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Previewing the National Championship Game: The Georgia Defense is Alabama East

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Everyone knew what Kirby Smart would attempt to do once he arrived in Athens, but given the performance of his defense this year, he appears well ahead of schedule

Aaron Davis is an underappreciated cog in the Georgia defensive wheel.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When former Alabama defensive coordinator and Nick Saban acolyte Kirby Smart took the reins of the Bulldog football program at his alma mater, there was little question what type of identify he would attempt to forge in his time in Athens.

The longest serving of Saban’s inner circle of assistants, Smart had been the gatekeeper to the ferocious Saban defense of championship pedigree, a unit that has been historic in its domination of the college football landscape during the last decade of play. Saban, and by proxy Smart, has crafted some of the finest defenses in the history of the game, recruiting top-notch, tailor-made talent for the old master’s patented 3-4 pattern-matching defensive scheme and molding it into a cohesive, physical, intimidating unit capable of dominating the stat ledgers and opposing offenses alike.

It’s no wonder Smart was selected to replace long-time Georgia head coach Mark Richt when he and the university parted ways. After all, Smart was not only a highly-qualified assistant who had coached under possibly the greatest coach to lumber the sidelines since Paul Bear Bryant, but the upstart Smart also had the Bulldog pedigree to boot (Smart had played defensive back for Georgia in his college days).

Since he’s been with Georgia, he’s begun to assemble the pieces of a Bama-like championship contender. While not yet at the level of domination to claim the Tide’s throne as most feared team in college football, what Smart has done in his time in Athens is astounding. He has recruited like a champion, stocking the Bulldog cupboard with elite offensive and defensive talent that will shape future success. He inherited an extremely talented team from Richt, and has parlayed that roster into victory in a down SEC East. He’s done so largely on the backs of an elite defense and a power running game, just as Saban built Alabama into a physical opponent-grinding machine of nearly unstoppable measure.

A nearly undefeated season (save for pesky Auburn). An SEC Championship. A victory over a ranked gridiron blueblood in the Notre Dame. Georgia’s first appearance in the College Football Playoffs. Much has been accomplished in the brief Smart Era of UGA football, but the biggest trophy, a National Championship, remains to be captured. To grab that brass ring, Smart will have to go through his old master. Easier said than done, of course. But Smart does have in his corner a defense that can match talent and scheme with the Crimson Tide, something few other teams can claim.

Smart’s defense resembles Saban’s because it is born of the same ousia, the same substance. It is forged out of a need to apply tremendous pressure up front with as little personnel as possible while preventing the breakdowns in coverage that occur in traditional Man coverage. It is driven by elite athletes who perfectly fit the roles assigned to them in the defense. It is a vice-like, devastating automaton of Saban’s (or in this case, Smart’s) will to suffocate an opposing offense and make it surrender all glimmer of hope over four quarters.

When the Tide offense lines up across from the Bulldog defense Monday night, it will see a version of its own defense. While that is somewhat comforting in regard to familiarity, it is terrifying when one realizes what Alabama must do to conquer a foe that wields a weapon equivalent to the one Bama typically uses to dispatch its opponents in short order.

How does Smart propel his defense to greater heights against his old master? What can Alabama do offensively to take advantage of a unit that has few, if any, true weaknesses? Can the student really best his teacher at his own defensive game? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

When Smart arrived in Athens, the cupboard was far from bare, a fact which has contributed to the early impact he has made in his time on the job. Many figured he would turn Georgia into a leaner, meaner, more physical defense, but few imagined those results would come so quickly. The roster he was bequeathed by Richt left the first-time head coach rich in personnel, even if there were growing pains as those existing players learned his complicated new system.

As is the case with Saban’s great defenses, everything begins with the big men up front. In that regard, Georgia is well-represented with a platoon of defensive linemen who can rotate in and out with Smart’s schematic tinkering, and who are big and physical enough to impose their will at the point of attack. As is often the case with Tide defenses, the Georgia defense may hang a starter tag on a given player, but others penciled lower on the depth chart may see as much playing time situationally as those labeled as first-stringers.

