bet that the defense would render the question academic. If they succeed in making a blue-chip, NFL-ready superstar look ordinary enough to win with a former walk-on on the sport’s biggest stage, it will be a landmark victory for the counter-revolution. Can defense still win championships in college football? We’re about to find out.
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Alabama 31, Georgia 23