When the #13 Alabama Crimson Tide and #8 Georgia Bulldogs get together in Athens on Saturday afternoon, it is almost guaranteed to be a truly epic clash. These two SEC heavyweights have been among the most consistently successful programs in college football, both historically and in recent years. Furthermore, the traditional styles of both teams will remind many of what makes teams elite: winning the battles in the trenches, timely and efficient throws in the passing game, strong play from the back end defensively, etc. These two foes don't match-up with each other as often as they should, but the last few instances of this rivalry have been classics. With Alabama already suffering a blemish in the ledger early in the season, a loss could be devastating to the Tide's title hopes. Meanwhile, Georgia is looking to finally get over the hump and land the marquee victory that will promote them to the top of the heap in the SEC, and put them in the driver's seat the rest of the way this season.
In short, there is a ton on the line this weekend between the hedges. The team that does the best job of winning at the point of attack, giving their quarterback high-percentage throws, and playing sound defense is going to come away with a tone-setting win as the calendar turns to October.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Mark Richt has built a model of consistency during his long tenure in Athens. Offensively, Richt has always preferred to run a more classic style of play. His teams won't be mistaken for a Bret Bielema-coached team by any stretch, but he's also not trying to deploy all kinds of HUNH spread tactics either. No, the Bulldogs have always run their offense like most teams did in the 90's and early-to-mid 2000's. Two back sets, multiple tight ends, shotgun looks, etc. A Pro Style offense in almost every sense of the term.
Georgia's bread-and-butter is establishing the running game. There have been very few tangents from that philosophy since Herschel Walker was tearing up any and every defense that lined up against him in the early 80's. More specifically though, Georgia wants to win at the point of attack. By utilizing 22 and 21 heavy sets, the Bulldogs outnumber and outlast most on-comers, and that in turn sets up the passing game through play action. Considering that Georgia seems to have some of the most talented running backs, offensive lineman, tight ends, and H-backs in the country every year, this strategy makes a lot of sense.
When previewing this weekend's clash of border-state rivals, one would be remiss not to start with the obvious sexy match-up of Georgia's incredible running attack against Alabama's impenetrable rush defense.
In the above image, the Bulldogs come out in a 12-personnel shotgun set with two tight ends lined up on the right side of the ball. This is a perfect example of what Richt and company want to do to set the stage offensively: outnumber the defense at the point of attack, utilize their fantastic blockers to move the defense where they want them to go, and let Nick Chubb do his thing. Georgia is going to deploy a staple of the Pro Style offense, the counter. By pulling left guard Isaiah Wynn across to the strong-side of the formation, Georgia is going to get the uneven numbers they are looking for and open up the short-side of the field for Chubb. The rest of the offensive line is going to block down, and tight end Jeb Blazevich is going to be charged with arguably the most important block of the play: sealing the edge defender. Both wide receivers are split out on the opposite side of the field, simply to draw South Carolina's corners (and to some regard, the deep safety) away.
The importance of the offensive line blocking down on their defenders is illustrated above. With the offensive line blocking down towards the wide-side of the field, South Carolina's second level defenders stay home for just long enough to allow Chubb the ability to get to the edge before they can snuff it out. Blazevich does a great job blowing up the edge defender at the point of attack, and now Chubb is running free with Wynn leading the way as a blocker. All that needs to be done at this point is for Wynn to pick up the nearest linebacker, and Chubb is off to the races.
This has been a very successful play for Georgia early in the season, and it's easy to see why. However, relying on a guy like Blazevich to try and seal the edge against the likes of Ryan Anderson or Da'Shawn Hand seems somewhat foolish. The Dawgs will definitely try their hand at running counters and traps against the Tide's front, because running straight up between the tackles doesn't normally bode well against the Crimson behemoths, but Georgia is going to have to try and get Chubb and back-up Sony Michel out in space.
