One need look no further into history than the 2012 SEC Championship Game to recall the last time the two Southern football blue-bloods met on the gridiron field of battle. With a trip to the national championship on the line, Alabama was the favorite...but no one told Georgia that they were supposed to defer to the reigning national champion Crimson Tide.
The result was a brutally physical contest that ended in a shocking, dramatic outcome. The powerhouses battled back and forth, exchanging blows for four quarters. Each time one team would begin to pull away, the other countered in Thrilla in Manilla-type fashion. With the Bulldogs mere yards from the goal line and a winning score, Alabama's C.J. Mosley tipped an Aaron Murray pass, deflecting it short of the end zone, where it was caught as time expired. Alabama's hope of a second consecutive national championship survived, and the dejected Bulldogs were left with another round of could-have-beens.
Fast-forward to this Saturday. For the first time since the 2009 SEC Championship Game, Alabama will enter a contest as the underdog. Though Alabama's defense looks as stout as can be expected of a Nick Saban-coached unit, the offense is full of uncertainty. Newly-crowned starting quarterback Jake Coker is shaky at best, and the Tide offensive line is struggling to assert its will. Bama's vaunted tailbacks have failed to produce at the superhuman rate of their predecessors, at least in regard to expectations. The kicking game, from stem to stern, is a shambles.
On the other sideline, the Bulldogs are a confident, physical football team that appears to be a clone of Bama squads of the past. Combining stingy defense with a balanced, pro-style offense and efficient, game-managing quarterback, Georgia has been able to throttle opponents to date with a veteran offensive line and the tailback combination of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Keith Marshall. The Bulldogs even pounded perennial saddle-burr South Carolina with a balanced attack, exacting some measure of revenge against a Gamecock squad that always seems to have Coach Mark Richt's number.
This is not the Georgia squad of previous seasons, nor is Alabama's 2015 edition the same team that has dominated the SEC West for much of the last decade. In this match-up of heavyweights, it is the Bulldogs who seemingly hold the upper hand. That's not to say that the Tide isn't well-equipped to deal with the haymakers the Bulldogs will throw their way. But can Alabama put together the complete game that has eluded them through the first four contests of the season? Can Alabama's fourth-ranked run defense keep Chubb and Company in check? Will the Tide develop offensive rhythm and use the running game to take advantage of Georgia's thin-but-aggressive defensive front seven?
We'll know Saturday evening. In the meantime, let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Georgia defense
Though Georgia has one of the better defenses the Tide will face in 2015, the Bulldogs offer a very different (and some would say more palatable) challenge to the Bama offense than Ole Miss. For one, Georgia is a traditional physical defense...fast enough in its own right but lacking the super-speed of the small Rebel defenders. The schemes are more familiar than the odd 4-2-5 constant nickel package run by Ole Miss. After all, the Alabama offensive personnel line up across from a very similar scheme (with arguably better talent and depth) each day in practice.
Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, after all, cut his coaching teeth in Tuscaloosa, learning under Saban and Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. While Pruitt has done a great deal to further his own cause after revamping the Florida State defense in 2013 for the championship-winning Noles, the fact of the matter is that Pruitt's schemes, personnel groupings and tendencies are quite similar to those of the Tide defense. After all, when a defensive concept is as successful as Alabama's has been since 2008, the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" platitude comes into play.
Pruitt runs a base 3-4 like his mentor, but that doesn't mean his defense won't line up in a million other formations depending on opponent tendencies. "Multiple" is a word both Saban and Pruitt use to categorize their respective defenses, choosing to adapt to opponent scheme, personnel and play-calling on a situational basis rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach.
Like Saban's defenses, Pruitt coaches his defenders to play fast, instinctually, aggressively...sound familiar? The primary difference between the two units, at this stage, is overall talent and depth. While Georgia has good, solid SEC-caliber defenders, Alabama has a front seven that will see no fewer than four of those players leave in the 2016 NFL Draft. Behind them, the four- and five-star talent waiting in the wings is legion. Alabama has an experienced 10-deep defensive line rotation, whereas Pruitt can't delve much deeper than his top line before seeing a drop-off in talent and seasoning.
