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Previewing the SEC Championship Game: The Georgia defense

Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa conquered a better Georgia defense for a national championship last year…can they do it again?

Georgia v Kentucky
The Bulldog defense does everything well, and it’s loaded with talent.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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 identity 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. Though Saban and Smart seem to be evolving on increasingly different defensive trajectories, the common foundational pedigree remains the same.

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. He rewarded the faith of the UGA administration in his then-unproven abilities with a trip to the National Championship Game last season, and for two quarters of football Smart seemed to have his old master whipped. That is, until a heralded freshman quarterback from Hawaii stepped into the fray and led the Tide on an unlikely comeback against the best defense Alabama has faced since last January. The rest is history.

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 the 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. He is celebrating his second consecutive SEC East title.

Two one-loss seasons. Two SEC East titles. An SEC Championship, and a chance at another this season. 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…once, maybe twice. Easier said than done, of course.

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. This year, the gap between the two defensive masterminds has grown, as Smart has elected to play more two-high safeties and less of the Cover-1 stuff that Saban relishes. Still, 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 Saturday night, it will see a slightly-diminished 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 in his second attempt in the last 12 months? Will a Tua-led Tide offense be able to once again run the field on the Bulldogs? 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. Junior Julian Rochester (6-5, 300 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. Rochester has fared quite well in that regard, however, as he has 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and three quarterback hurries to his credit. Playing behind him is junior Michael Barnett (6-4, 304 pounds), another athletic big man who is powerful in the middle with good balance and length. Barnett has 12 tackles and a pass broken up.

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 Tyler Clark (6-4, 300 pounds), a tackle who brings size and speed to the equation with good explosiveness. Clark has 25 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, three passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery in 2018. He is spelled by promising freshmen Jordan Davis (6-6, 320 pounds) and Devonte Wyatt (6-3, 301 pounds). Davis hasn’t disappointed as a reserve contributor. He has 23 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, three passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. Wyatt has 11 tackles in a more limited role.

Possibly the most pro-ready defensive lineman on the roster is senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter (6-4, 280 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 2018, he has 49 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Senior Jay Hayes (6-3, 289 pounds) spells him, but he only has three tackles in limited playing time.

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. That said, the linebacking corps is not nearly as stout as it was last season with leader Roquan Smith, but they’re still a solid unit. 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.

Due to an injury to the team’s second-leading tackler in sophomore Monty Rice (6-1, 235 pounds), Georgia starts senior Will linebacker Juwan Taylor (6-1, 218 pounds) on the inside. Smith has had a solid if not dynamic year in 2018, recording 42 tackles, one pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Taylor is a good linebacker, but he’s not nearly the disruptive game-changing playmaker that Smart wielded in Smith last season. Taylor platoons with talented sophomore. Rice has missed the last two games with a leg injury and was on crutches in last Saturday’s scrap with Georgia Tech. Smart says Rice will be a game time decision but admitted earlier this week that he’s still not 100 percent. That’s a shame for the Bulldogs, because even after missing the last two games Rice has 59 tackles, along with 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.

Junior Mike linebacker Tae Crowder (6-1, 218 pounds) has evolved into an integral part of Georgia’s salty run defense. Crowder has 41 tackles on the season, as well as 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, a pass broken up, three quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Crowder is backed by senior Natrez Patrick (6-3, 242 pounds), who has 36 tackles, four tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and two quarterback hurries 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 sophomore Walter Grant (6-4, 245 pounds), a player with a tremendous wingspan and great size. Grant 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. Grant has had a decent season in his first year as a starter, recording 19 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass broken up. Behind Grant is senior Keyon Richardson (6-3, 235 pounds), and as a reserve player Richardson has posted four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries.

At the Jack linebacker position, a role generally reserved for a large pass rusher, the Bulldogs have benefitted from the play of senior D’Andre Walker (6-3, 245 pounds), a wrecking ball on the outside edge. Make no mistake, Walker is a huge linebacker, but he’s also fast and powerful with a solid first step outside that allows him to elude slower blockers. Walker has 40 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two passes broken up, 12 quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and three forced fumbles. Freshman Brenton Cox (6-4, 245 pounds) has stepped up behind Walker, and the up-and-comer has 12 tackles, a sack, three passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry 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.

