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Hope For the Best: Georgia edition

In facing a team created in its own image, 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

Georgia Tech v Georgia
Can Elijah Holyfield and the Bulldog running game do enough to keep pace with Bama’s electric offense?
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

For all the spread offense fireworks, high-flying aerial antics, and electric Heisman personalities, this year’s 2018 SEC Championship race has arrived at an unsurprising pinnacle. The SEC Championship Game may have well been booked in the closing moments of last year’s National Championship Game, when Alabama sparked a second half comeback for the ages while a new hero was minted in then-freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Everyone saw this coming, as Alabama looked unbeatable for much of the season while Georgia returned to form despite a loss to LSU.

While both teams have produced shockingly high scoring totals throughout the season, the game again 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.

Both Alabama and Georgia can put on an air show offensively, with both teams featuring young but established quarterbacks dynamic in their respective skill sets. Truth be told, however, both teams would just as soon prefer to line-up in two-back sets and slug one another in the mouth, 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 SEC 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 has proven 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.

Almost a year after the fateful events of January 8, 2018, Saban’s own Process will once again be levied against him, as he must once again prove himself master to an apt pupil on the rise. In 14 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. 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 five 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 and passing attack. 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 conference hardware this weekend. 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 momentum-gaining run defense be able to stop the formidable Georgia running attack that averages over 260 yards per game? Can the Tide’s defense rattle the cage of the Bulldogs’ starting 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 and achieve balance, or will they once again force the Tide’s offensive fate onto the golden arm of Tua Tagovailoa? 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 27th nationally in rushing yards allowed (128.4 yards per game) and 50th in rush defense S&P+. But unlike in the last match-up between the teams, Alabama can still dominate the game with a limited ground assault thanks to its prolific passing attack and electric skill position talent. The Bulldogs have seen an ebb back from last year’s defense against the run, but they are still a quality defense, as one would expect from any team led by Saban’s former defensive coordinator. Though the Tua-led passing attack and all those receivers are the nitro jet fuel that powers Alabama’s O, the Tide will need to find a way to generate a little headway on the ground to fully open Locksley’s offense and give Tagovailoa a chance to use all the weapons in his arsenal.

It’s one thing to say the Tide needs to establish the run, but how will they do it? They won’t do it by stretching running plays to the perimeter…that much is known. The Bulldogs are excellent in lateral pursuit, as they are equipped through system and personnel to string out horizontal running plays. Will linebackers Monty Rice (6-1, 235 pounds) and Juwan Taylor (6-1, 218 pounds) are sideline-spanning running game wrecking balls, with lightning reflexes and the football IQ to read stretch run plays and attack them. Rice may not play due to a persistent injury, and even if he does see the field, he’s all but certain to be playing at less than 100 percent. 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. After all, this is a defense that had the discipline and lateral flow to stop Georgia Tech’s patented triple-option and hold the Yellow Jackets to a mere 128 yards on 46 attempts (or 2.8 yards per carry).

Against Georgia, the Tide would be better served running right at the Bulldog front. That’s what the Tide has done exceptionally well this year, with a renewed physicality asserted by LT Jonah Williams, LG Deonte Brown, and C Ross Pierschbacher on the left side and the bruising trio of Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris, and Damien Harris in the backfield. That brutal sledgehammer running game hasn’t been as prolific this year because it hasn’t had to be. The passing attack has been so electrifying that the usual brass-knuckle running tactics have been almost unnecessary in most contests.

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 Julian Rochester (6-5, 300 pounds), tackle Tyler Clark (6-4, 300 pounds), and future pro end Jonathan Ledbetter (6-4, 280 pounds). Those big men eat blocks and fight through contact, leaving the excellent linebacking corps of MLB Tae Crowder (6-3, 235 pounds), Sam Walter Grant (6-4, 245 pounds), Jack LB D’Andre Walker (6-3, 245 pounds), and Rice/ Taylor 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. The Bulldogs have a safety in J.R. Reed (6-1, 194 pounds) and nickel in Tyrique McGhee (5-10, 187 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 Locksley decides to stretch some space in the Bulldog front laterally.

The same holds true in the passing game. Tagovailoa is not going to fling the ball downfield with reckless abandon against Georgia, though there will be some well-conceived strikes into the UGA secondary to loosen coverages early and diagnose tendencies. In their last meeting, Tua showed the poise of an NFL passer in slicing up a marginally better Georgia secondary. That said, the Georgia defensive game plan was prepared for Jalen Hurts, who was struggling as a passer at the time. Tagovailoa’s injection into the game caught them off guard. This year, they’ll know what to expect, and they’ll know that the Bama attack this season will decidedly tilt towards the passing game.