In facing weaker competition this season, the revamped Georgia defense has walked the walk, placing in the top 20 of most major defensive categories through four games. The Bulldogs allow 273.3 yards of total offense per game, good for 14th nationally, and they are 13th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game. It's important to note that these lofty stats have come at the hands of fairly weak competition, as the toughest team the Bulldogs have faced thus far, South Carolina, is a mere shell of its former self.
Against the run, the Bulldogs have struggled to a slightly greater degree, despite facing only one team ranked in the top 100 in rushing yards per game. Georgia is allowing 107.3 yards per game rushing (good for 24th nationally), but only South Carolina has a rushing game to speak of (the Gamecocks are 38th nationally in rushing yards per game). Against the rather vanilla Gamecock rushing game, Georgia gave up 174 yards for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and that was with a struggling South Carolina passing attack that did little to set up the run.
In light of the uncertainty regarding Georgia's run defense (and Alabama's struggles in the passing game), expect offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to throw a healthy dose of the run game at the Bulldog front seven. Sure, Pruitt and the Dogs know that Alabama's modus operandi will be to establish the run, and they will subsequently pinch safeties up into the box and overload the area between the tackles, where Bama's running game tendencies are focused. In standard 3-4 fashion, Georgia's talented defensive line - comprised of defensive end Sterling Bailey, nose Chris Mayes and tackle John Atkins - will focus on occupying Bama's behemoth blockers, while the outstanding linebackers (namely outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and inside linebackers Jake Ganus and Tim Kimbrough) shoot gaps, stunt, slash and interrupt running lanes.
It will be a tough row to hoe for the Tide running game, at least in the early stanzas of the game. But without quality depth, expect the second half to represent a different story. Alabama's offensive line is one that struggles early before establishing rhythm and playing more efficiently in the second half. This dynamic will play well against a Georgia defense that should wilt to some degree as the game drags on. At that point, the speed of the other half of Bama's one-two punch should come into play. Kenyan Drake, a Georgia native, will be called upon to offer a change-up from Henry's plodding, power-punch style, using his agility to jab defenses and make seams out of slight creases. Once again, with the Bama passing attack on life-support, Drake can be a safe, effective weapon for Coker on short passes and in the screen game. If Alabama can find a way to keep Georgia guessing with run-pass options, it will create hesitation, which creates space. And it is well documented what Drake does with space.
Alabama's best chance at running the ball will likely come by spreading out the Georgia defense and letting Drake do his thing. That's not to say the Tide shouldn't do its share of hammering Henry in the middle, but it shouldn't be the primary method of attack...at least not in the early stages of the game.
(Much has been made of the potential debut of running back Bo Scarbrough, a physical, speedy five-star athlete who has waited in the wings while recovering from a spring knee injury. For all of the hype and fanfare, don't expect Scarbrough to instantly become the savior of the Alabama offense this Saturday. Sure, the powerful back may get a few carries, but Alabama already has two stellar backs who have not been able to buoy the Tide offense to greater heights, thanks in large part to the aforementioned struggles of the offensive line. In other words, it would be wise to temper expectations. Scarbrough will make his impact in time. but it's more important that the Tide executes at the point of attack, regardless of who is carrying the ball.)
Regarding the passing game, the more one watches Coker, the more it appears he feels more comfortable when the pocket is in motion. While many erroneously view him as an upright, pocket-passer with lead feet, experience has proven that the contrary is true. Coker has used his legs to pick up first downs routinely, lumbering with a long gait for big gains when defenses commit to defending his arm. The benefit of movement does not just represent a positive mental factor for Coker, either. His form and mechanics look more fluid when he rolls out, and it is something that Kiffin should use to help neutralize opposing pass rushes while giving the quarterback his best chance to make plays with his arm.