On this play, Georgia will look to get Chubb out away from the mess in the middle by tossing it out to the wide-side of the field with fullback Quayvon Hicks leading the way. South Carolina's defensive alignment is actually favoring the short-side of the field in this play, and the Dawgs won't hesitate to make them pay for it. Once again Georgia will try to outnumber the Gamecocks on the outside by pulling a guard, though this time they will pull veteran right guard Greg Pyke out to lead the way. Tight end Jay Rome will be responsible for trying to seal the edge this time, and the rest of the line blocks down. The one exception to that is center Brandon Kublanow, who will scrape the 3-tech defensive tackle and then move to the second-level to lay a crucial block on the middle linebacker. As you can see, despite the toss play being a way to get the running back out in space, winning at the point of attack is still a central focus. If Rome can't seal the edge or if Kublanow doesn't make it up in time to pick up the linebacker, this play could get blown up in the backfield for a loss.
Of course, Rome and Kublanow do land both blocks, and suddenly Georgia's got a lot of room to work with. Notice the three defenders circled in red. One of the appealing properties of the toss play is that it can totally take half of the field, and thus a bunch of the defenders, out of the play. If any one of these guys is making the tackle, the Dawgs have picked up a nice chunk of yardage. Chubb is turning upfield with both Pyke and Hicks, two blockers with excellent footwork, leading the way. The one thing that isn't executed flawlessly in this play is actually due to the oft-overlooked wide receiver. Reggie Davis needs to commit to his fly route. Because he hesitates, most likely because he's wanting to throw a block, Bryson Allen-Williams is able to come in and slightly disrupt what would have surely been a huge play. Even if Davis doesn't fool Allen-Williams at all with his route, he would at least get himself out of the way and allow either Pyke or Hicks a free run at the block.
Note the yellow circle in the above image, that's Allen-Williams, who was able to blow up Davis and put Hicks in an awkward position. If Davis had stuck to his route, Hicks would have had a less awkward block to make. As it stands, Chubb has to cut inside. However, after he makes the cut, his path is now clear. Rome wasn't able to completely seal the edge defender, but he does a nice job of keeping his ground and reworking his man out away from the play, opening up a lane. That is a quality block, especially for a tight end. Pyke hits the hole and leads Chubb through it.
Of course, there is more than one way to move the football, and no one knows that better than Mark Richt. He may be an old-school type of guy, but as a former quarterback himself, he values the importance of the passing game. Georgia's offense has been at it's best over the years when they've had guys like David Greene, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Murray tossing the ball around the field. Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert does not have the same skill set as those big-time names, but he's been one of the best new quarterbacks in a conference full of fresh signal-callers. A major reason for that is because of first-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's ability to make it easy for Lambert. Quick throws on slants, digs, hitches, crosses, etc. have been extremely successful for Lambert. He's not been asked to throw the ball all over the field, because he hasn't needed to. In the last two games, while facing loaded boxes and single coverages, Lambert has completed 33/35 passes. That's impressive to do throwing against air.
One way Schottenheimer has given Lambert high-percentage throws has been by letting him dump it out to his ultra-talented backs out of the backfield. On this play, South Carolina is going to show a Cover 1 look with a single high safety. The corners are all going to play man-to-man on their receivers, the edge outside linebacker, Larenz Bryant, is going to either run with Blazevich or set the edge, depending on the offensive call, and Jonathan Walton, the other outside linebacker, has his eyes set on Michel. Georgia is going to run a series of dig, or drag, routes across the field, looking to either beat their man coverage or at least draw them away from the primary read out of the backfield. Michel is going to run a simple swing route.
Immediately after the snap, Lambert is going to freeze the high safety and inside linebacker with a quick look to his left. This will ensure that he is going to get the two-on-two match-up that he is looking for on the right side. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who is now in what seems like his 8th season in Athens, begins to run his drag route, and Michel is going to leak out of the backfield. With solid protection from his offensive line, Lambert simply has to deliver the ball out to Michel as soon as cornerback Rashad Fenton bites on the underneath drag.