In the 3-4 base defensive style that Smart favors most of the time, the nose tackle is of critical importance. A good 3-4 nose must be an athletic big man, a two-gapper who can read and react quickly while soaking up double-teams and blocks to allow the linebackers behind him to play free. Senior John Atkins (6-4, 305 pounds) is tabbed the starter, and he has had a solid year in that role. A 3-4 nose isn’t going to lead the team in tackles, as his role is to draw in and absorb blocks. Atkins has fared quite well in that regard, however, as he has 36 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass broken up, and a fumble recovery to his credit. Playing behind him is sophomore Julian Rochester (6-5, 300 pounds), another athletic big man who is powerful in the middle with good balance and length. Rochester has 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and three quarterback hurries this season.

Smart prefers an athletic versatile tackle who can play inside and out, who can ably flip from a 3-4 to a 4-3 Under front when Smart makes the call. The Bulldogs have such a player in junior Trenton Thompson (6-4, 295 pounds), a tackle who brings size and speed to the equation with good explosiveness. Thompson has 35 tackles, three tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and a quarterback hurry in 2017. He is spelled by promising sophomore Tyler Clark (6-4, 305 pounds), and Clark hasn’t disappointed as a reserve contributor. He has 36 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and five quarterback hurries.

Possibly the most pro-ready defensive lineman on the roster is junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter (6-4, 277 pounds), a player who has been nothing short of dynamic for Smart this season. A highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, Ledbetter has blossomed under Smart’s tutelage. In 2017, he has 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and seven quarterback hurries. Sophomore David Marshall spells him, and Marshall has made an impact as well with 23 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. Fellow sophomore Michail Carter (6-3, 295 pounds), has seen a few snaps as well in the rotation, garnering six tackles and a tackle for loss.

As important as the defensive line is in the Saban/ Smart defense, the linebackers are the single most critical part of the system. The Saban/ Smart system simply becomes a toothless hound without a full array of elite linebackers, and fortunately for Smart, he has a corps that fits the bill. With two distinct skill sets among inside and outside linebackers, UGA is loaded with players that are chiseled to fit the system and make it hum like a precision machine.

Georgia is blessed with gifted junior Will linebacker Roquan Smith on the inside, as he is the Bulldog equivalent of Alabama’s own Rashaan Evans, a dynamic playmaker with a perpetual motion generator for a motor and a rabid ferocity at the point of contact. Smith has had a superhuman year in 2017, recording a team-leading 124 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two passes broken up, 17 quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. Smith is a sure-fire pro prospect who will be selected in the first round if he elects to enter the NFL Draft this spring, and he is as dynamic a force as one will ever see at the position. He is a weapon Smart uses to attack from all over the field, as he can drop into coverage, stuff the run with authority, and pressure the passer. Alabama likely hasn’t seen as disruptive and versatile a defensive player this season, and they will have to find a way to deal with what the junior brings to the table. Smith is relieved by Juwan Taylor (6-1, 218 pounds), who has 13 tackles and a tackle for loss this season. Additionally, at times, starting Mike linebacker Reggie Carter slides to Will.

Speaking of Carter (6-1, 230 pounds), the senior is himself an integral part of Georgia’s salty run defense. Carter has 31 tackles on the season, as well as 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, a pass broken up, and three quarterback hurries. Carter is backed by junior Natrez Patrick (6-3, 234 pounds), and freshman Monty Rice (6-1, 235 pounds). Patrick has accrued 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries this season, while Rice has 22 tackles and two tackles for loss to his ledger.

Smart uses his OLBs in much the same way that Saban employs his Jacks and Sams. The ‘backers outside set the edge against the run and force back inside, and they act as proxy defensive ends in the pass rush, lining up with a hand in the dirt on 4-3 looks, or as upright rushers when the Bulldogs fall into a typical 3-4. Regardless of the defense, their job remains the same: both the Jack and the Sam are attacking, ferocious players who pin back their ears and assault the blockers across the line from them whether to channel the run or disrupt the passer.