If Alabama can establish the run to any extent and get close to the 4.5 yard per carry average the Gamecocks enjoyed against Georgia, expect the run-pass option to come into play. The more familiar Coker becomes with the offense, the better he will be able to make reads and check into plays based on the looks defenses give him. Confidence in his ability to do so may have been low to begin the season, but at this point, without a deep threat, Bama will need some degree of subterfuge to keep defenses from keying on the run and flooding the flats with safeties sitting on short routes.
Speaking of short routes, the Tide must do whatever it can schematically to pick up positive yardage on first down. Alabama is all but hamstrung when facing third and long, aside from the occasional broken play or unexpected Coker scramble. Georgia's third down defense is decent, allowing conversions only 30% of the time. If Bama can keep down-and-distance manageable, the chances of running a full gamut of play-calling options grows exponentially.
Of course, Coker has proven that the long ball is not an option, so Bama's best chances of developing some sort of effective balance will be to leverage the short- and middle-range passing game to keep Georgia defensive backs out of the box. If Georgia aggressively plays the run by putting eight men in or near the box, as can be expected, then Coker will need his receivers to help him by running clean, well-timed routes in between the hashes. Richard Mullaney can become a huge factor in this regard, as he's proven himself a reliable target who uses his big body to get open against skilled defenders. In a familiar refrain, tight end O.J. Howard could really help his quarterback out as well, as his size and speed create mismatches against safeties and linebackers if he can execute and create separation.
Calvin Ridley is also another weapon who has largely remained sheathed to this point in the season. Anyone who has watched the true freshman wide receiver knows it's only a matter of time before he has a breakout, highlight reel-type performance against some unfortunate opponent. His routes are surprisingly polished for a youthful receiver, and he has God-given quickness and explosiveness. He needs additional exposure in Alabama's offense, and not just on disastrous jet sweeps. Quick outs, wide receiver screens, even inside slants can provide Coker with high-percentage, high-confidence opportunities to get the ball in the hands of the young wide receiver. For Kiffin's offense to be most dynamic, there must be an electric play-maker ala Amari Cooper, Marquis Lee or Reggie Bush who plays multiple roles, confusing defenses and occupying personnel. Ridley is the most likely candidate, other than Drake, to fill that role, and Alabama has to find a way to make him a bigger part of the game plan.
If Kiffin can trick the Bulldog defense into crowding the box and overloading the middle, Ridley is the kind of weapon who can make Georgia pay dearly. As able as Georgia's secondary is as a whole, there isn't one defensive back who can handle Ridley in space. Against man coverage, the freshman should also win his fair share of match-ups. Bama may let the Bulldogs gnaw on the running game, then let Ridley become the play-maker he can truly be.
The Alabama defense versus the Georgia offense
Georgia's offense is what Alabama's aspires to be in 2015: balanced. Sure, Georgia can line up and pound the ball, running 70% of the time as it did against Vanderbilt. But with the heady and efficient play of new starting quarterback Greyson Lambert, the Bulldogs have re-discovered what they once had with Aaron Murray at the helm: an offense equally adept at running the ball and keeping defenses honest with a surgical passing game.
After winning his own quarterback competition, Lambert has emerged as a game-manager the likes of which Alabama would covet. Through four games, he is a 76.5% passer with no interceptions and seven touchdowns. He averages 183 yards passing per game and currently holds a quarterback rating of 200.98, which, by the way, is fantastic. He is the current NCAA record holder for highest completion percentage in a game (96%), and holds the school record for 20 straight completions in a game.
