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Hope For the Best: Georgia edition

In facing a doppelganger of itself, Alabama must find a way to conquer the very strengths that its own program has ridden to greatness over the last decade and in a sense, undo its own winning formula

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson
Will the old master prevail, or is it time for the padawan to rise?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the spread offense fireworks, high-flying aerial antics, and electric Heisman personalities, this year’s 2017 college football season has arrived at a surprisingly traditional pinnacle. The National Championship Game features two teams built on fundamentals and old-school, gritty, sod-in-the-helmet football in which physicality is more cherished than flash, and power is more important than pop in the course of grinding opponents into pulp.

Neither Alabama nor Georgia puts on an air show offensively, with both teams featuring still-developing quarterbacks limited in their respective skill sets. Both teams would prefer to line-up in two-back sets and slug one another in the mouth rather than sling the ball around, with gargantuan offensive lines and a stable of backs between the two rosters that will most certainly play at the pro level almost to the man. The defenses…well, the defenses fielded by both teams are the type that strike fear into offensive coordinators in the depth of the night’s darkness. They are unnaturally big, unnaturally fast, and the schemes they run are razor-laced bear-traps slathered with tetrodotoxin.

So how is it that two teams so similar managed to conquer all comers and end up playing for the College Football National Championship? The first answer is because both are built using the Nick Saban recipe for football success. Like a gridiron Colonel Sanders developing his own 11 secret herbs and spices, Saban has put together a patented Process for cooking up college football greatness. The Process depends heavily on its creator for success, but Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is proving that it is portable, as he lifted the primary tenets of the Saban philosophy and installed them into an already-talented Georgia program that lacked discipline, fire, and direction prior to his arrival in Athens.

Now, Saban’s own Process will be levied against him, as he must once again prove himself master to an apt pupil on the rise. In 11 such previous match-ups, it has been the sensei who has emerged victorious, as no former Saban assistant has ever beaten The Man. Will Smart be the first to do so? An argument could be made that he is more qualified for that treacherous endeavor than any of his predecessors, as he spent the most time learning at Saban’s apron, and in his time at UGA, has proven himself a qualified apprentice well on his way to mastery of the system that made Alabama’s coach one of the most dominant figures in sports in the last 25 years.

However, despite the best attempts at mimicry, the fact remains that Georgia is not Alabama, and cannot claim itself heir to the resume and reputation that the Tide can boast. After all, Bama has been a part of every College Football Playoff since the system’s inception. They’ve won four national championships since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. They have recruited at such a high level consistently that there is no end to the Tide dynasty in the foreseeable future. Georgia, as much as they have progressed under Smart, still can’t claim that pedigree…at least not yet. That may await them in the future, but for now, the first step on the ascending staircase to greatness is painted boldly in crimson.

The match-ups are intriguing in this game, but at the final buzzer, the victor will have done a few things better than the defeated. The winner will assert itself at the point of attack and dominate the line of scrimmage. Doing so will allow each to wage its preferred mode of warfare through the run game, while protecting the still-tender passers behind the line. The winner will stop the run defensively, as both teams have defenses that are predicated on forcing teams into the high risk-reward ratio of desperation passing. The winner will convert third-downs consistently, whether by staying ahead of the chains with heady play-calling, or through sheer determination of will through execution. Finally, the winner will play mistake-free football while capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponent.

The same could be true of almost any match-up on any given Saturday, but it’s especially true for the two throwback teams that will face off for the hardware Monday night. Those long-strummed tenets of sports broadcasters and pundits over the eons were, after all, forged in the kiln of the type of ManBall played by college bluebloods in the decades preceding the current era of Air Raid offenses. In a game that will provide a window into what football once was, those fundamental practices will hold true.

Will Alabama’s top-ranked run defense be able to stop the formidable Georgia running game that averages over 267 yards per game? Can the Tide’s defense rattle the cage of the Bulldogs’ freshman quarterback and force him into the kind of mistakes that are absolute poison for a conservative offense? Will Georgia’s defensive playmakers allow Alabama to thrive on the ground, or will they force the Tide offense out of its comfort zone and into the air? Can either team muster the type of big plays upon which championships are built against such solid, ferocious defenses?

We will know soon enough. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Georgia defense

There’s no secret that Alabama will want to establish the run against a Georgia defense that ranks 20th nationally in rushing yards allowed (121.9 yards per game) and ninth in rush defense S&P+. The Bulldogs are excellent against the run, as one would expect from any team led by Saban’s former defensive coordinator. But the Tide will need to find a way to generate a little headway on the ground to fully open up Daboll’s offense and give Jalen Hurts a chance to use all of the weapons in his arsenal.