The starting Sam is senior Lorenzo Carter (6-6, 243 pounds), a player with a tremendous wingspan and great size who is not unlike Alabama’s own Terrell Lewis. Carter is aggressive and unrelenting off the edge, and he has the ability to interrupt pass lanes with his long arms and gain a leverage advantage using his speed around the end. Carter has had a tremendous season, recording 57 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles, and a blocked kick. Behind Carter is super-talented junior D’Andre Walker (6-3, 240 pounds), and even as a reserve player, Walker has posted 37 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one pass broken up, 10 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, and a blocked kick. The Bulldogs are well-stocked at Sam, and that gives the defense great latitude in scheme and personnel.

At the Jack linebacker position, a role generally reserved for a large pass rusher, the Bulldogs have benefitted from the play of senior Davin Bellamy (6-5, 245 pounds), a wrecking ball on the outside edge. Make no mistake, Bellamy is a huge linebacker, but he’s also fast and powerful with a solid first step outside that allows him to elude slower blockers. Bellamy has 31 tackles, six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three passes broken up, 11 quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles. Freshman Walter Grant has stepped up behind Bellamy, and the up-and-comer has nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries on his stat line.

As is the case with Alabama’s defense, Smart puts his Georgia defense in a nickel look against teams that fling the ball around, flooding the defensive back field with a horde of agile, physical speedsters who are at home in coverage or laying lumber in run support. Therefore, he must have a cadre of defensive backs who are versatile, who are physical, who are excellent in coverage, and who have the speed and aggressiveness to play Man, Zone, and Pattern-matching coverages when the need arises.

Junior Deandre Baker (5-11, 183 pounds) has been steady in his role at right corner opposite the tandem of seniors Aaron Davis (6-1, 195 pounds) and Malkom Parrish (5-10, 190 pounds). The newcomer to the rotation, Baker has proven himself a dynamic playmaker for the Bulldog defense, recording 41 tackles, a tackle for loss, two interceptions, and nine passes broken up.

Davis is another versatile playmaker who Smart can move around his secondary to suit the needs created by varying offenses. Davis has seen starting time at the left corner position, and he is also listed as the chief nickel back when the Dogs go with five DBs. Davis has been a force that can play in the box, in pass rush, and is a lockdown corner when on the edge. He has 41 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, four passes broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Davis is spelled at nickel by freshman Deangelo Gibbs (6-1, 205 pounds), who has three tackles in sparse on-field time.

Parrish cedes the floor to Davis when the latter plays left corner, but when the defense goes with the nickel, he steps in to the fray at CB when Davis rotates to Star. The senior has had a respectable season in that role, recording 21 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, and three passes broken up. Sophomore Tyrique McGhee (5-10, 187 pounds) has 25 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, an interception, six passes broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery to his credit this season. McGhee is the reserve corner for both sides, so he has seen plenty of snaps as a young player.

Right safety J. R. Reed (6-2, 194 pounds) has been one of the most explosive playmakers in a defense full of explosive playmakers this season, as he is second on the team in tackles with 76, in addition to five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, five passes broken up, six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and a blocked kick. Behind Reed is freshman Richard LeCounte III (5-11, 185 pounds), who has 15 tackles in relief.

At left safety, the Bulldogs have steady senior Dominick Sanders (6-0, 200 pounds), an opportunistic robber in the middle of the field who leads the team with four interceptions to go with his 37 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and five passes broken up. Junior Jarvis Wilson (6-2, 199 pounds) provides depth behind Sanders, though he only has five tackles and a tackle for loss to his credit this season.

How the Bulldog Defense Will Attempt to Stop Alabama

There’s no doubt that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and the Alabama offense will have their work cut out in scheming around the Bulldog defense. They are fast and aggressive, and they’ll be using much of Saban’s own scheme against him and his talented Tide offensive arsenal.

Let’s take a statistical snapshot of the Georgia defense Smart has built this season and admire the unit’s work to date. They currently rank sixth in total defense (289.5 yards per game allowed), 20th in rush defense (121.9 yards per game allowed), eighth in pass defense (167.6 yards per game allowed), and fifth in scoring defense (15.7 points per game allowed). They aren’t particularly impressive when it comes to pressuring the passer (ranked 54th in sacks with 31) or disrupting opponents in the backfield (55th in team tackles for loss with 87), and they rank 35th in turnover margin (11 interceptions and five fumbles). The Bulldogs are 62nd in interceptions with 11, 13th in team passing efficiency defense, 34th in red zone defense, and 25th in third down defense.