While Lambert may not have a cannon arm or the ability to stretch the field like Murray, he more than makes up for it with his accuracy and decision-making. With Lambert under center, the Bulldog offense is not the one-trick pony many forecast heading into 2015. Sure, the Bulldogs run the ball. A lot. And what team wouldn't, with a veteran offensive line and backfield that includes freak sophomore Nick Chubb, pocket-rocket Sony Michel and steady veteran Keith Marshall? After picking up 1400 yards as a freshman in 2014, Chubb is already in mid-season form, amassing 599 yards on 71 carries thus far in 2015. Do the math: that's a whopping 8.44 yards per carry average. Michel is no slouch, averaging 6.97 yards per carry in relief. Not to mention, Michel is the team's second leading receiver behind Malcolm Mitchell, accounting for 148 yards on eight receptions with three touchdowns.
Prior to the Bulldogs' match-up with South Carolina, it appeared offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's best chance at success would come on Chubb's legs and the backs of a talented, seasoned offensive line. However, the offense was explosive and dominant against the Gamecocks. The balanced attack saw 246 rushing yards to 330 through the air. That said, the stats are skewed by the Bulldogs early reliance on the run, as Georgia averages 257 yards rushing per game, along with 45.5 points per game and 491.3 yards of total offense per game. The Bulldog offense is efficient in third-down conversions at 35.48%, though it should be noted that Lambert struggles as a passer when called upon to sustain drives on third-down. His completion rate hovers around 80% on first downs, but falls to 50% on third downs.
The balanced, physical, run-heavy offense provides the Bama defense with a stiff test, but one for which it is well-suited. Saban has made no secret of the fact that he prefers playing pro-style offenses with his defense. His defense, tried and tested in the trenches of the NFL, is tailor-made to handle the type of schemes Schottenheimer (himself a NFL veteran assistant coach) will throw at the Tide.
And for Alabama, it will all start up front against the Bulldogs. Georgia has a potent offensive line: a horde of experienced, athletic players who know are accustomed to a physical, ground-based attack. Left tackle John Theus (6-6, 303 pounds) and right tackle Kolton Houston (6-5, 285 pounds) are both seniors, and center Brandon Kublanow (6-3, 282 pounds) and right guard Greg Pyke (6-6, 313 pounds) are juniors. While not as massive as Alabama's front five, they are athletic and highly skilled.
The Tide will need its defensive line to have one of its best performances of the year against Georgia, as the battle against the Dog run game begins at the point of attack. Alabama will likely employ its standard 3-4 attack versus the run until the Bulldogs prove their passing game enough of a threat to force a change. Alabama's defense will expect to be challenged at the line of scrimmage, and it will be up to Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen to occupy blockers and draw doubles so that Bama's gap-filling linebackers (in particular, run assassin Reggie Ragland) to find the action and make plays.
Easier said than done. With Lambert under center, the Bama defense will have to remain aware of the passing game, as run-defense tunnel-vision could open big plays for the surgical signal caller. Lambert spread the ball around in regard to pass attempts, but most of the passing production has come from Michel and team-leading receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who has 306 yards receiving on 20 catches with three touchdowns to date. While Mitchell is Georgia's main receiving threat, Lambert is good at working through his progressions and finding the open man, something which will create problems for Alabama's gelling secondary.
Lambert's ability will put a priority on affecting the passer, not strictly through sacks but through pressure. As previously mentioned, the Bulldog passing game struggles on third down more than any other situation. If Alabama has success in sealing off the Georgia rushing attack (Alabama is fourth nationally in run defense, allowing only 56 yards per game on the ground), then the Tide's next point of emphasis should be to put the Bulldogs in third-and-long passing situations often. Doing so will disrupt the Bulldog offensive rhythm while giving Alabama a chance to wear against the offensive line.
Alabama will need to find an effective way of dealing with Schottenheimer's affinity for multiple packages that provide run-pass options for Lambert. The tactic is not just a simple pre-snap diversion. In Georgia's case, with a potent running game, the RPOs are extremely effective. Defenses have no choice to respect the run, so the Bulldogs will line up in a run formation, and will actually block a running play, leading defenses to read run and stick with that read. However, Schottenheimer employs packages that allow the quarterback to make a decision at the time of the snap rather than before, in his snap count. In other words, the packages give Lambert the option of sticking with a called running play, or electing to pass out of a play that is lined up and blocked just like a running play, thus creating confusion and mental misdirection for the defense.