It’s one thing to say the Tide needs to establish the run, but how will they do it? Last week against Clemson, the underbelly was evident: Alabama needed to attack the soft perimeter of the Clemson defense, an area where the Tigers had previously struggled to contain other opponents. This week, against Georgia, the opposite is likely true. The Bulldogs are excellent in lateral pursuit, as they are equipped through system and personnel to string out horizontal running plays. Will linebacker Roquan Smith (6-1, 225 pounds) is a sideline-spanning running game wrecking ball, with lightning reflexes and the football IQ to read stretch run plays and attack them. Even when offenses have mustered positive yardage on lateral running attempts against UGA, they’ve been meager gains at best, gains the Bulldogs are willing to endure to put offenses behind the chains and into pressure situations on third-downs.

Against Georgia, the Tide would be better served running right at the Bulldog front. It’s not that the Dogs are soft in the middle by any stretch of the imagination. They operate out of the type of 3-4 base that Saban himself refined into a run-killing machine during the course of his career, and they have the horses to pull that cart in big nose John Atkins (6-4, 305 pounds), tackle Trenton Thompson (6-4, 295 pounds), and future pro end Jonathan Ledbetter (6-4, 277 pounds). Those big men eat blocks and fight through contact, leaving the excellent linebacking corps of MLB Reggie Carter (6-1, 230 pounds), Sam Lorenzo Carter (6-6, 243 pounds), Jack LB Davin Bellamy (6-5, 245 pounds), and Smith to clean up behind them and flow towards the ball. Running at all will be difficult against Georgia with that assortment of characters in the trenches, but running up the middle may offer the least resistance if the Tide O line can get any push and slash open gaps.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be lateral runs, however, and as painful as they may be to watch at times against the Dogs’ pursuit, they are critical to opening interior lanes as the game wears on. Remember how former OC Lane Kiffin would run an assortment of doomed jet sweeps and bubble screens to open downfield plays later in games? The same must be done by Daboll in the running game to prevent the Bulldogs from loading up the box. They have a safety in J.R. Reed (6-1, 194 pounds) and nickel/ corner in Aaron Davis (6-1, 195 pounds) who are excellent in run support and who will rotate down into the box routinely if they aren’t checked to the edges. At least a few perimeter attempts are in order to keep the Bulldogs honest, so don’t get apocalyptic when Daboll decides to stretch some space in the Bulldog front laterally.

The same holds true in the passing game. Hurts is not going to fling the ball downfield with reckless abandon, partially because that isn’t in his skill set and partially because the Bulldogs play a lot of Nickel coverages and have one of the nation’s elite pass defenses (they rank eighth in passing yards allowed at 167.6 per game, are fifth in pass defense S&P+, and have the nation’s 13th ranked team passing efficiency defense). Reed, Davis, CB Malkom Parrish (5-10, 190 pounds), safety Dominick Sanders (6-0, 200 pounds), and corner Deandre Baker (5-11, 183 pounds) represent one of the best platoons of defensive backs not located in Tuscaloosa, so attempting to air the ball out against them could be an errand of recklessness at best.

Clemson too had an elite pass defense, but for a different reason. The Tiger front seven was incredible in the pass rush, ranking second in sacks heading into their game against the Tide. Their secondary was solid as well, but it was the pressure up front that was the catalyst for pass defense excellence (Clemson ranked seventh in passing yards allowed with 165.1 yards per game, had the sixth ranked team passing efficiency defense, and the second ranked pass defense S&P+).

The Georgia pass defense, however, is a different animal. They are adept enough up front to create pressure, even though that pressure doesn’t result in sacks as often as it does for Clemson (the Dogs are ranked 54th in team sacks with 31). They thrive against passing offenses primarily because they have elite defensive backs who play in a variation of Saban’s pattern-matching coverages. They are good enough to play Man on the edges in one-on-one match-ups with opponents’ elite skill players when Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker wish to dial up blitz pressure. But against spread teams that like to go four-wides, they’ll go with pattern-matching coverages that limit the success of such offenses while allowing the front to get conventional pressure.

Whereas Alabama could stretch Clemson with the short passing game and was forced to get the ball out of Hurts’ hands quickly due to the ferocious pass rush, the task will be different this Monday against Georgia. Conventional passes to the sidelines will most likely result in minimal gain. The Bulldogs defenders are so good at reading formation and tendencies that they will likely be breaking in the direction of the play at the snap, and that coupled with extreme lateral quickness will doom things like bubble screens and wide receiver screens from the get-go. Where Oklahoma was able to exploit the Bulldogs was in the read-option…in fact, they probably didn’t do enough of that given its relative success. While Alabama has moved away from the read-option under Daboll, it is a viable tactic for neutralizing what Georgia does best: attack aggressively and move on intuition.