These raw statistical rankings paint a portrait of a team that is salty in run defense, excellent against the pass despite a somewhat lethargic pass rush, but that lacks the element of explosiveness that have been a trademark of Alabama’s most recent defensive units. They are talented to be sure, and are consistent in large part. However, they are a unit that can be beaten by an offense that schemes well and doesn’t make mistakes, which is a strategy well within the wheelhouse of the current incarnation of the Tide offense.

The advanced metrics provide a slightly different lens, though many of the conclusions drawn from the raw data remain salient. Georgia is ranked 11th in defensive S&P+ (which accounts for garbage time, strength of opponent, etc. to provide a more accurate measure of defensive performance), ninth in rush defense S&P+, fifth in pass defense S&P+, 44th in Havoc (a measure that combines tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles), and fourth in IsoPPP+ (a measure of explosive plays of greater than 20 yards allowed).

No matter which data one reviews, it’s plain to see that the Georgia defense is exceptional, though it does have its weaknesses. A look at a little film reveals the reason for this statistical prowess: they use the same types of players, the same mechanics, and the same strategies employed by the Crimson Tide defense as it has cut a swath across the college football landscape since 2008. In some cases this season, the UGA defense faired even better than the model around which they are built: for example, they held electric dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in check in their game with Mississippi State, allowing him only 130 yards of total offense on 39 run and pass attempts as UGA cruised to a 31-3 win. (Alabama, on the other hand, allowed Fitzgerald a respectable day, as the quarterback amassed 224 yards of total offense on 45 run and pass plays).

There are several keys to the defense Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker prefer to use. First, the Bulldog defense has great size across the front, and those players are not your typical, lumbering 3-4 linemen. They are fast and athletic to better deal with spread-type running offenses, but they retain the size to adequately battle more traditional pro-style offenses as well. At this point in the game, Saban and Smart are vying for the same elite athletes on the recruiting trails, and there’s good reason for it. The defenses they employ are dependent on the specific types of players, with specific skill sets, that fit the molds in their respective defenses. Expect those recruiting battles to continue, as neither man will relent in their pursuit of the perfect players to make their defenses thrive.

But the Georgia defense, like its Alabama counterpart, is about more than just talented athletes. Strategically speaking, Smart and Tucker have made a habit of using a lot of hybrid fronts this season to create favorable match-ups at the point of attack, something which has opened up opportunities for guys like Smith, Bellamy, and the Carters to make plays from the linebacker position. Those hybrid fronts can continue to attack the opposing backfield while eating up space in the interior, and they free up the explosive linebackers and defensive backs to make plays and swarm to the ball.

Though the Bulldog defense is primarily a 3-4 two-gap scheme, Smart (like his master Saban) is far too multiple to stay in that formation when there are other options available better suited to the task at hand. Even within the confines of that 3-4 look, Smart may employ unconventional alignments to create mismatches and allow his guys to win battles.

For example, against a pro-set team on what is a standard run down, Smart and Tucker may go with a 3-4 front but align the end and tackle in a 4i-technique (in which the end and tackle line up just inside of each offensive tackle) with the nose lined up directly over the center in a 0-technique. Such an alignment allows the defense to deal with a space-creating look from an offense with a two-gapping front while maintaining balance. The spaces are mostly accounted for up front because the linemen are two-gapping and thus are covering everything from one tackle’s inside shoulder to the other, and the Will and Mike line up directly behind the front to clean the gaps while the Jack rushes the passer around the edge and the Sam drops off to cover the slot and the flat. The defensive end and tackle handle the gaps between the guards and tackles, and the OLBs force the run inside while the ILBs read the play and react to attack the ball.