Senior Deandre Baker (5-11, 185 pounds) has been the team’s best defensive back in his role at right corner opposite the tandem of freshmen Tyson Campbell (6-2, 185 pounds) and Erik Stokes (6-1, 185 pounds). Now a seasoned veteran after starting for most of 2017, Baker has proven himself a dynamic playmaker for the Bulldog defense, recording 37 tackles, two tackles for loss, nine passes broken up, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Sophomore Mark Webb (6-1, 200 pounds) backs him up, and he has 12 tackles, three passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry this season.

Campbell has started for most of the year, and he has accrued 42 tackles, one pass broken up, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery at left corner. Stokes has had slightly less production but has been solid and interchangeable with Campbell, posting 11 tackles, a tackle for loss, seven passes broken up, and a fumble recovery.

When the defense goes with the nickel, junior Tyrique McGhee (5-10, 187 pounds) steps in to the fray at Star. He has had a respectable season in that role, recording 21 tackles, an interception, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Deangelo Gibbs (6-1, 205 pounds) backs him up, and he has seven tackles in limited playing time.

Junior right safety J. R. Reid (6-2, 194 pounds) has been one of the most explosive playmakers in a defense full of explosive playmakers this season, as he is third on the team in tackles with 50, in addition to two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, two passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Behind Reid is freshman Christopher Smith II (5-11, 180 pounds), who has four tackles in relief.

At left safety, the Bulldogs have steady sophomore Richard LeCounte III (5-11, 190 pounds), an opportunistic robber in the middle of the field who leads the team with 64 tackles to go with his tackle for loss, three passes broken up, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Freshman Otis Reese (6-3, 210 pounds) provides depth behind Sanders, though he only has 13 tackles to his credit this season.

How the Bulldog Defense Will Attempt to Stop Alabama

There’s no doubt that offensive coordinator Mike Locksley 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 and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker have built this season and admire the unit’s work to date. They currently rank 12th in total defense (303.5 yards per game allowed), 27th in rush defense (128.4 yards per game allowed), 13th in pass defense (175.1 yards per game allowed), and 10th in scoring defense (17.17 points per game allowed). They aren’t particularly impressive when it comes to pressuring the passer (ranked 101st in sacks with 20) or disrupting opponents in the backfield (118th in team tackles for loss with 52), and they rank 44th in turnover margin (six interceptions and nine fumbles). The Bulldogs are 29th in team passing efficiency defense, 108th in red zone defense, and 13th in third-down defense (31.7% conversion rate).

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 14th in defensive S&P+ (which accounts for garbage time, strength of opponent, etc. to provide a more accurate measure of defensive performance), 44th in defensive success rate, 50th in rush defense S&P+, third in pass defense S&P+, 83rd in Havoc (a measure that combines tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles), 61st in front seven havoc, 94th in defensive back havoc, and second 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.

There are several keys to the defense Smart and 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 Grant, Walker, Taylor, Crowder, and Rice 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 entrenches 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 pro-spread offense like the one that Alabama has used under Locksley, 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. Reid) 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 Reid, LeCounte, and McGhee flying into the box from the secondary when they read run, but they 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 Auburn and Florida, Georgia used the tactic on passing downs with a largely nickel defense behind varying fronts, and it worked well. Florida runs more of a speed-option style as opposed to Alabama’s offense, but some of the concepts carry over. With so many rangy, quick defenders on the field, it was difficult for the Florida 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 playoff game last year against Clemson that the edges were available to be exploited in the short passing game and against the run, the same was not true in their championship game against Georgia. The Bulldogs are slightly less explosive and quick this year, but they are still 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, 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. That said, Smart and Tucker have used more safety-high coverages this year rather than relying on Man and Cover-1 as often. The Georgia corners are excellent and against spread teams, the Bulldogs will put their best five DBs on the field (LeCounte, Reid, Baker, Campbell at corner, and McGhee at Nickel).

Though his stats may not reflect it, McGhee, not Smith or Reid, could actually be considered the key linch-pin in the Bulldog defense against Alabama and the RPO-heavy attack. His ability to play a safety-style role from the Star with corner measurables 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, McGhee 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 Rice (or now Taylor due to Rice’s injury) 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, McGhee 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. LSU was able to correctly diagnose the Bulldogs’ aggressiveness and exploit it. When Georgia would run an overload blitz with Rice and a corner, for example, LSU QB Joe Burrow was able to check into a pass (through RPO) to a receiver running into the spot vacated by the blitzing defenders. Tagovailoa excels in this regard, and countless time this season has made a defense pay for bringing extra men on the blitz.

