by Ian Boyd
At last the 2017 season is ending, culminating in the long awaited Georgia vs. Alabama matchup that most expected to occur in the SEC title game -- until Auburn upset the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl and took their place. Multiple schools have attempted to do what Georgia is now doing: hire a former Nick Saban assistant and copy his program-building strategies in order to topple Alabama as the reigning SEC power.
Georgia has some unique advantages in its attempt to become the SEC's new flagship program, starting with one of the most talent-rich states in the country. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart took over a program that had been well maintained by Mark Richt (now head coach at Miami) and had already been running some Saban-style defenses under Jeremy Pruitt (current defensive coordinator at Alabama, but leaving to be head coach at Tennessee).
After taking over at Georgia, Kirby Smart immediately set about to build the Bulldogs into what Alabama had been at the turn of the decade, when they ascended as the preeminent program in college football. They're a big, bullying team that has a two-headed run game, a savvy game manager at quarterback, and a veteran-led defense that owns the trenches with big defensive linemen and an All-American inside linebacker. Nick Saban's Alabama is staring at a younger version of themselves in this contest. Can they maintain their place at the top of the roost?
All times are listed as Eastern.
College Football National Championship
Alabama (-4) vs Georgia
January 8, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
This game may not do as well in the TV ratings outside of the South since it is so regional in nature, but it's a pretty compelling matchup all the same. It's not really Georgia's fault that this showdown didn't occur in the SEC title game ... though it may be Alabama's fault for losing the Iron Bowl. Anyway, these teams are very evenly matched in many regards. Georgia is going to come into this game looking to "out-Alabama" the Crimson Tide, and though that strategy has never seemed to work before, it seems very plausible that it could work this time.
Each team had to dispatch a spread offense in the semifinals in order to get here. Alabama got the easier task of dealing with Clemson, a spread-option offense that can no longer drop back and beat teams throwing down the field without current NFL players Jordan Leggett (tight end), Mike Williams (wide receiver), or Deshaun Watson (quarterback). The Alabama defense that demolished Clemson in that game looked pretty different from Crimson Tide units of the past. They were at their best this season playing nickel personnel with Thorpe Award-winner Minkah Fitzpatrick moving around between nickelback and safety.
However, the Crimson Tide is beat up heading into this game. Big senior safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones is injured; the Tide is down to talented sophomore Mack Wilson at inside linebacker with Shaun Hamilton and Dylan Moses both out; and outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings is now questionable after hurting his knee against Clemson. Alabama still has a dominant defensive line taking the field for them, featuring nose tackle Da'Ron Payne, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis, and defensive end Isaiah Buggs. Their battle with the Georgia offensive line will likely be the focal point of this entire contest.
The Bulldogs just plowed over Oklahoma in the semifinal with star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combining for 326 rushing yards at 13 yards a carry, with five rushing touchdowns. Oklahoma couldn't hold up when Georgia would line up in double-tight end sets and blow holes with multiple double-teams across the front, and then Chubb or Michel picking holes and running through arm tackles.
The Bulldogs won't match that performance against Alabama, which is vastly superior to Oklahoma in run defense, but there is a lot of question as to whether the Tide can shut down Georgia's run game or if this may look more like the 2014 semifinal in which Ohio State beat the Tide behind a 230-yard day from running back Ezekiel Elliott. Georgia's freshman quarterback Jake Fromm also made some impressive plays down the stretch to force overtime against Oklahoma, and he has been growing into his role more and more as the season progresses. The Bulldogs have some real weapons in the passing game, such as star receiver Javon Wims (704 receiving yards) and tight ends Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner. Georgia doesn't throw the ball a great deal, preferring to make use of one of the better running back tandems in school history, but the passing threat is there and improving in efficiency if they need to call upon it to beat Alabama late in the game.
On the other side of the ball, we have an Alabama offense that is the weakest it has been in some years. Against the deadly Clemson defense, quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for only 120 yards at 5 yards a pass with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has protected the ball well all year (one interception, two lost fumbles), but he's not really dangerous from the pocket at all, only when he's scrambling and either taking off (928 rushing yards, 7.4 yards per carry) or throwing down the field on the move. Georgia just faced a similar challenge in dealing with Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and did an excellent job of containing him in the pocket. If they can repeat that performance against Hurts they can grievously reduce the Alabama offensive output.
Georgia is also likely to come into this game prepared to load the box and play man coverage, forcing Alabama to run against a stiff and well-positioned run front. Other SEC teams have been able to slow down the Tide run game this season, and Clemson just did as well. If the Dawgs can prevent Hurts from making plays with his legs and then play their normally stout run defense, that doesn't leave much for the Alabama offense to lean on in order to put points on the board. Additionally, take note that Georgia finished No. 1 this year in special teams and soundly thrashed Oklahoma in the field position battle in the Rose Bowl, particularly in the second half. In a tight defensive contest, Georgia will likely hold the advantage in field position.
F/+ likes Georgia by a small margin. S&P+ prefers Alabama by a similarly narrow margin. The Tide are coming into this game pretty beat up, with Saban even changing his practice regimen to keep his players healthier and fresher. Meanwhile, Georgia has a deep, young, hungry football team with linemen who may finally prove to be even greater brutes than those fielded by Alabama. Look for the negation of Alabama's typical advantages in talent and depth combined with Georgia's superior passing game and special teams to push Georgia to the top.
- Does Alabama still have enough size and depth up front to stop the Georgia run game?
- Will Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm or Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts have to make up the difference in a tight game?
- Can Georgia contain Hurts in the pocket and take away his playmaking from the Tide offense?
- Who wins the field position battle?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
S&P+ Pick against the spread: Georgia
S&P+ Picks against the spread in the regular season: 45-37
S&P+ Picks against the spread in the bowls: 18-20
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 63-57