Georgia Battles Alabama—and History—for the National Title

Alabama Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young
Alabama Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA National Championship - How did we get here?

2021 was one of the craziest college football seasons in recent memory. Clemson stumbled twice in four games, Oklahoma struggled throughout the season before Baylor and Oklahoma State dealt them a fatal one-two punch, and Ohio State got stunned at the gun by an ascendant Michigan. Between October 9, when Texas A&M walked off against Alabama, and December 4, when the Crimson Tide took down Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, there was effectively only one team playing at the level of most previous CFP contenders. And in that conference title game, those Bulldogs got blown out by a team fighting for its playoff life all the way.

After years of domination by a select few, the 2021 season was a breath of fresh air. Most of the bluebloods and familiar College Football Playoff faces underachieved, and surprise playoff hopefuls such as Oklahoma State, Michigan State, and Cincinnati made serious cases to reach the final four—the Bearcats actually doing so, becoming the first CFP team from the Group of 5. It all led up to a playoff field that, on paper, looked absolutely tantalizing: familiar blueblood Alabama hitting their stride to face the underdog of all underdogs in Cincinnati, while a reeling Georgia took on a Michigan team playing in its first-ever official playoff game.

Then the games actually happened. Alabama and Georgia, in turn, took Cincinnati and Michigan to the woodshed, winning by scores of 27-6 and 34-11 to set up an SEC Championship Game rematch for the national title. For fans of the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs, and SEC dominance, this was a good result. But for most neutral fans, it was a letdown—not just in the quality of the semifinal games, but also in the result. This will mark the third all-SEC game for a national title in the last 11 years, and while the conference's overall quality has certainly played a part in that run, there are other factors at play, all of which point to fundamental problems with the sport's postseason.

There are going to be fingers pointed at the system that put two SEC teams in position to play for the title—though this time around it wasn't as egregious as in either of the previous single-conference championship games. In 2011, the BCS picked a rematch of a 9-6 slugfest that most neutral fans saw as unwatchable rather than a showdown between an elite LSU defense and a high-flying Oklahoma State offense. Then, in 2017, the CFP committee handed its last spot to an Alabama team that lost its last game decisively and missed the SEC Championship Game, rather than to a Wisconsin team that started 12-0 and lost the Big Ten Championship Game by one score. This year was more defensible, with Alabama going 12-1 and defeating a previously untouched Georgia by a wide margin in Atlanta; there wasn't much of an argument for either team to be left out.

The selection system is far from the only problem that will be blamed for this playoff outcome, though. Playoff expansion (probably to 12 teams, although everyone has a different system in mind) has been on the table for years, and has only become more of a topic of discussion with a rematch that, in retrospect, feels inevitable. Some have argued that recruiting limits need to be tightened, with teams employing ridiculous depths of talent to effortlessly steamroll over those who didn't pick up enough five-stars in recent classes. At the end of the day, there's little consensus on anything aside from the fact that the current playoff fails to live up to the high standard set by college football's regular season.

There are plenty of questions about how college football will address its postseason going forward, but for now, Alabama-Georgia is the game we have. And even if it's not what many fans hoped this CFP could produce, it's still full of intrigue and consequence. What will the Bulldogs' offense change—or keep the same—in order to hang with the Tide? Can they find the edge against Bryce Young that just wasn't there a month ago? And can Kirby Smart finally put together a complete performance to take down his archrival and finish a remarkable year with the ultimate glory of a championship? The memory of a 41-24 beatdown will be fresh on both teams' minds as they try to make history in the final game of a thrilling 2021 season.

All times are listed as Eastern.

College Football Playoff National Championship
Indianapolis, Indiana
Alabama vs. Georgia (-3)
January 10, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Alabama Georgia
2021 F+ 3 1
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 2 1
2021 EPA/pass 3 1
2021 EPA/rush 75 8
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 6 3
2021 EPA/pass 41 4
2021 EPA/rush 3 73

Ten years and one day after Alabama steamrolled LSU in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, they find themselves on the other end of a rematch for the title. This unusual situation provides us a uniquely unusual way of looking at a matchup that is, on paper, very competitive—but that, in Atlanta, transformed from a back-and-forth affair into a blowout in the blink of an eye. For Alabama, you'd figure the best way to win is simply to replicate their game plan from the SEC Championship Game, while Georgia will (or should) be looking to do something different.

Since 2008, when Nick Saban turned the Tide into a perennial title favorite, the Bulldogs have lost seven straight against them. And in every one of those games, there has been a consistent theme, one that stood out very clearly when these teams last met a few weeks ago: most of the game is competitive, but Alabama finds at least one scoring run that turns it on its head.