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. Tagovailoa has proven that he can do this and make every throw on the field, 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. That said, the product that Alabama’s offense put on the field this season has looked almost unstoppable, and even a defense as stout as the one fielded by the Bulldogs will 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 any other team the Tide has played this year outside of Mississippi State and possibly LSU. 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, and though Tagovailoa’s continued excellence in execution will be a difference maker the Tide will also have an opportunity to run the ball against the Dogs. The weakest component of the Bulldog D is the run defense (though it’s still a top-30 unit), and fortunately for Alabama, the Tide has a powerful rushing attack coming into the game. Georgia is giving up over 128 yards per game on the ground while the Tide averages more than 200 yards per game even with the newfound focus on (and production from) the passing game with Tua under center.

LSU had enough success running the ball to punch the Bulldogs in the mouth in the first half of their match-up and keep UGA on their heels throughout the contest. LSU has the nation’s 59th ranked rushing offense, and yet they assaulted the Bulldog defense for 277 yards rushing for an average of 7.1 yards per carry. Alabama is a better rushing team (ranked 32nd in team rushing yards with 205.9 per game), and despite the Bulldogs’ general resilience against opposing ground games, that could wilt against a mighty Alabama ground-and-pound effort paired with the Tide’s electrifying passing game.

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 Auburn front, as they opened holes and dominated the trenches for much of the game. Alabama didn’t run wild by any stretch, as Auburn held Bama to 123 yards on 26 carries (or 4.7 yards per carry). But that 126 yards was plenty to keep the chains moving, to keep Auburn off balance, and to power a prolific passing attack that generated 377 yards. In a game between two gridiron big boys this Saturday, 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 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 slow-developing runs to the edge then the Georgia defense will swallow them up. Fortunately, Alabama is a much more north-south running team this season, and it uses its passing game when it wants to attack the edge. 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 may 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 edge 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 aren’t turnover machines (they have two interceptions between them, both credited to Crowder), which means there could be opportunities for gains in the slot and the flats where there will be dangerous mismatches that favor the Tide. The Tide offense will want to watch out for the likes of Reid and LeCounte 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, Locksley will need to be crafty. Some variations of the Tide’s 2019 attack using a quick-strike to Josh Jacobs (if he’s healthy) or Henry Ruggs/ Jerry Jeudy from the slot could wreak havoc on the usually well-prepared Bulldogs.

One final point...much has been made about Alabama’s ability to convert third-downs this season. They’ve been nothing short of phenomenal this year, converting third-downs at a rate of 53.44 percent, good for third in the country. Georgia, conversely, has an excellent third-down defense that allows a mere 31.7 percent of third-down tries to result in conversions (13th nationally). This match-up is of critical importance to both units, as an unencumbered Alabama offense running the field is simply something that can’t be stopped by any defense. Third-downs will be huge for Georgia, and if they have any hope of keeping pace with the Tide using their pedestrian offense, they’ll need to get Alabama off the field every chance they get. This will be a very telling stat at game’s end. 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 has been a finely-tuned thing of beauty throughout the season with Tagovailoa under center, but they’ll face their biggest test of the season this weekend in Atlanta. Georgia is just as good top to bottom as Mississippi State and LSU, defensively speaking, if not better. However, in this final test before the playoffs, it’s important to note that Alabama has bested both of those 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 motivated for revenge against the team that snatched away their lead and left them crestfallen after the last National Championship Game. All the Bulldog defenders have heard this week is how the Tide and Tagovailoa defeated them last January, how the Tide has the nation’s best offense, how the Tide’s victory over Georgia is a foregone conclusion, 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 Saturday night.

The Bulldogs have the players to hold Bama in check if the Tide starts slowly as they have in the last two games (according to Saban). 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 all SEC foes this season. All defenses have weaknesses, and the Tide has the tools to exploits Georgia’s short-comings. It will be a true test for Tagovailoa, Locksley, and the rest of the offense, but it’s far from an insurmountable obstacle.