A skew towards more zone-read isn’t out of the question despite Daboll’s seeming unfamiliarity with the style. Oklahoma was able to use zone-read concepts to obliterate the Georgia front in the first half in the running game, and tailback Rodney Anderson ran for over 200 yards from outside zone, inside zone, and zone-read option plays that worked in part because QB Baker Mayfield is a running threat and could throw short strikes accurately on the fly. While the latter may not be Hurts’ strong point, he did well enough to help the Tide to an undefeated regular season running zone-read and inverted veer as a true freshman, and one could argue that the Tide offense is even better suited to such a style now with elite athletic receivers like Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy on the roster this year to go along with tailback Josh Jacobs.

Georgia did well enough against Mississippi State’s speed option earlier this year, holding QB Nick Fitzgerald to 130 total yards (Alabama allowed him 224). But the Mississippi State offense has neither the running back talent nor wide receiver talent that Alabama boasts. With Hurts as a legitimate running threat, a one-read short passing game, a stable of explosive backs, and an offensive line that is comfortable running Power or Zone blocking schemes, the Tide would have a lot of options to throw at the Bulldog defense. Doing so would keep them off balance as Oklahoma did in the first half of the first-round playoff contest. It would also allow the Tide offense to attack every portion of the field, which is absolutely critical against Georgia. The moment an offense gets predictable and allows Georgia to dig in is the moment that offense has ceded the high ground.

It will be absolutely key that Alabama continues to harness a short-play, chain-moving playbook that blends option passing and inside running. Tempo will work against Georgia, just as it has worked against Alabama so many times in the past. The Tide can’t afford three-and-outs, even if the drives ultimately don’t result in touchdowns. The Georgia offense is a ball-control, ground attack-style of scheme, and giving them the latitude to hold the ball and punish a Bama defense already reeling from injury-induced depth issues is a recipe for disaster where the Tide is concerned. It is critical that the Tide continues its upswing on third-down conversions by getting even modest gains on first-down to set up manageable conversions later on. If they can do that, they will apply the boa constrictor tactic to Georgia and prevent the same from being waged upon them.

The Alabama defense versus the Georgia offense

Like Alabama, there’s no mystery in what the Bulldog offense is all about. They want to run the ball, then run it some more. Then, when you think they’ve run all they can run, they run it again. And why wouldn’t they? With backs like Sony Michel (5-11, 215 pounds) and Nick Chubb (5-10, 225 pounds) in the backfield and a seasoned, monstrous offensive line, a punishing ground game that averages around seven yards per carry and piles up 267.4 yards per game is probably an offense’s best, most efficient weapon, particularly when that offense is led by a talented-but-young true freshman quarterback.

Jake Fromm (6-2, 225 pounds) is a solid starter in the SEC despite his youth, as he is a 64 percent passer with 25 touchdowns to five interceptions in his short career. Fromm was a hero in last week’s game against Oklahoma, as he showed poise in leading his team from behind against the Sooners, then helped them clinch the championship berth with an overtime effort.

But Fromm has never seen anything like the Alabama defense before. The Tide, finally healthy after a season in the abyss of injury, looked rejuvenated – and pissed – against Clemson, absolutely shutting down what was at one time an electrifying Tiger offense. Alabama gave up a mere 188 yards of total offense to an explosive Clemson team, and that’s after the Tigers averaged 448.2 yards per game in the previous 12 contests. Alabama’s run defense returned to its usual form, locking down on the Tigers to allow only 64 yards on the ground total…that’s 1.9 yards per carry. Against the pass, the Tide was equally impressive in recording five sacks and two interceptions while allowing a mere 3.4 yards per pass.

That is the beast that the freshman signal caller in scarlet will face on Monday night, and unless the Bulldog offense can find a way to do what Clemson couldn’t with the ground game, then the hopes and dreams of the Bulldog Nation could fall upon the shoulders of a freshman quarterback and a mish-mash of receivers who aren’t necessarily intimidating to the likes of the Alabama secondary. The Bulldogs’ best receiving threat is Terry Godwin (5-11, 185 pounds), but it’s hard to imagine him dominating Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett, or Tony Brown. Alabama has a decided advantage in one-on-one match-ups between the Bulldog receiving corps and Tide secondary, and that fact coupled with a quarterback in Fromm who will have to face the best pass defense of his short career on the game’s biggest stage leads one to believe that the only way the Bulldogs win is if their running game can find a way to ease the young QB’s burden.

That likely won’t happen, however. Chubb and Michel are elite, future NFL backs to be sure. And the Georgia O line is solid if unspectacular. Against the average opponent defense, that is more than enough to help the Bulldogs win the war-of-attrition game plan that Smart adopted from his previous employer. However, Alabama is built to destroy teams that rely on the run. Look at Alabama’s dominance of LSU in the last decade. Few teams could boast the firepower of the Tigers’ running game with Leonard Fournette and Darius Guice in the backfield, but the Alabama run defense shut them down repeatedly. Sure, this is a different defensive roster, but as has played out in each of Saban’s years in Alabama, the run defense is the constant. Faces come and go, the secondary talent ebbs and flows, the pass rush may be better some years than others. But Alabama’s run defense is always at the top of the charts nationally (as it is again this season in the raw stats and advanced metrics), so it’s hard to imagine that Georgia will be able to do what it does best against Alabama’s greatest strength.

