Continuing what has become almost an annual college football tradition, all eyes will once again be on Atlanta for the first weekend of December, where for the third time in five years the SEC Championship Game works as a de facto play-in game for the BCS National Championship. Alabama returns to Atlanta for the third time under Nick Saban, once again hoping to stamp its ticket to the BCS National Championship Game. 'Bama is already considered by many to be the current gold standard of college football, but with two more wins in the next five weeks the Tide would become a bona fide dynasty. Meanwhile, in Athens, Mark Richt has somehow successfully gone from the hot seat to the brink of redemption, with his Bulldogs playing their best football of the year, and he can erase a decade of demons in just sixty minutes tomorrow afternoon. For Georgia as a whole, this is the single most meaningful game for the Bulldogs since Herschel Walker donned the red and black.
From the outset, it should be understood that these two teams are very similar in terms of build and overall philosophy. Both, for exame, operate pro-style offenses, and both run a base 3-4 defense that feautures multiple pre-snap alignments and variability in pass rush personnel. Likewise, the level of raw talent on both rosters is tremendous, and in general quality depth is present on both sides. Alabama is a 7.5-point favorite in Vegas, but even that relatively small line probably says more about betting class inertia than anything else, and by all accounts this figures to be a very close affair tomorrow afternoon in Atlanta. It is exceedingly unlikely that we see, for example, a repeat of the Blackout, or of Georgia's dominating win in 2003.
Making evaluations more difficult is that both teams have been varying degrees of enigmas to date. Georgia comes in with 11 wins, but the Dawgs were nevertheless destroyed in Columbia by South Carolina and only narrowly avoided upsets at the hands of 2-9 Kentucky and 5-7 Tennessee. Truth be told, UGA hasn't really put together a complete performance to date, and in easily their biggest victory of the season (Florida), the Dawgs had three turnovers, 14 penalties, and a missed kick while going 1-10 on third downs. In fairness, though, some of the same criticism can be leveled at Alabama. The Crimson TIde has proven time and again this season to be adapt at thrashing overmanned teams, but nevertheless struggled badly against its two best opponents, and was frankly fortunate to earn a split in those contests. Taken together, with a few head-scratchers thrown in for both teams, all bets are largely off for tomorrow afternoon.
Offensively, Georgia will attack Alabama with a pro-style set which will feature heavy doses of the I-formation and a blocking fullback, and which will in general be similar to what the Crimson Tide faced against LSU. Freshmen tailbacks Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley lead the way in the running game, behind fullback Alexander Ogletree, and both have good size and speed. The Georgia offensive line doesn't have great depth or experience, but its front-line players have found success in the running game, and the interior of the Alabama defense will face a heavy challenge.
Of course, though, Aaron Murray is the difference-maker for the offense, and for better or for worse his performance will tell the tale for Georgia. Murray is obviously talented and after posting yet another gaudy stat line, he may be a candidate to leave Athens early for the NFL Draft, but nonetheless his resume comes with an asterisk attached. In his career to date, Murray has routinely been downright prolific against overmatched defenses, but has often struggled badly against quality opponents, and those struggles have largely continued this season. Against South Carolina and Florida, for example, Murray went a combined 23-55 (41.8%) for 259 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) to go with only one touchdown against four interceptions. Clearly, the hope in Tuscaloosa is that Murray will once again falter with the game on the line in Atlanta, but Richt isn't the only one seeking a degree of redemption tomorrow.
Unfortunately for Alabama, however, the Crimson Tide pass defense has been porous in recent weeks, and has somewhat resembled the kind of defense that Murray is so accustomed to picking apart. Both Zach Mettenberger and Johnny Manziel had great success through the air against the Tide, and at this late juncture of the season 'Bama seems to have few answers. The defensive front has been unable to generate consistent pressure in its own right, blitzes have been untimely and ineffective, and the defensive backs have been unable to force incompletions and turnovers on the back end. To that end, Alabama continues to experiment with personnel in the defensive backfield. Cornerback John Fulton looks to be available this weekend as he recovers from a turf toe injury, but Geno Smith has taken reps all week with the first team defense, and the true freshman figures to have a significant role tomorrow. Georgia has fought through injuries at wide receiver and depth is not particularly impressive -- Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett both went down mid-season with torn ACLs, and Malcolm Mitchell has been limited in practice this week with a left shoulder injury, though he is expected to play -- but even so the tandem of Mitchell and Tavarres King can be dangerous and the Alabama pass defense will have to execute better than it has in recent weeks to slow down the UGA passing attack.
