It’s Georgia vs. Alabama for the national championship. If you ask to pick the winner, well, it depends when you ask. I’m honestly conflicted. One side of my brain is wrestling with the other.
The obvious reasons for going with Alabama:
1) You’re going to give me Nick Saban and 2.5 points? Even though Saban collects national championships at a ridiculous rate, never loses to the Bulldogs, and went zip-lining over the ferocious Georgia defense for a 17-point victory in the Dec. 4 SEC championship game?
2) You’ll set me up with 2.5 points if I pick the team, ‘Bama, that has the best coach, quarterback (Bryce Young) and defensive player (Will Anderson) in this title game?
3) I can have Alabama and 2.5 points in a game that largely has been determined by quarterback play over the past five seasons? The last five teams that won the national title were led by quarterbacks that are NFL starters: Mac Jones (‘Bama), Joe Burrow (LSU), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Tua Tagovailoa (‘Bama), and Deshaun Watson (Clemson.) In the championship game, the five quarterbacks combined to complete 66.5% of their passes for 19 touchdowns and one interception with an average of 372 yards per game. The five losing quarterbacks connected on 50.8% percent of their throws with five touchdowns, four interceptions and an average of 217 yards.
4) And a reminder that tonight’s matchup is Heisman Trophy Winner Bryce Young vs. Georgia’s stubbornly solid former walk-on, Stetson Bennett the IV. In his two career starts against Alabama Bennett has been completed only 53 percent of his passing attempts and been intercepted five times. Georgia lost each game by 17 points, and the Dawgs were outscored 38-7 in the second half of both blowouts. Bennett was fantastic in Georgia’s slaughter of Michigan in the semifinal round, and his ability to run has put a new element in the GA offense. But … he ain’t Bryce Young.
5) Until the SEC championship Georgia had a heralded defense that was touted among the very best to patrol a college football field over the last 25 years. But the historical declarations went up in flames when the Alabama offense set off fireworks that stunned Georgia for 34 points, 25 first downs, 536 total yards and 421 passing yards and three touchdown throws. The Bama defense was better than Georgia’s. At least for one game.
6) Alabama’s defensive performance vs. Georgia wasn’t necessarily a fluke. Those who closely follow Alabama know that the Crimson Tide defense has been rising since being stomped for 522 yards and 41 points in a three-point loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 9. Dare we suggest that Alabama’s defense is underrated? A case can be made. Saban’s defense goes into the title game ranked No. 6 overall nationally in total defense, and second in rushing defense. (And Georgia likes to establish the run.) ‘Bama only gives up 19.2 points per game and is stout in the red zone, having ceded only six rushing touchdowns in the RZ all season. The Tide led the SEC and was fourth in the nation in stopping opponents on third down.
Since the Texas A&M misstep, here’s where Alabama’s defense ranks nationally in several categories according to Pro Football Focus:
— No. 1 in yards per rush allowed (1.98)
– 4th in percentage (43.1) of three-and-out drives.
– 5th in yards per play (4.44) allowed.
– 7th in percentage of drives (14.7) that ended in an opponent’s touchdown.
– 8th in points per drive allowed (1.32)
The red-zone defense and run stuffing were important plusses for Alabama in the SEC victory over Georgia. The same can be said of their pass rush, which rattled Bennett. And when Bennett isn’t comfortable in the pocket, problems ensue. He has a 102.6 NFL passer rating when there’s no pass-rush pressure. But when he’s under the pass-rush pressure, Bennett’s NFL passer rating falls off to 49.9.
7) Alabama’s rushing game improved as soon as Brian Robinson’s sprained ankle healed. And that coincided with upgraded play from Alabama’s offensive line. It isn’t easy to run the ball against Georgia, but Robinson did a respectable job in the first meeting, picking up 55 tough yards on 16 attempts. As follow-up he proceeded to maul Cincinnati for 200+ yards rushing in the semifinal round. But is Alabama’s O-line healthy? Can it be consistent? These are critical questions going into tonight’s tussle.