In 2008 they came out of the gate swinging, scoring five times before Georgia put points on the board and jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. The 2012 game was for the SEC championship and was effectively a title play-in between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, and it was more competitive; the Tide's critical stretch came in the last 20 minutes, as they scored 22 points and managed to hold Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs to just seven. 2015 saw the Tide turn a 3-3 contest into a 38-3 no-contest in a 15-minute stretch straddling halftime. In the 2017 title game, Tua Tagovailoa took the reins from Jalen Hurts and led a comeback from a 13-0 deficit to win 26-23. The following season, things turned on their head as Hurts entered for Tagovailoa to throw and rush for two touchdowns in the last six minutes. In 2020 the Tide trailed 24-20 with four minutes left in the third quarter—then Mac Jones connected with Jaylen Waddle for a 90-yard touchdown and 10 minutes later the score was 41-24, Alabama.

This painful history of Alabama turning close games into comfortable wins and orchestrating remarkable comebacks was reinforced in the SEC Championship Game, where they trailed 10-0 after Georgia closed out a 97-yard drive to open the second quarter. Less than a minute later, Bryce Young hit Jameson Williams for a 67-yard touchdown, and Alabama soon surged to a 24-17 halftime lead. They went on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive after halftime, and from there they cruised to victory. For a head-to-head matchup with such a long streak of futility, Alabama-Georgia has featured plenty of back-and-forth ball, but the Tide always seem to figure their opponent out at some point or other.

So what do you do when Alabama has already figured you out—or, at least, figured out who you were back at the start of December? The Bulldogs didn't exactly reinvent themselves against Michigan, in a game where their defense dominated and Stetson Bennett IV luxuriated in a clean pocket (which surrendered only nine pressures and allowed him an average time to throw of over four seconds on those dropbacks). It's a formula that worked brilliantly against almost every team they faced this season, and it worked to perfection against the No. 2 team in college football. But it didn't work against Alabama the first time, and it's probably not going to work if they do the same thing again. The Bulldogs need to do something they have stubbornly refused to do all year, and figure out a passing game that actually works.

What that probably doesn't mean is putting in JT Daniels. Georgia isn't planning to do it to start the game, and if the SEC Championship Game is any indication, adversity isn't going to change that plan easily. Bennett is probably not quite as good as his numbers (10.1 yards per attempt, 27 TD, 7 INT) indicate, and we saw why when Georgia met Alabama—their first top-15 opponent of the season by the most recent rankings. Like any quarterback, Bennett isn't as good under pressure (7.9 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 3 INT), and the Tide produced a little more of that than usual (28.3% of dropbacks to Georgia's season average of 25.0%).

But what proved to be the Bulldogs' undoing on offense wasn't the Alabama front seven; it was the secondary. On non-screen pass attempts, Bennett was downright impressive this season, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt with 22 TD and 7 INT. PFF graded him better on those plays than on screen passes, and his non-screen numbers are surprisingly close to Heisman Trophy finalists CJ Stroud (10.1 yards per attempt, 41 TD, 6 INT) and Kenny Pickett (9.1 yards per attempt, 36 TD, 6 INT). But Alabama tore Bennett apart on these more difficult attempts: he went 20 for 41 for 263 yards, 6.6 yards per attempt, one touchdown, and two interceptions. It was surprising stuff from a pass defense that had, to that point, not really looked all that great: Alabama's secondary ranks 13th in EPA per pass, 47th in success rate, and 46th in havoc rate. All of those figures have soared recently as a result of overpowering both Bennett and Desmond Ridder (17 for 32, 144 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) in their last two games.

Bennett was great on those more difficult passes again in the semifinal, with 11.7 yards per attempt, all three of his touchdowns, and no interceptions. But it's easy to see why many want to see Daniels get a crack at the Tide after Bennett's struggles—in 2020, when he threw 112 non-screen passes, he was excellent (11.1 yards per attempt, 10 TD, 2 INT), albeit against a fairly weak schedule. But his 2021 appearances offered a lot more questions, and he finished with fairly mediocre non-screen numbers: 7.8 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 3 INT. Statistics aren't everything, and there's a not-unreasonable feeling that Bennett's should be thrown out the window after the Alabama game, but there's not really any reason to be confident in Daniels either. He's a good last resort, but trotting him out as the starting quarterback when he hasn't thrown a non-garbage-time pass in months seems like the kind of thing that leads to one of the Tide's back-breaking runs.

Bennett can probably still score some points, even if he struggles—he did lead a 24-point effort in the SEC Championship Game, after all, one of the highest-scoring performances against Alabama in their active eight-game winning streak (after Arkansas's 35 and tied with Tennessee's 24). As many questions as there will be about Georgia's offense, it's reasonable enough to assume they can keep pace ... provided their defense can keep Alabama in check. Easier said than done, of course, but here the Bulldogs have a potential weakness to pick on—the source of Alabama's scoring stretch in the last meeting, by far the best element of their offense, and a potential source of instability all in one. There's no question that stopping him is going to be difficult, but given what we know about him and about the Georgia defense, it feels within the realm of possibility.