This is a really comprehensive way of defending spread run teams, but it is heavily dependent on execution and fundamentals such as sound tackling. This is where the athletic big men come into play once again, as they must be able to shed blocks, get off (or in the case of the nose, tie up) blocks, and flow to the play. Because of their athleticism of the front seven, the Bulldogs are not as easy to exploit on the perimeter as, say, Clemson, because they are built for lateral pursuit. Where Clemson’s defense was entrenched up front like a barricade, Georgia’s defense acts more like a movable piece of armor that can shift into place without losing rigidity. This allows the Bulldogs to properly neutralize one of the primary weapons of many SEC offenses, more specifically the outside zone. When a team tries to stretch out and read the UGA defense, more times than not, they get stretched into oblivion by the lateral pursuit the Bulldogs muster, and the play results in little to no gain.

At times, when a team runs a hybrid pro-spread offense like the one that Alabama has used under Daboll, Georgia will go into something more akin to a 4-3 Under alignment in which the Jack (or Sam) puts a hand in the dirt pre-snap. But even more likely against a team that lines up in spread formation is a 3-3 Nickel (that actually looks like a 4-2 Nickel with an upright linebacker as a pass rusher). This allows Georgia to keep a rigid run defense with a standard front alignment and athletic linebackers who attack downhill. Such a front can generate pressure while putting five defensive backs on the field to deal with the passing game. Because the Georgia defensive backs (especially safety J.R. Reed) are so adept at playing the run and rushing the passer, this particular formation gives Smart and Tucker the best of both worlds. They don’t lose anything against the run with Reed and Davis flying into the box from the secondary when they read run, but they are also put their five best DBs on the field at once, providing the secondary with its best chance of success if the offense options into an RPO read at the snap.

Against MSU, Georgia used the tactic with a largely nickel defense behind varying fronts, and it worked well. MSU runs more of a speed-option style as opposed to Alabama’s offense, but some of the concepts carry over (especially when Hurts carries the ball on designed read plays). With so many rangy, quick defenders on the field, it was difficult for the talented Mississippi State offense to get much headway on the ground. UGA was content to cede a few short gains on check downs and short runs behind double-teamed blocks, but they focused on keeping skill players out of space where they could do the most damage. Smart and Tucker put their defense in the 4-3 Under with a nickel on the back side to seal the run up front and eliminate space in the gaps while retaining nickel personnel to protect the defense from RPOs and pass options. Therefore, Georgia was able to largely accomplish their goals at the line of scrimmage with only five or six players in the box, thus increasing the chances for successful pass defense for the loaded backfield.

Where it was clear in Alabama’s game against Clemson that the edges were available to be exploited in the short passing game and against the run, the same cannot be said for Georgia. They are excellent in lateral pursuit, and they flow to the action exceptionally well with elite linebackers and defensive backs. The Bulldogs actually prefer to create one-on-one match-ups towards the fringes where they can allow their superior defensive backs to match up with the offense’s elite skill position players. They do so knowing they may lose the occasional battle (as was the case against Oklahoma), but they persist in the interest of winning the greater war (which they believe they can do).

Putting their defensive backs in Man situations on the edges allows them to commit their safeties to the middle in run defense without a large quotient of risk. The Georgia corners are excellent and against spread option teams, the Bulldogs will put their best five DBs on the field (Sanders, Reed, Baker, Parrish at corner and Davis at Nickel). Davis has been such a dynamic playmaker that as the season wore on, offenses actually had to double him on short slow-developing plays like bubble screens, because the speedy defensive back attacked downhill with such ferocity and anticipation that he was able to disrupt those plays in their infancy. Davis is also adept at diagnosing rub routes and responding in kind, blanketing those receivers and limiting them to minimal gains even when passes are completed.

Davis, not Smith or Reed, could actually be considered the key linch-pin in the Bulldog defense. His lock-down ability as a corner, coupled with his ability to play a safety-style role from the Star, gives Tucker the latitude to attack aggressively from the edges in the pass rush. Even when teams are able to check to hot reads and get the ball out, Davis is generally in the area to snuff the play out, thus removing some of the risk created by blitzes and overwhelming pressure packages. He locks down the middle of the field against the pass and the run, and allows Smith to become a human Tomahawk cruise missile who can attack an offense from anywhere on the field. When the Dogs go to a dime look, Davis is almost like an extra linebacker, and it is his versatility that allows the Georgia defensive staff to attack with seeming reckless abandon to create pressure-borne mistakes by offenses.