Though Tua and the Tide receivers have thrived this season, even against rigid defenses like those wielded by Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU, that doesn’t mean that Georgia won’t be better prepared to meet the Tide’s strength this time around. The Bulldogs play a lot of Nickel coverages and have one of the nation’s elite pass defenses (they rank 13th in passing yards allowed at 175 per game, are third in pass defense S&P+, and have the nation’s 29th ranked team passing efficiency defense). Reed, McGhee, CB Tyson Campbell (6-2, 185 pounds), safety Richard LaCounte (5-11, 190 pounds), and corner Deandre Baker (5-11, 185 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.

The problem is that for whatever reason, the Georgia front seven has struggled mightily in generating pressure on opposing passing games. The unit only has 20 sacks collectively, which ranks 101st in the nation. Making matters worse, they aren’t even penetrating against the run, with only 52 tackles for loss throughout the season, good for 118th nationally. That is evidence of a defense that can’t get off blocks or push the pocket. As has been demonstrated with other defenses this season, when the Tide O line can give Tagovailoa time to work through his progressions and administer his pocket wizardry, bad things happen for opposing defenses. No matter how phenomenal the Georgia DBs may be, there isn’t a single unit in the country that can cover the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Irv Smith Jr., and Jacobs running free while Tagovailoa throws them open.

The Georgia pass defense thrives against passing offenses primarily because they have elite defensive backs who play in a variation of Saban-style 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.

Against Alabama’s array of skill talent, there may be more of a shift towards safety-high looks like Cover-2 to pad the liability of corners who can’t stick the Tide’s receiving speed. It also provides a measure of security from the inevitable mismatches underneath, where Locksley likes to use Waddle, Ruggs, Smith, and Jacobs in the slots or flats to create YAC-tastic explosive plays with their athletic ability. With safeties deep, they can keep such plays in front of them. Even though they won’t be able to prevent them, they can respond and mitigate them. Expect to see a steady amount of split safety play from Georgia, as it offers one of the most reliable ways for the Bulldogs to deal with the Tide’s receiving talent when Alabama goes three- or four-wides. Even still, the Bulldogs will have quite the task ahead of them when Tua drops to pass, as every team this season has discovered.

The stress caused for the Georgia defense by the Tide’s explosive passing game should also open the door for runs. The Tide’s skill talent is too great this year, so the half-measures the Bulldogs used last season against Alabama will get them torched. They can’t half commit to stopping the run by leaving safeties deep in the box to hedge their bets. They’ll have to go all-in to stop the pass with nickel personnel, which will leave a glaring weakness for Bama to exploit on the ground between the tackles. If Alabama is successful with the run and the Bulldogs pinch up, Tagovailoa will RPO them to death with passing pops. That maddening teeter-totter play-calling will throw a defense into chaos, which is exactly what Locksley wants to happen.

One of Tagovailoa’s strengths is that he uses the entire field. He can make all the throws required of him, and that’s important because it prevents the Georgia defense from sectioning the field and shirking their responsibilities. Against a passer like Tagovailoa and an offense like Alabama’s, the Bulldogs can’t sleep on a single receiving or running threat on a given play. That should come into play this weekend as the Tide sets up the chess match against the Bulldog D. Conventional passes to the sidelines will result in minimal gain. The Bulldogs defenders are so good at reading formation and tendencies that they will be breaking in the direction of the play at the snap. 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.

Third-downs will be of the utmost importance in the game. The Georgia offense is not a quick strike unit. They are cast in the mold of previous Alabama teams which use the running game as a bludgeon while burning clock and shortening the game against explosive offenses. It will be key that Alabama continues to harness a 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 is a recipe for disaster where the Tide is concerned. It is critical that the Tide continues its third-down dominance (Alabama is third nationally with a 53.44 percent conversion rate) by getting even modest gains on first-down to set up manageable conversions later. If they can do that, they will maintain drives until the dam breaks and explosive plays put touchdowns on the board. That’s the formula the Tide has used all year, and even though Georgia’s defense is better than any Alabama has played so far, hemming up Tua and his cohorts is a tall task indeed.