8) I do expect Georgia’s defense to put up more resistance in the rematch against the Alabama offense. More on that in a couple of minutes. But keep this in mind: the Georgia secondary is vulnerable … as is Alabama’s, but Alabama’s secondary doesn’t have to face Young. It gets another chance to torment Bennett, who threw a pick-six in the SEC championship. Young has 4,503 yards, 46 touchdown passes and five interceptions, and if you try to deploy extra defensive backs to stop him – well, Saban is fine with that because he’ll just run you into the dirt. Ask Cincinnati about that.
9) The bottom line? Over the last four seasons (covering 55 games) Alabama has averaged an astonishing 45.4 points per game. And that includes an average of 39 points in the last three showdowns with Georgia.
10) Georgia may hold Alabama to fewer points on Monday night, yes. But if the Alabama generally repeats its performance over the last two games – vs. Georgia, and Cincinnati – can the Bulldogs get the job done offensively? In the 2017 season national title game, Georgia did a commendable job of limiting Alabama to 26 points. That looks good. That sounds good. Georgia would probably be OK with that on Monday night. And the Dawgs had an impressive 13-0 halftime lead in the first national championship standoff between the SEC rivals. But it didn’t last for two reasons. First, Saban made a QB change and went with Tagovailoa over starter Jalen Hurts. That sparked the Alabama offense. And the Georgia offense faded in the second half and overtime, scoring only 10 points. Alabama outscored Georgia 26-10 after the half, and 16-3 after the third quarter to rally for a 26-23 win.
So even when Georgia did many things right, they still couldn’t get to the winner’s circle against Alabama with the national championship game on the line. And despite having momentum and the monster defense on its side, Georgia was clobbered by Alabama in this season’s SEC championship. So why should we expect a different outcome.
It’s not out of the question. Heck, no. As I said at the top of this piece, I’ve been waffling for a week about identifying the winner in this game.
Georgia can win by (A) overcoming an obvious psychological block, which messes with their heads when Alabama is on the other side of the field. And (2) Georgia coach Kirby Smart breaks out of his comfortable style of play to confuse Alabama and unsettle Alabama.
In the SEC game, Georgia lined up in the same defense that it used, to great results, all season. But Alabama and Bryce Young were an offense from another universe. Unless you can put Young in a position of not knowing what to expect on every down, he’ll own the night. And unless you can make him sweat with pressure, he’ll put up huge passing numbers. When dealing from a clean pocket, Young’s NFL passer rating is 129.7.
\When pressured, he still puts up a NFL passer rating of 102.9. But his completion percentage drops quite a bit when the rush bothers him, and that represents the most crucial aspect of Georgia’s best chance to win the rematch. Smart has to line up six, as if to rush six. But he doesn’t have to always rush six; the Dawgs just need to make Young think that extra pass rushers are coming.
If Georgia can keep Alabama’s scoring down – as Cincinnati did – then the Dawgs can go at in on offense in a way that plays to Bennett’s strengths. If Georgia needs Bennett to be the hero in a crazy passing duel against Young – forget about it. And Smart walks a fine line in this one. If the Dawgs build a lead, they can’t get too conservative offensively. That cost them against ‘Bama in the 2017 season national championship. Georgia absolutely should take some deep shots downfield to test that wobbly Crimson Tide secondary. Otherwise, Alabama will have an easier time of it, lining up to plug the running gaps.
Here’s why I think Saban’s team beats Smart’s team:
– Saban is better in big games. That may change at some point, but it would be ludicrous to say that Smart is the more accomplished coach in big-game settings.
– Saban is more adept at making in-game adjustments. There’s no question about that.
– Up to this point of the season, Alabama is the more adaptable team. Saban can defeat opponents in a variety of ways. Old–school power running, RPO action, spread the field and attack through the air. Georgia, by contrast, can only beat opponents one way: bully them on both lines, win the line of scrimmage, stop the run, and extend their authority by rushing it effectively on offense.
If I’m getting 2.5 points, it comes down to a matter of principle: gotta go with Nick Saban.
Thanks for reading …
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.