Several years ago when Chip Kelly was putting up video game numbers at Oregon, fans across the country pined for a matchup that would never come between his juggernaut fastball offense and Nick Saban’s boa constrictor defense. While the styles aren’t identical, that is the kind of matchup that we are looking at on Saturday. In a wild twist, it is Alabama with the best offense in the land, and they will be facing a Georgia team that, if you squint a little, will remind of the 2011 Alabama squad: a suffocating defense loaded with future NFL talent paired with a conservative, ball control offense that plays to its better half.
While it’s a shade early to use the opponent adjusted metrics, which without non-conference matchups will be dubious this year anyway, the raw stats tell the tale of this heavyweight bout that will undoubtedly be the single most reviewed matchup by scouts preparing for April’s NFL Draft. On offense, Alabama has the highest rated passer in the country in Mac Jones, sporting a 220 number that would crush the record set last year by Heisman winner Joe Burrow. Alabama has averaged a ridiculous 8.66 yards per play, more than a yard better than the second best Power 5 offense, and 12.69 yards per pass. On the other side, Georgia leads the nation in allowing a paltry 3.7 yards per play, including 5.17 yards per pass.
Needless to say, something has to give.
As usual, this one will largely be won and lost in the trenches. Alabama’s offensive line got a huge boost when Alex Leatherwood decided to return, and he has been the expected anchor at left tackle on a line that returned four of five starters from a unit that was one of the best in the country in 2019. They will be dealing with a talented, veteran DL. The man in the middle for the Dawgs is 6’5”, 330 lb. Jordan Davis. Davis is huge and enormously strong, nearly guaranteed to make some disruptive plays along the way. The only issue with him in the past has been conditioning, and five-star freshman Jalen Carter has rotated in here. At the defensive end spot, Georgia is led by seniors Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt but, like Kirby Smart mentor Nick Saban, they like to rotate in waves. This group executes their two-gap responsibilities very well.
Georgia is absolutely loaded at linebacker. The starting Jack LB is RS So. Azeez Onjulari, who has already contributed three sacks in as many games after tallying 5.5 last season. Against Tennessee, the ILBs were primarily Quay Walker and Nakobe Dean, both high profile recruiting battles won by Georgia over Alabama. Others will rotate as well, but this is a deep and athletic group.
Georgia’s secondary is similarly loaded with experience. Richard LeCounte returned for his senior season to lead the unit from his safety spot. Georgia returned three CBs with starting experience in seniors Eric Stokes Jr. and D.J. Daniel, and former five-star Jr. Tyson Campbell. This group has put up a strong performance thus far, but I remain a bit skeptical that they will be able to keep up with Alabama’s wideouts. The last great passing team that faced them was the 2019 LSU offense, and Joe Burrow had little trouble in putting up 349 yards on 38 attempts and four touchdowns. Nobody yet has managed to cover DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and John Metchie, but this will be the greatest test they will face all season.
Saban mentioned on Monday that having so many guys with starting experience allows Georgia DC Dan Lanning to get exotic with his scheme, and that is a big advantage. Georgia runs plenty of games up front and has shown no fear in blitzing defensive backs. It is doubtful that their staff will want to bet the outcome of the game on their ability to hold up on the back end, so expect everything imaginable in effort to get pressure on Mac Jones.
Alabama will, of course, commit to balance on offense as usual. If there is an offensive line unit in the country that can run the ball on this Georgia front, it resides in Tuscaloosa and blocks for arguably the best running back in the country in Najee Harris. If Alabama is able to win this battle and force Georgia to commit extra resources to the run, it will be difficult to imagine a path to victory for a Georgia team lacking the offensive firepower to keep up with the points that Alabama’s will put up through the air. If, however, Georgia is able to stifle the run game while keeping safeties back, and get pressure on Jones with only four rushers, then they can turn the game into a lower scoring slugfest which will favor their side.
We have seen enough of Alabama’s receiving corps that it’s tough to imagine a game where they don’t make a bunch of explosive plays. In this era of offensive football where elite passing games seem to routinely light up even the best defenses, you have to like Alabama’s chances to put some points on the board. Still, this is the nation’s best defense and they will have to execute flawlessly to get it done.