That same strength has at times become a liability however. Auburn, in their first meeting with Georgia this season that resulted in a Tiger win, was able to correctly diagnose the Bulldogs’ aggressiveness and exploit it. When Georgia would run an overload blitz with Smith and a corner, for example, Auburn QB Jared Stidham was able to check into a pass (through RPO) to a receiver running into the spot vacated by the blitzing defenders. The blitzes that Smart and Tucker use create pressure, to be sure, but they can also create mismatches for offenses that can get the ball out to skill players and create numbers advantages. If an offense can diagnose those blitz tendencies, is ready to read their keys, and can get the ball out with a quick release, there are opportunities for big plays to be had. Hurts has proven that he can do this on one-reads in the past with pretty good regularity, so there is reason to believe Alabama may try a few things in that regard to slow the Dogs down and exploit their tendency to overpursue.

The Result

Alabama’s offense will have a difficult time dealing with Georgia’s athletes on defense, to be sure. The product that Alabama’s offense put on the field in the first half against Clemson looked almost unstoppable, and even a defense as stout as the one fielded by the Bulldogs would have a hard time containing it.

However, while they have varying pressure points and weaknesses, the Georgia defense is better suited to defend Alabama’s style of offense than the one Clemson brought to the table last Monday. The Georgia defense is good…very good. Great, even. They have elite players at key positions, they have size, they have decent depth, and they are hungry.

But there are holes that the Tide can exploit to build a lead that Bama’s own tenacious defense can adequately protect, though execution by Jalen Hurts and his offense will be of the utmost importance. The weakest component of the Bulldog D is the run defense (though it’s still a top-20 unit), and fortunately for Alabama, the Tide has a top-10 rushing attack coming into the game. Georgia is giving up over 121 yards per game on the ground while the Tide averages more than double that number.

Though Oklahoma is known as a high-powered passing offense, they had enough success running the ball to punch the Bulldogs in the mouth in the first half of their match-up. Oklahoma has the nation’s 27th ranked rushing offense, and yet they assaulted the Bulldog defense for 242 yards rushing for an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Alabama is a better rushing team, and despite the Bulldogs’ general resilience against opposing ground games, that could wilt against a mighty Alabama ground-and-pound effort. That damn will break one way or the other, and if that advantage falls to the Tide, then there will be little that Georgia can do to prevent the same outcome that befell Clemson from descending upon them.

Alabama has multiple poisons in the running game with which to kill its enemies, but they are all predicated on the offensive line. The Tide O line looked possessed last week against a fantastic Clemson front, as they opened holes and dominated the trenches for much of the game. Alabama didn’t run wild by any stretch, as Clemson held Bama to 141 yards on 42 carries or 3.4 yards per carry. But that 141 yards was plenty to keep the chains moving, to keep Clemson off balance, and to dominate the time of possession and field position. In a game between two gridiron big boys this Monday, a similar tactic will yield similar results for Alabama, so all the Tide must do is eke out a little more yardage on the ground than Georgia gives up on average anyway to have a chance at beating the Dogs.

That said, Alabama likely won’t want to try to run to the perimeter as they did against Clemson. Running success for Alabama will look a lot different against Georgia, as the Bama O line will need to open holes inside to give the backs their best chance of picking up yardage in chunks. If the Tide tries the type of slow-developing runs to the edge that we saw using Bo Scarbrough in the previous game, then the Georgia defense will swallow them up. This game will be more physical and between-the-tackles where the ground game is concerned, and that will require another angry effort from the Tide front.

Of course, Bama will still have to run some of those horizontal stretch plays to the sideline to keep Georgia from stacking the box and bringing those safeties in close. When Georgia can get the personnel in run support that they desire, they are very hard to beat. That’s why some runs to the edges, maybe utilizing some read-option with Hurts as a running game weapon ala 2016, could be helpful in thinning the box for the Tide ground assault. Those plays may not be game-breakers in terms of yardage gains, and with Georgia’s team speed at linebacker and safety, many may end in tackles for loss. However, they will be critical for setting up successes later in the game, and they will at least put the Bulldogs on their heels rather than allowing them to dig in their heels in the trenches. That perimeter running game feint could be of critical importance as the game wears on.