That key is, of course, Bryce Young. The question going into the SEC Championship Game was how Alabama could win with a run game that has been decidedly average this year (68th in EPA per play, 66th in yards per game), and the answer was the same as it had been all year: sit back and watch the Heisman-winner cook. Young threw over 40 passes for the fifth time on the season, making him one of two quarterbacks to pass so frequently while notching a record as good as his 4-1 mark in such games. The end result was statistically excellent—it's hard to argue with 421 yards on 44 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions, after all—but the way Young got there was unusual by his standards.

What made Young so good this year was his fantastical ability to handle pressure: on 199 pressured dropbacks, he averaged 8.2 yards per attempt while passing for 16 touchdowns and throwing only three picks. He'll surpass Wake Forest's Sam Hartman to become the most-pressured quarterback in the Power 5 after the title game, and in the process he has put up an almost unmatched statline. Against a tenacious Bulldogs defense that ranked fourth in havoc this season, you'd figure Young's incredible ability to handle danger would have defined his brilliant performance. But on 18 pressured attempts, Young looked every bit the sophomore he was: he attempted 16 passes, completed just five of them, and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. That's not disastrous, but it's thoroughly mortal. The problem is that he also took 30 unpressured dropbacks, and he averaged 11.7 yards per attempt and threw three touchdowns on those plays, more than enough to overrun Georgia.

No defense is going to completely stop Young, but it's possible to hold him in check, and if the Bulldogs are to do that, the answer lies in the secondary. It has been as uniformly excellent as the rest of their defense, ranking first in EPA and success rate on passes and second in havoc created, but Young—with help from an excellent receiving corps—tore it apart with their intermediate passing attack. For the season, Alabama receivers averaged 6.1 yards after catch on passes that were between 10 and 19 yards downfield. On eight such completions in the conference championship game, that figure ballooned to 11.1. Perhaps the hallmark of Alabama's runs against Georgia—and of their 14 years (and counting) as college football's best team—is the way they twist the knife and methodically turn big plays into huge ones. On that 67-yard touchdown catch, Jameson Williams ran for over 50 yards after the pass. Three plays later, he turned a pass behind the line of scrimmage into a 23-yard gain. It wasn't just that the Tide went on a run, but how they went on a run, that so thoroughly demoralized Georgia: they took one of the most disciplined defenses in the history of college football and beat it for extra yardage again and again.

It is, perhaps, unhelpful to say that the biggest key to the Bulldogs' hopes of revenge is simply doing what they were doing before they faced Alabama. They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and there's reason to fear that history will repeat itself in short order. Georgia will once again march into this game as a slight favorite, trying to do what has worked against everybody else and once again walk away defeated, wondering how the Tide beat them at their own game. But computers, oddsmakers, and a simple glance at the pure talent on this team agree: if they play like they have on every night but one, this game is more than winnable for Georgia. In Atlanta, they looked like a pale imitation of their usual dominant selves; in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs must be at their best to break through and win the national championship.

Watch for:

  • Can Georgia successfully cover the open field and make key tackles to keep Alabama from blowing the doors off their defense?
  • If he has the Bulldogs in position to win, can Bennett exceed expectations and lead critical late-game drives against the disciplined Tide?
  • If the Georgia offensive line steps up against a tough Alabama front seven, can their dynamic rushing attack match Young blow for blow?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 8.1

FEI's pick ATS: Georgia -3

Preston's pick ATS: Alabama +3

FEI's picks ATS in bowls last week: 2-7-1

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 54-66-1

Preston's picks ATS in bowls last week: 4-5-1

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 61-59-1

Comments

3 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2022, 12:00am

#1 by JS // Jan 10, 2022 - 1:32pm

I think that Georgia needs to get pressure on Young more than 1/3 of the time. Their secondary might be good, or it might just have benefitted from being ahead, and from the Georgia pass rush being in the opposing QB's lap all the time. Plus, Alabama has historically had, shall we say, fairly talented receivers. IIRC, Georgia didn't blitz much last time. If they can't get consistent pressure with 4, they need to rush 5, and if that doesn't work, rush 6. Maybe they don't win that way, but not much pressure on Young almost certainly = another loss.

Points: 0

#2 by Dave from DC // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:25pm

Bill Connelly's preview of the game has some interesting thoughts on the need to pressure Young. Connelly notes that in the last matchup, Alabama averaged 4.6 yards per dropback against pressure, and an insane 13.7 yards when Georgia did not blitz. Obviously the answer can't be "zero blitz every time," but holy smokes is that gap nuts.

Points: 0

#3 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 11, 2022 - 12:00am

The lesser of two evils won

Points: 0

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