ATLANTA, Ga. -- Georgia fans have waited 38 years for this opportunity, and on Monday, in an all-SEC battle with Alabama, the Bulldogs will get a shot to add just the school’s third football national championship trophy to its mantle, while the Crimson Tide will look to prove its not losing its grip on the college football landscape.
I’ll give you five quick reasons why either team could walk out of Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium Monday night with the coveted hardware, and then I’ll offer my personal prediction for the game.
Alabama Wins If…
1. It can put the kibosh on Georgia’s dynamic rushing duo. Senior tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have been nothing short of phenomenal. Against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, both backs pushed for over 100 yards en route to Georgia’s 326-yard rushing performance. It’s not an anomaly, either. The Dawgs have been one of the top rushing teams in the country all year. But Alabama has been near the top on the rushing defense charts. Many say the Tide’s front seven is comparable to that of Auburn’s which stalled Georgia out in the first meeting of the two teams back in November. Georgia didn’t deviate from the rushing attack, however, when the two teams met again at the SEC Championship Game. While this is a more-than-solid Alabama defense, it’s not as devastatingly dominant as the ones in the past, so Bama will be tested here.
2. It can establish its own potent running game. While UGA has two dynamic backs to bolster its rushing attack, Alabama’s highly-ranked running game is much more diverse. It starts with tailback Damien Harris (983 yards and 11 touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts (808 rushing yards and eight rushing scores). But then there’s Bo Scarbrough who. He’s not looking like his former dominant self since last year’s leg injury, but he’s piled up 573 rushing yards and eight scores, and can’t be overlooked. Other backs like Najee Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Brian Robinson, Jr. have shown bursts. It may not have that one dominant feature back, but the rushing attack is still dangerous and game-changing.
3. Jalen Hurts can be, well, Jalen Hurts. As evidenced by his stats, Hurts is most effective when he’s able to seamlessly toggle between run-pass options. In addition to Hurts’ 808 rushing yards, the sophomore has thrown for 2,125 yards and 17 touchdowns with only one interception while completing 61.3 percent of his passes. That makes it seem ludicrous that he’s actually been catching flack for not being better under center. However, Hurts is most dangerous as a passer when he’s operating in the play-action game or throwing on the run. If he stays un-corralled in the pocket, he could do major damage to UGA’s defense.
4. Calvin Ridley has a game. As good of a running team as Bama is, I don’t think it can afford to be one dimensional and beat Georgia. Therefore, Calvin Ridley, the Tide’s top threat to stretch the field in the passing game, has to have another stellar performance. If there’s a glaring weakness in UGA’s defense, it’s in the secondary. Ridley can stretch the field, but don’t sleep on the playmaking ability of guys like Jerry Jeudy (18.8 yards per catch) and Cam Sims (18.5 yards per catch).
5. The pass rush is on. This may not be what we would call a vintage Alabama front seven, but rush ends Raekwon Davis (7.5 sacks) and Rashaan Evans (6.0 sacks) have the ability to pressure Jake Fromm. Fromm has been more than solid in his true freshman season, but the Warner Robins native is still a true freshman on a huge stage at that. In Georgia’s lone loss, Fromm was sacked four times by Auburn, and pressured many more times.
Georgia Wins If…
1. The offensive line can establish the line of scrimmage. No matter what kind of Alabama team you’re facing, that’s going to be a tough task. But listen. You don’t produce a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in the same backfield without having a stout offensive line. Chubb and Michel didn’t combine for 50 total rushing yards in that first game against the Tigers. But the SEC Championship rematch was a different story. Georgia backs rushed for 259 yards on 5.8 yards per carry and Fromm was sacked just twice. As a result, the Dawgs easily defeated Auburn.
2. Jake Fromm doesn’t wilt under the brightest lights he’s ever seen. This time last year, Georgia’s true freshman quarterback was still, basically, a high school signal caller. Playing for a state championship, though, isn’t the same as playing for all the marbles on college football’s biggest stage. Fromm’s first fairly big stage ended badly at Auburn. He bounced back brilliantly in the SEC Championship game and in last week’s Rose Bowl. He showed some deftness in stepping up in the pocket and delivering clutch throws against Oklahoma. He’ll need that, times 10, in order to beat Alabama.
3. Fromm gets solid protection to make those big throws. Neither of these teams want to throw it around the yard 50 times. But while Alabama’s probably got the best individual pass catcher in this game in Ridley, Georgia may have the superior total receiving corps. Javon Wims (44 catches, 704 yards and 7 TDs) leads the group. But Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman have flashed big play ability all season. With protection for Fromm, I think Georgia’s passing game has the ability to make more big plays.
4. Special teams has a day. Some of the biggest, most decisive plays in the Rose Bowl came from special teams. One of the biggest — which we probably didn’t realize how big it was at the time — came when Rodrigo Blankenship nailed a 55-yard field goal to turn a 17-point deficit into a two possession ball game at halftime. But none was bigger than Lorenzo Carter’s blocked field goal in overtime that led to Michel’s game-clinching touchdown run. Hardman can be a dangerous returner and Cameron Nizialek’s 45-yard punting average can be a field-flipper.
5. Georgia’s defense holds up against a tricky, mobile Jalen Hurts. Through the season, UGA’s defense has been just almost just as stout statistically as Alabama’s. But mobile quarterbacks can give Georgia fits. The front seven needs to pinch the pocket and keep Hurts from running wild. It sounds almost cliche, but if Georgia can keep Hurts in the pocket and make him stand flat-footed and beat him exclusively with his arm, I like their chances.
My Prediction: For these mirror-image squads, it may, at times feel like the two teams are scrimmaging. Alabama’s experience on the big stage will shine early. Georgia’s ability to hit some big pass plays after the second half will loosen things up for Michel and Chubb, and a partisan UGA crowd will make it feel a bit like Athens West for UGA. In the end, I say the Dawgs prevail — Georgia 24, Alabama 14.