Where the passing game is concerned, the same could be true. The edges will likely be largely locked down by Georgia DBs, thus preventing a quick-release passing game that stresses the edges of the defense. However, the Bulldog linebackers don’t have an interception between them, which means there could be opportunities for gains in the slot and the flats. The Tide offense will want to watch out for the likes of Reid and Davis in that part of the field, but if they can scheme some quick slants and screens that exploit the aggressive upfield pursuit of the Bulldog front and the suspect coverage skills of the backers, then there could be hay made there.

Again, just because pass plays to the perimeter may not be big gainers doesn’t mean the Tide won’t need to run them. Georgia’s offense is at its best – and Smart is at his best as a coach – when an opponent becomes predictable and one-dimensional, even if that one dimension produces moderate success. To beat Georgia, an opponent must keep the defense dancing on quicksand. And to have success getting the ball out to skill players with enough space to operate, Daboll will need to be crafty. Some variation of a read-option attack using a quick-strike to Josh Jacobs (if he’s healthy) or Henry Ruggs/ Jerry Jeudy from the slot, could be the difference in the game. Flipping the ball out on wide receiver screens will simply not work because of Georgia’s pursuit speed. Bama will need the kind of misdirection that Lane Kiffin employed last year, and they’ll need to disguise their goals with alignments and personnel to keep Georgia guessing.

Teams that have had success against the Georgia defense, such as Auburn, employed a heavy load of RPOs that gave the quarterback the option to read a defender and make a quick play. Hurts proved last year he could do that adeptly, but the concern would be Daboll’s ability to call that type of game. The read-option is not his bailiwick, and putting a potential national championship in the hands of a coordinator calling a game from a system with which he is unfamiliar is terrifying. That said, Hurts is familiar with the reads, and the skill position players know their roles in such a game plan. Could Alabama revert back to a little more read-option to create chaos for Georgia? It’s certainly an option, and its one that would leverage the Bulldogs’ strength – their aggressiveness and speed – against them.

One final point...much has been made about Alabama’s inability down the stretch to convert third downs. In two of its last three games, the Tide seemed snake-bitten in that regard, but Daboll and crew found a remedy against Clemson. The Tide converted 8-of-17 third-down tries (47 percent), which is well above their 43.1 for the season and their 3-of-11 (27.2 percent) against Auburn. They did it with wise, efficient play-calling on early downs and an emphasis on positive yards that kept them out of third-and-longs, for which the Tide offense is ill-equipped. The same type of improvement is possible against Georgia, as despite their overall strength as a defense, they rank 25th in third-down conversions allowed. This will be a very telling stat at game’s end, as if the Tide is consistent in finding early-down success and moving the chains, they will demolish Georgia’s defense through attrition and gain momentum as the game wears on.

Alabama’s offense showed promise after a late-season swoon in dispatching a Clemson defense that many considered among the best in the nation. (The statistics certainly backed up such a diagnosis.) But Georgia is just as good top to bottom as Clemson, defensively speaking, if not better. However, in this final test of the season, it’s important to note that Alabama has bested more highly-ranked defenses, and with a relatively healthy offense, there’s reason for the Tide faithful to take heart.

But Georgia could just as easily come in as motivated as the Tide’s defense did against Clemson. All the Bulldog defenders have heard this week is how dominant the Bama defense was, how they are the nation’s best defense, etc. Smart knows what makes young men tick, and there’s no doubt he will parlay that underdog mentality into a highly focused, driven defensive product on Monday night.

The Bulldogs have the players to hold Bama in check. Smart’s scheme and Tucker’s play-calling form a formidable tandem. If Georgia plays its best defensive game of the season, they just may have a shot of knocking off Alabama.

But if the Tide plays an intelligent, focused game against their neighbors to the east, there’s no reason that they can’t do exactly what they did to Clemson. All defenses have weaknesses, and the Tide has the tools to exploits Georgia’s short-comings. It will be a true test for Hurts, Daboll, and the rest of the offense, but its far from an insurmountable obstacle.