Michel is able to get out into the flats without any trouble, as his agility and quickness is too much for Walton to meet him at the ten-yard line. From there, Lambert has an easy toss over to his running back, and Michel pulls off a couple of nasty moves on his way into the end zone.
Another way Schottenheimer and company have given Lambert comfortable reads is by utilizing the threat of the run to create mismatches on the outside. The Dawgs have used plenty of old-school play action in order to pull this off, but they have also started using Run-Pass Options (RPOs) with Lambert as well.
Here, Georgia is going to set up in an 11-personnel shotgun set with Blazevich on the wide-side of the field. Georgia is going to pair a power sweep with a deep slant out to Mitchell on the outside. This is similar to what Ole Miss runs often with their packaged plays. Georgia is going to pull both Kublanow and Pyke out to the strong-side, and the down lineman are going to block for a power sweep with Chubb. The two receivers on the near side of the field are going to run dummy routes with the intention of freeing up space for Chubb.
The Gamecocks counter with their 4-2-5 look, and they are going to run a simple Cover Four. This can be picked up on by both outside corners playing so far off of the receivers and two deep safeties (not seen, off of the right of the screen). The nickelback and linebackers are going to split the short-to-intermediate part of the field into thirds and run a typical underneath zone. Lambert dissects the coverage and decides that this is a perfect opportunity to get Mitchell the football.
After the snap, Lambert immediately looks to read the cornerback matched-up with Mitchell on the outside. He sees that Chaz Elder is continuing to drift back as he drops into his zone, and makes his decision to pull the ball. With Kublanow and Pyke both pulling, South Carolina's linebackers are immediately drawn in to sweep being set up on the outside. The perk to pulling the center is that it is impossible for the defensive front not to notice that he's wrapping around to the outside. Heck, South Carolina bites so hard on the run that even one of the deep safeties, Jordan Diggs, will come flying on to the screen.
At this point, it's game, set, and match for the Gamecocks on this play. This is simply too easy. Elder is way off of Mitchell, giving him a ton of space to plant his foot and turn inside, and Jonathan Walton is still staring into the backfield. Notice where he is in regards to his zone.
This is a perfect example of how to use the threat of Nick Chubb and the devastating running game to set up easy passes for Lambert. Expect to see plenty of this on Saturday.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Mark Richt made one of the biggest splashes of the 2014 offseason when he was able to lure former Alabama defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt away from the reigning National Champion Florida State Seminoles. In only his second season in Athens, Pruitt has made his mark felt. When watching the game this Saturday, Alabama fans will be treated to an almost-perfect-copy of the Tide's own defense. Georgia runs a base 3-4 defense, which quickly forms into a 4-2-5 nickel package on passing downs. The corners will play a lot of press-man bump-and-run coverage, the alley players will do their best to turn ball-carriers back towards the middle of the field, and there will be plenty of raw talent all over the place.
South Carolina will come out in a similar 11-personnel shotgun to the one Georgia utilized in the previous play. Georgia will line-up in a 4-2-5 (or really, a 3-3-5 Under) on a favorable down-and-distance for the Gamecocks. The three down lineman will all be 2-gapping, just as Alabama's defense does, and stud outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins will set the edge on the weak side. The other two linebackers, UAB transfer Jake Ganus and all-world play-maker Leonard Floyd, are going to read the offense and decide whether or not to drop back into coverage or swarm to the ball and fill gaps in the running game. Safety Johnathan Abram is the run-force player. If USC decides to pass it, he will defend either the running back or the tight end. If it's a run, he's going to set the edge on the strong side and force quarterback Perry Orth to give the ball to running back Shon Carson on the chance that it is a zone read.
After the snap, Orth is reading Abram to see what he does. Abram holds his ground and sets the edge, forcing Orth to give the ball up. Tight end Jerrell Adams goes for the cut block on defensive end Sterling Bailey and misses badly. All three defensive lineman for Georgia cut right to fill gaps, and both linebackers are patiently waiting to make something happen.