The Alabama defense versus the Georgia offense

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 Elijah Holyfield (5-11, 215 pounds) and D’Andre Swift (5-9, 215 pounds) in the backfield and a monstrous offensive line, a punishing ground game that averages around 6.3 yards per carry and piles up 260 yards per game is probably an offense’s best, most efficient weapon. That’s particularly salient when that same offense is led by a talented-but-still-developing sophomore quarterback.

Jake Fromm (6-2, 225 pounds) is a solid starter in the SEC despite his youth, as he is a 69 percent passer with 24 touchdowns to five interceptions in 2018. Fromm has seen the Alabama defense before. He fared well enough early on in last year’s title game, but as Bama’s closed the knot in the second half, he felt the cumulative pressure the Tide defense can impose. This year, Fromm may face an even tougher road, as Alabama’s pass rush is more dominant. While the secondary had taken a step back early, the unit Bama will put on the field Saturday is the definition of elite. As the season has drawn on and Alabama’s new defenders grew into their expanded roles, it’s become more apparent that the Tide is built to stop offenses like Georgia’s.

That is the beast that the signal caller in scarlet will face on Saturday night, and unless the Bulldog offense can find a way to do what no other could do with the ground game, then the hopes and dreams of the Bulldog Nation could fall upon the shoulders of a passing attack that has underperformed at times 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 Patrick Surtain II, Shyheim Carter, or Saivion Smith.

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 career on the conference’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. It’s important to note that Alabama’s pass rush should manhandle the Georgia line en route to the quarterback, as the Bulldog offense line is a patchwork of unseasoned players who have size but have not yet faced the type of ferocity they’ll see from Alabama this weekend.

That likely won’t happen, however. Holyfield and Swift are excellent backs, but they aren’t Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, at least not yet. Those two NFL-caliber talents couldn’t do enough behind a better offensive line to beat Alabama, which diminishes the prospects of the Bulldogs getting it done this season. Let’s not forget the Georgia O line is battered and beaten at this point in the year. Multiple early-season starters won’t answer the bell for the Bulldogs, and as a result the O line Saturday will feature a single upperclassman, three sophomores, and one true freshman.

Against the average opponent defense, that may be 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, 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. They’ll get a few gashing runs in, as Alabama has given up a couple of those per game routinely this year. But unless the Bulldogs have adopted the triple-option in whirlwind fashion over the last week, they won’t get much more movement in the running game than what Alabama is willing to offer. 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.

Fromm is no longer a freshman and starting him at quarterback is not as perilous a proposition as it was the last time UGA and Bama met. However, it will still be difficult for the quarterback to stare down the Alabama pass rush and find ways to get the ball through the dragnet of the Alabama secondary. 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 led by Quinnen Williams that will absolutely victimize the Bulldog offensive line. Against the Tide’s greatest foes this year (LSU, Auburn, and Mississippi State), observers saw what a fully-functioning Tide Defensive Death Star can do. Against an offense that is largely one-dimensional and a limited Bulldog passing game ranked 72nd 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. In the place-kicking game, the Bulldogs are extremely solid with sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship handling place-kicking duties. Blankenship is 19-of-22 (90 percent) on field goals this season with a long of 53 yards. That is kicking excellence plain and simple, and despite Joseph Bulovas’ improving performance, the Bulldogs have a decided advantage there.

Each team has found a decent punter to replace a strong performer from the previous season. Mike Bernier from Alabama has done an amazing job since earning the gig, and while he’s no J.K. Scott, he has held down his end of the punting proposition. The Bulldogs have a freshman punter in Jake Camarda, who averages just over 42 yards per punt with a long of 63 this season.

The return game for Georgia has potential, but much like Alabama’s own, it has been less than electrifying. Mecole Hardman (5-11, 183 pounds), Brian Herrien (6-0, 210 pounds), and Godwin have pieced together the two return units, and Hardman has a punt return for a touchdown.

In Georgia, Alabama will in many ways face a mirror image of itself (minus potentially Heisman winning quarterback play and a bevy of elite receivers), 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-but-imperfect teams from many 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. They faced each other across the field of battle for a national title last year, with the old master pulling a stunning gambit that allowed him to seize his fifth title from the jaws of seeming defeat.

Now, Saban will continue to build upon that legacy while Smart takes the next step 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 pedestrian Georgia passing game be able to muster enough of an air assault 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? Will Alabama punch it’s dance card to the playoffs yet again en route to a historical championship run? Or will the Bulldogs, the taste of blood still in their mouths from a shocking defeat to start 2018, be better prepared and motivated for this cage match with the Once and Future King of college football?

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