Expect the Bulldogs to try, however. They’ll probe and poke with their star backs. They’ll try to find some room, a weak spot left soft by injury. But they’ll only find a unit that will absorb the best they can dish, spit out teeth and blood, and charge back in for more down after down. There’s no team that can withstand what the Alabama run defense has to offer, and despite their running game prowess, Georgia will ultimately have to go to the air to make headway.

Again, a freshman quarterback is not as perilous a proposition as it once was, as the talent level of incoming freshman signal callers has evolved greatly in the modern era. However, to expect Fromm to come off an emotional overtime victory over Oklahoma and stare down the likes of the Alabama defense is somewhat unrealistic. He’s talented, for sure. But he doesn’t have the supporting talent in the receiving corps, and he will be harried and harassed all evening by an Alabama pass rush that, despite losing Anfernee Jennings to knee injury last week, will otherwise be at its healthiest since week 1. Against Clemson, observers saw what a fully functioning Tide Defensive Death Star can do. Against an offense that is one-dimensional and a freshman-led passing game ranked 109th nationally, that battle station will be flat out devastating.

Special Teams

Special teams offers possibly the lone unit match-up in which the Bulldogs have an advantage over the Tide, and that’s saying a lot given Alabama’s punting game with J.K. Scott. Georgia has an excellent punting game with senior Cameron Nizialek handling those duties. Nizialek averages 44.87 per punt with a long of 61 and four touchbacks to go alongside 26 fair catches. For comparison, Scott averages 42.4 yards per punt with a long of 64. In a game in which both teams cherish field position and play ferocious defense, the punting game will be critical. In this match-up, it’s a scratch at best, though Georgia could easily be given the tip of the hat for Nizialek’s performance to date.

In the place-kicking game, the Bulldogs are also extremely solid with sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship handling place-kicking duties. Blankenship is 17-of-20 on field goals this season with two longer than 50 yards. On kickoffs, he averages 64.1 yards per kick and has 64 touchbacks with no out of bounds kicks to his credit. That is kicking excellence plain and simple, and despite Andy Pappanastos’ solid year for Bama, the senior struggled against Clemson. Therefore, the Bulldogs get the nod in that respect as well.

The return game for Georgia has potential, but much like Alabama’s own, it has been less than electrifying. Mecole Hardman, Sony Michel, Elijah Holyfield, and Terry Godwin have pieced together the two return units, though none of them have produced scores. The return game grades out as a draw between the two teams, as while neither has buoyed its team this season, neither have they made an abundance of negative plays.

In Georgia, Alabama will in many ways face a mirror image of itself, and given the pedigree shared between the two teams, that is to be expected. There’s no discrediting the job Smart has done in his time in Athens. Sure, he inherited a loaded roster from Mr. Nice Guy Mark Richt, but he did something Richt could never do: he gave his team an edge and bestowed upon them bellies full of fire. This year’s incarnation of the Bulldogs looks more like the intense teams of Alabama’s championship seasons, and Smart deserves the accolades for building a beast in the East that will likely go lightly contested for years to come.

However, it isn’t often that the Padawan defeats the master. The Sith Rule of Two prescribes that there must be two Sith, a master and an apprentice…one to embody raw power, and the other to covet it. Saban is the Dark Lord who manifests the top of the coaching game, while Smart remains an acolyte who craves what his teacher has. It is that dynamic which brings us to the coaching battle that will take place on both sidelines. No one spent more time with Saban than Smart. The two won championships together, conquered foes, and built a dynasty. Now, from opposite sidelines, Saban will build upon that legacy while the upstart Smart attempts to challenge his teacher and build a dynasty of his own. That is a tall task indeed, and despite the failure of Saban’s past students in challenging his supremacy, none has been as well-equipped as Smart to knock off the current king of college football.

Will Smart use his intimate knowledge of Saban’s tendencies and schemes to break from the routine and catch the Tide off guard? Will a freshman quarterback and one-time Bama commit be able to muster enough of a passing game to ignite the Bulldog running attack against the best defense they’ve faced this season? Or will Saban continue his iron-fisted rule of college football by unceremoniously smacking down another pretender to his throne? Will the Tide offense move the chains against a salty Georgia defense and allow the Alabama boa constrictor to squelch the breath of the Dogs just as they did to the Tigers before them?

These questions and more will be answered directly. Hold your breath…hope for the best.