After having two different conferences represented in the title game for the last six years, this is the first time since 2012 the two contenders are coming from the SEC. While Georgia won the conference title, Alabama didn’t even get the chance to play in the championship game. With Kirby Smart facing off against his former head coach Nick Saban and two teams that are built similar, there’s lots to talk about. Over the next couple of paragraphs, I want to analyze the paths of both these programs heading into the matchup, how they will approach it, under-the-radar contributors and the outcome of the game. Alabama has been crowned national champions four times since 2009, while Georgia is looking to do so for the first time since 1980. It’s dynasty versus contender, teacher versus student, the Tide versus the Bulldogs.
How they got here:
For the first time in years, the Crimson Tide was waiting at home to let the CFP committee decide if they would be part of the playoffs. They barely got in, even though some members of the committee later said they would deserve that spot much more than Ohio State. I absolutely agree with them earning the number four spot, because despite a resume that includes just two wins over Top 25 teams of the final rankings, you can’t blame them for playing who’s in front of them. Let’s not forget they started the season against Florida State, who at that point was still the third-rated team in the country and they beat them handily 24-7. That was the same score as to when starting QB Deiondre Francois had to be carted off the field. With how bad the Seminoles’ season went, nobody remembers that game, but you can’t hype that matchup as a potential preview of the National Championship game and then treat is as an easy W later. Outside of that contest, they dominated the field competition all year long. The Crimson Tide rolled the SEC opposition until having a tough time dealing with Mississippi State at their house in week ten and then losing their only game of the season to Auburn. If you look closely at those two matchups, you can see how banged up Bama was, especially at linebacker, being down to fourth-stringers. They didn’t have a chance to play for a conference title, but since it’s not a requirement to win your conference, I believe they deserved the fourth spot more than Ohio State, who had lost by two touchdowns to Oklahoma and then was blown out at Iowa. I thought Alabama was the best team in the country when they were fairly healthy, and they got a little bit away from their identity in the later parts of the season. In the Sugar Bowl versus No. 1 Clemson, they got back to who they were. The defense was dominant as we’re accustomed to seeing them, holding Kelly Bryant & company to six points and under 200 total yards. On the other side of the ball, they rushed for 141 yards against the ferocious front seven of the Tigers and Jalen Hurts helped convert in crucial spots. Despite a couple of weeks when their defense clearly wasn’t at a hundred percent, their defense finished the season as the highest ranked unit in points allowed at 11.1, while they averaged 256 yards on the ground offensively.
The Bulldogs were shocked in the season-opener when five-star quarterback Jacob Eason suffered a season-ending knee-injury. Fortunately for them, freshman Jake Fromm has been more than capable for them over the course of the year. The coaching staff made it a priority to take as much pressure off the young-signal caller as possible and their top three running backs have amassed over 2000 yards on the ground. Week two they arguably had their toughest match-up of the season that didn’t end in a loss. They went to Notre Dame and squeezed out a one-point victory against the Fighting Irish, who went on to win their next seven games and put themselves in the College Football Playoff picture for a brief period. Georgia destroyed the SEC competition and earned themselves the number one spot in the CFP rankings. That was until week ten, when they travelled to Auburn. The Tigers beat them up for most of the day, with Kerryon Johnson simply running all over that feared Bulldog D and Jarrett Stidham killing them over the top. Nevertheless, UGA won their final two games of the regular season handedly and was set up for a rematch with the Tigers, who had just embarrassed them a couple of weeks back. That game went completely different with Auburn’s star RB really banged up and the Georgia defense showing a lot of pride, as they won the SEC championship game 28-7. Their resume was good enough to earn them the number two spot and put them up against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma. The Heisman trophy winner and his troops had their way with this outstanding Bulldog defense in the first half, putting 31 points on the board, including a scoop-and-score by the defense and that’s when the Sooners’ coaches let their opponents come back. With six seconds left until halftime, OU decided to squib-kick off a touchdown, which went right into the arms of a member of the return time, with no time lost. After a quick pass to the outside, Georgia’s kicker, who had a tremendous day overall, nailed a long field-goal to make this a two-score game. In the second half, head coach Lincoln Riley went away from what put them into the position they were in at that point, as he used multiple gadget and trick plays, which the disciplined Georgia defense didn’t bite on. The Sooners had enough opportunities to win this game and if you have a guy like Mayfield, they should have let them take the game over. Instead, they didn’t let him decide the outcome with five minutes left of regulation or when they needed a touchdown in the first period of overtime and he didn’t even attempt a pass. Overall, the Bulldogs are deservedly in this National Championship game, as they rushed for over 300 yards and their freshman QB showed a ton of moxy to me in the Rose Bowl. They just had one bad game.
When Georgia has the ball:
What Nick Saban and his teams have done to freshman QBs in recent years has been unbelievable. The Tide’s defense is built on stopping the run, by having beef up front with three down-linemen, who can control their man at the point of attack and have linebackers running around free to make tackles. I believe Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift will create a challenge for this unit since they all having different running styles. Chubb is just a bruiser, who will get even this defense tired, Michel has an outstanding burst once he sees daylight to punish some defenders with aggressive angles and Swift hits those linebackers with jukes as well as being able to bury his shoulder into their chest. However, there is no way they will win them the game by just lining up in heavy formations play after play and trying to jam the ball down the throat of the Bama defense. They need to hit them with misdirection and give them some eye-candy to worry about. If they find a way to stay on schedule by gaining three plus yards consistently on first downs, they will get those big guys on the defensive line to stay at the line of scrimmage off play-action and take away this pass rush. What brings this game further inside is the fact, Alabama matches up very well on the perimeter with Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace, who has turned into one heck of a player himself as one of the very few walk-ons at this football factory. If Georgia decides to move one of their better pass-catcher into the slot, I expect Minkah Fitzpatrick to take on that responsibility. However, he might also function as a true free safety on base downs if the Bulldogs run the ball effectively, since Ronnie Harrison will move more into the box to have numbers against this rushing attack. Fitzpatrick is the best player in this loaded matchup and the coaching staff wants to use his entire skill-set and not have him as a pure last line of defense. I expect Bama to focus on shutting down the run and making the freshman QB beat them through the air. They won’t shy away from bringing the house and leaving their DBs one-on-one with the Georgia skill players.