In general, the prescription for the Tide defense is easily stated, even if not easily filled: Avoid the ugly start, slow the run well enough to keep UGA out of advantageous down and distance situations, pressure Murray, and then be able to hold up in pass defense on third down in order to be able to get off the field. Nevertheless, accomplishing all of that is a tall order, and Georgia is the best team offensively Alabama has faced this season outside of Texas A&M, so the Tide defense has its work cut out for it when toe meets leather tomorrow afternoon in the Georgia Dome. Experience tells us that no one is going to run roughshod over this defense, to be sure, but the passing game is a legitimate concern, and Georgia is certainly talented enough to score enough points to put itself in a position to win.
Given that the UGA defense should find at least some degree of success tomorrow, the Alabama offense will simply have to respond in kind against a talented Georgia defense. And much like with Murray, much of the outcome hinges on the shoulders of AJ McCarron, who has generally played at a high level this season but who slumped badly against LSU and Texas A&M (closing minutes of those contests notwithstanding). Georgia rushes the passer better than Alabama -- and finding a way to neutralize Jarvis Jones will be absolutely critical -- but the Tide has gotten good edge play in recent weeks against Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, and Damontre Moore, and assuming pass protection allows McCarron time to throw the football, opportunities could be present in the passing game, especially with UGA cornerback Damian Swann being limited in practice this week with a strained neck, though admittedly Georgia geenerally has good talent in the defensive backfield. Losing Kenny Bell to a broken fibula does not help matters, but Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood finally appear to be healthy, and hopefully there will be some production from further down the depth chart from the likes of Christion Jones, Cyrus Jones, Marvin Shinn, and Chris Black.
The weakness of the Georgia defense has, surprisingly, came against the run, where the Bulldogs rank only 67th nationally in total run defense. Those raw numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that UGA has faced two triple-option offenses this season in Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech -- those two teams alone combined for 624 rushing yards on 125 rushing attempts -- but even taking that into account the run defense has not been as stout as the size and prowess of the front seven would otherwise indicate, and some opposing runners have found success on the ground. Part of the reason for that is that while the front has great size, particularly with gargantuan nose guard John Jenkins, none of those players consistently make plays in the backfield on running downs, and the starting front three for Georgia have combined for only six tackles for loss on the season. The linebacker corps is tremendous with the aforementioned Jones, Alec Ogltree, and Armalo Herrera leading the way, and they solidify the backbone of the run defense, but the lack of ability from the defensive front to make explosive plays in the backfield likely presents some opportunities for opposing rushing attacks.
To that end, as has been the case all season, Alabama looks to rely almost exclusively on both Eddie Lacy and true freshman T.J. Yeldon to carry the load. For his part, Lacy looks better now physically than he has all season, and his health is peaking at just the right time. Yeldon was slowed against Western Carolina with a minor foot sprain, but he looks to be recovered, and the hope is that the Alabama offensive line can control the game at the point of attack and allow Lacy and Yeldon to have strong showings. Given their raw size and the overall aggressive playcalling of Todd Grantham, however, the rushing attack will all but certainly bog down unless Alabama can find some success through the air, and in general 'Bama will have to find a degree of offensive balance to effectively attack the Georgia defense.
As is always the case in close games, special teams play could ultimately prove to be the deciding factor, and in that regard Alabama appears to have the slight edge. Georgia has traditionally been strong in the kicking game under Mark Richt, but that has not necessarily been the case this year with Michael Morgan missing four field goals along with four extra points. Punter Collin Barber has a decent leg, but the punt coverage team for Georgia has struggled, ranking 106th in the country in punt return defense, allowing over 11 yards per return. Special teams have long been an Achilles heel for Alabama -- and there is certainly a major concern tomorrow about the ability of 'Bama punt returners to protect the football -- but if the woes of the UGA kicking game continue, special teams could swing a tight game in the Tide's direction.
A close and very physical game is to be expected, and the outcome will likely hang in the balance right down to the closing minutes, if not seconds. The stakes speak for themselves, and given the near equal standing of each team trying to distill a prohibitive favorite is likely an exercise in futility. For Alabama, the focus has been and will remain on playing within themselves, focusing on the task at hand, and not allowing that commitment to minute detail be washed to sea by the magnitude of the game, as Alabama arguably did last November against LSU, while once again playing its best football when it matters most.
Hope for the best.