Georgia has employed this tactic masterfully in 2015, and with Lambert's football IQ and a desire to run an uptempo offensive attack, it has been phenomenally successful. Georgia can use this tactic to negate Alabama's stellar size and speed up front, while taking advantage of a still-green secondary. If they are successful with springing RPOs for big plays in the passing game, Bama will have no choice but to devote attention to the passing game, thus loosening running lanes. For Georgia, RPOs are a double-edged sword for which defenses must account. If Georgia is able to fall into rhythm and mix in RPOs effectivelty, they will be able to keep the Alabama defense off balance and make the run even more potent by introducing an air of uncertainty to what would normally be a straight-forward, big-boy-football type attack.
For much of the early season, Alabama's special teams play, from top to bottom, could be described in two words: pallet fire. There has been little positive to glean from the Tide's special teams play, with putrid place-kicking, an errant punting game that was once a sure thing, dropped returns and shoddy kick coverage.
Last week, place kicker Adam Griffith may have seen the light of day in his struggle to unbury himself from the disastrous rubble of the early season. Griffith hit two kicks, not in timid fashion, but with authority. For a guy who appeared to have exactly zero confidence in his own leg in Week Two, Griffith once again looked like he had a little kicker swag, swinging his leg and putting toe to leather with a resounding thump. While neither of his kicks were of the long variety, just the fact that he booted two consecutive field goals through the uprights is a positive. It's a start, and with additional success, let's hope faith in at least the short kicking game can be somewhat restored.
J.K. Scott's punting woes continue, though there are high and low spots. Unlike Griffith, it appears he continues to be haunted by inconsistencies in his technique, particularly on the drop. It's a matter of time before things start to once again click, and Scott has proven that he has the physical skills to eventually be one of the top punters in the nation again after ironing out the wrinkles.
Despite Bama's kicking game improvement, Georgia still gets the nod in this department, if only to a slight degree. Senior Morgan Marshall has handled most of the place kicking duties this year, with mixed results. Marshall has hit four of six attempts on field goals, and is a perfect 24-for-24 on extra point attempts. Punter Collin Barber is no J.K. Scott circa 2014, but he averages 40 yards per punt for the Bulldogs.
The good news for Bama's return game is that no one dropped the ball last week, which is a drastic improvement from the previous contest in which kick returners were responsible for two fumbles. The Tide isn't getting much production from the return game, and at this point, it's safe to say that the staff will settle for safe, sure-handed kick receptions for the time being.
Kick coverage is hit and miss, though some of the freshman (such as Ronnie Harrison) are beginning to make an impact in special teams. Remember how Tide standouts like Vinnie Sunseri and Landon Collins made their names as special teams nightmares prior to starring for the Bama defense? Well, mark Harrison as the next in that line of succession. The kid is a headhunter, a human Tomahawk cruise missile, and he is the Bama safety of the future.
Alabama's next test is its greatest. Georgia doesn't present the horrible match-up issues that the Tide saw on both sides of the ball against the Ole Miss team that beat Bama in Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks ago. No, the Georgia Bulldogs offer the Tide a taste of what the Tide once was, and wants to once again be: a tough, balanced, hard-nosed, old-school football team. Alabama has the makings to be just that by season's end, but if the early season is indication, the Bulldogs are already in that position a mere four games in.
With strong quarterback play, a brutal running game, a veteran offensive line and an aggressive, attacking defense, the Bulldogs offer the Tide a very different type of challenge this week. It won't be all about speed, but rather toughness. It won't be about scheme as much as it will be about execution. This game will be a mental and physical test the likes of which Bama won't see again until LSU comes to town in November.
Is this Tide team ready for the challenge? Can Alabama beat a creature of its own design? We'll know more about this Tide team, and the expectations for the remainder of the season, on Saturday evening.
Hope for the best...