When Alabama has the ball:
For the first time probably since the arrival of Nick Saban, the biggest star on this Alabama offense is not a running back or receiver, it is guy taking the snaps. Jalen Hurts came in as a freshman in the second half of the season-opener last year and he has never looked back. He has not anywhere near to being refined as a pocket passer, as he doesn’t work his progressions thoroughly and tends to get on his feet quite quickly. Yet, he has been their best player at the position since A.J. McCarron. Their styles couldn’t be more different. What makes Hurts special is the poise and leadership he has displayed over his first two seasons. He is a dangerous runner with unbelievable strength for a QB to sustain and run through contact. The Alabama offensive line does an excellent job at blocking the zone-game and setting up play-action, at which Hurts’ big arm comes into play. At the other end of those bombs you often find Calvin Ridley, who would be my top-rated wide receiver for this upcoming draft at the moment. His quickness is tremendous, he can not only stretch the field vertically, but also find success crossing it and he has great ball-skills. Outside of their loss to Auburn and last week’s shoot-out against Oklahoma, this Georgia defense has allowed 20 points or more just once all season. Roquan Smith is this year’s version of Alabama’s Reuben Foster, in terms of a linebacker with tremendous range, making plays sideline-to-sideline. The guy, who really caught my eye for the Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl was defensive tackle Tyler Clark, coming off the bench. He can be extremely disruptive, and I could see him as a frequent visitor in the Alabama backfield. The safety-tandem of Dominick Sanders and J.R. Reed might be the best and most versatile in the country and I expect them to give some different looks to keep the Tide offense off script. If you look at the best power-rushing attack Georgia has faced in Notre Dame, you can see the Dogs held the Irish to 55 yards on 37 carries, with QB Brandon Wimbush gaining one yard on his 16 attempts. Alabama’s ground game has its differences with Hurts escaping the pocket more and turning upfield off rollouts, but this will be tough sledding for the Crimson Tide.
Both teams are averaging over 250 yards rushing, while their defenses are ranked first and fifth respectively in points per game. This comes down to strength vs strength on both sides of the ball. Neither one of them will give in and I expect both teams to stay true to their gameplan early on. Even the respective featured players are pretty similar. Each team uses an excellent trio at running back with a bruiser, a speed guy and a shiftier version of a RB. So, for me this matchup comes down to the quarterback, who can make a play in the crucial moment. This will be pretty interesting since both guys’ best attribute are their poise in my opinion, like I mentioned earlier. Jalen Hurts won’t be able to drop back and pick this Georgia defense apart. It’s too good and he’s just not that kind of guy. He will leave his mark on the game with timely runs to keep the chains moving and some deep balls to Calvin Ridley. Jake Fromm hasn’t proven himself on the big stage, but he has been outstanding early on in his career and hasn’t shown me anything that would make me think the lights are too bright for him.
Alabama – Terrell Lewis
With Anfernee Jennings out for the National Championship game, this linebacking corp is once again missing an important member. Even though Lewis plays a different role for this unit, I believe his playing time will be up on Monday. After an impressive showing in the season-opener, Lewis missed their next ten games, before getting some snaps versus Auburn. In the Sugar Bowl he was back to full strength and reminded me what kind of a player he is. He made some nice plays in coverage, knocking down passes and blowing things up quickly. I expect him to be involved heavily when those faster running backs are on the field and he is asked to take them down. His teammate Christian Miller is another name to remember, as he will be featured in this game as well to compensate for the loss of Jennings, who had a huge game himself against Clemson. Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses were already out for the season and now it’s time to step up for guys like Lewis and Miller.
Georgia – D’Andre Swift
I could put the aforementioned Tyler Clark here, but I wanted to talk a little bit about Georgia’s number three running back. While we all know Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who just went off on Oklahoma for 222 yards and three TDs on 15 touches, Swift hasn’t really been talked about that much recently. On any other program in the country, this guy would have been a tremendous number two or featured running back, but he hasn’t even touched the ball 100 times all year long. I think there’s a good chance he will have a significant impact in this matchup. He is averaging 7.8 yards per carry and he just adds another dimension to this RB squad. He is shiftier than the other two guys and he is clearly the best pass-catcher out of the backfield. With the way Alabama has been hit with injuries on the linebacker level, I’d be very tempted to match up the freshman with some of those substitutes and let him go to work.
Alabama 23 – Georgia 16
The teams who have beaten Alabama in recent years have done it with creative play-calling and unique quarterbacks making plays off script against them. This is completely different. Georgia might be the first I’ve seen in this decade that wants to jump in the ring with the Tide and try to beat them in a fistfight. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, I haven’t seen anybody be able to do that in a long time and I won’t believe in it before I see it. Moreover, I believe Jalen Hurts will make a few big plays to decide the outcome of this game and give Nick Saban his fifth national title in nine years – a feat that is unmatched in college football history.