Unfortunately for Ganus and Floyd, their services won't even be required on this play, as Bailey and big defensive tackle John Atkins tear right into the backfield. Bailey simply steps over Adams' attempted cut, and Atkins flashes off a quick rip through the weak double-team. Suddenly, Carson has nowhere to go. Since he has already planted his feet towards the middle-to-right side of the field, he doesn't have many options. Abram has set the edge, and Bailey and Atkins are bearing down from inside. Even if Carson is somehow able to make someone miss, Floyd is sitting in great position to clean up the play.
This should look to familiar to Alabama fans, because it is almost exactly how the Tide defends the read option. The similarities don't end there, though. Take a look at how Georgia defends the passing game.
Here we have an obvious passing down for South Carolina, as it is 3rd-and-10 and the Gamecocks need some points. Steve Spurrier is going to call one of his old Fun'N'Gun favorites, the Tight End Clearout. The three wide receivers to the weak side will stretch the field vertically, looking to get open deep, and the underneath should then open up for Adams to come straight through on a slant route. Georgia is going to dive straight into the Nick Saban playbook and use pattern-matching to counter the Gamecocks' plans. The Dawgs are running Cover Seven, where they will split the field in half and outnumber South Carolina's weapons on each side: four-on-three on the field side and three-on-two on the boundary side. The three down lineman will each shoot a gap, looking to slice through the line and get pressure, and Floyd is going to come on a delayed blitz through the strong-side A-gap.
When the play first gets going, Adams is going to clip Floyd and pretend to block for a minute before taking off on his route. The offensive line does a good job of picking up all three down lineman, but they fail to account for Floyd coming on the delayed blitz. This is a mistake, as it leaves Brandon Wilds all alone to try and block Floyd. Meanwhile, Georgia's corners and the safety Abram will work up field with their respective receivers.
As Orth completes his drop-back, Adams comes out on his route. Where this play truly gets foiled is in the middle on Adams' route. Ganus and freshman sensation Roquan Smith are going to work together to determine who should run with Adams and who should stay in their zone. As Adams breaks towards the middle of the field, the decision is clear, and Smith jumps out and runs with him. This allows Ganus to keep contain in the flats, in case Wilds peels out for a check-down pass.
Not that any of it would have mattered though. Floyd is about to blow this play up immediately.
Alabama's offense is going to be facing a serious challenge on Saturday. The good news is that the offense is used to seeing many of the same concepts in practice every day. Georgia's defense is a shallower version of the Crimson Tide's, as they don't have the kind of depth that Saban's team possesses, but they have some serious talent in the top 15-20 guys. Floyd, Jenkins, and sophomore Lorenzo Carter are three of the best linebackers in the country. It's safe to say that the offensive line is going to have to play much better than they have been lately, especially on the right side.
With Pruitt's defense incorporating many pattern-matching schemes, Lane Kiffin and company will have to find a way to create match-ups that favor guys like ArDarius Stewart, Richard Mullaney, Calvin Ridley, and Kenyan Drake. The Tide have been using many of the same RPOs that Georgia has utilized this season, and with great effectiveness. Jake Coker has worked the intermediate passing game with solid success thus far this season, especially on drags, slants, skinny posts, and out routes. The Tide will need to run certain Stick and Smash concepts in order to find room between defenders.
This is going to be a fantastic ball game on Saturday, one that will set the stage in a big way for the rest of the season. A loss for Alabama puts all hopes for a repeat SEC Championship and return to the College Football Playoff on the brink of elimination. Georgia has been waiting a long time to exact revenge on Alabama for the Blackout in 2008 and the thrilling SEC Championship Game in 2012, and this weekend would be the perfect stage. Whichever team does the best job winning at the point of attack, making their quarterback comfortable, and playing strong defense will come away with a signature early season victory.