Alabama and Georgia were clearly the two premier teams in the SEC this year. This matchup was anticipated from the start, and will come to fruition with high interest on Saturday. Some are even calling it a defining moment for the Kirby Smart era at Georgia.
In any case, when Alabama has the football, the strength of both of these teams will be tested. That’s what Nick Saban’s squad is hoping for, anyway.
There really is nothing to knock about Georgia’s performance this year. They haven’t been tested in any game, and they have played with lethal efficiency on both sides of the football. If they still have a question to answer on the way to a national title that they are favored to win it is this: Has Kirby Smart finally built a defense that can stop today’s elite passing games? The 2016 Alabama defense had five players in the secondary who currently start for NFL teams and have amassed several Pro Bowls, along with first rounders Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Da’Ron Payne. We all remember what happened when they ran into Deshaun Watson.
The funny thing is, unless Alabama can provide that kind of test, it may never come this season. The best passing team Georgia has faced from a raw stats perspective is Florida, which ranks #39 in that area and has done considerable stat padding against tomato cans. For whatever reason, the 2021 crop of quarterbacks just leaves a bit to be desired, and that includes the group of passers that Georgia will likely see in the playoffs. Bryce Young has shown flashes of greatness, most notably on the game winning touchdown drive in Auburn and the previous week’s transcendent, record breaking performance against Arkansas, but the passing game has struggled at times.
Quite simply, Alabama will not be winning the SEC Championship Game if that happens.
Several things are going to have to go right for the Tide to prevail in this one. For starters, the offensive line is going to have to find a way to play cohesively for one 60 minute game. The Auburn game was a disaster in this regard, but play did improve in the second half when Chris Owens replaced Dameion George and Seth McLaughlin took over at center for a banged up Darrian Dalcourt. Running the football is going to be incredibly difficult against Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and crew up front, but there has to be some semblance of balance lest Young be a sitting duck.
There may well be yards to be gained against Georgia corners Kelee Ringo and Derion Kendrick, but we will only find out if Young is able to stay upright. Georgia’s pass rush is explosive and shares the wealth. They did lose leading sack artist Adam Anderson to rape charges, which is obviously terrible, but the pass rush hasn’t suffered. Nolan Smith, Channing Tindall, Robert Beal and Travon Walker all have the ability to get to the quarterback with regularity. Should the line hold up, and Bryce Young get the ball out on time, Jameson Williams and John Metchie have the ability to make some hay.
This is easier said than done, of course.
With a dozen games in the books for both sides, we can be somewhat assured of what Georgia will bring on defense. There hasn’t been even a hint of inconsistency this season. Coordinator Dan Lanning has followed the trend toward more simplified zone looks, and the Bulldogs have executed it with aplomb. Most of the time, their ferocious front seven has been able to get the opposing passer seeing ghosts early in the contest, effectively ending the game. Young is going to have to maintain his composure in the face of plenty of adversity on Saturday. He showed moxie and resilience against Auburn, but Auburn is no Georgia and ten points in regulation aren’t going to get it done this weekend.
What we don’t know is which Alabama team shows up. Inconsistency should probably be expected with so many new faces on offense, but it’s been a bit exaggerated. If we get the best of the Alabama offense this year, more specifically the best of the Alabama passing attack, the Tide will have a great chance to take home another SEC title and playoff berth. If we see blown blocking assignments, dropped passes and Young holding the ball too long, it will be a long afternoon.
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will need to have his best game as well. Ideally, there will be some short passes early to get Young into a rhythm. Alabama has started slow on offense this season, but grabbing a lead and making Georgia’s offense play from behind should be priority one. Williams is going to have to get loose a time or two, and the tight ends are going to have to be involved in the seams. Against zone coverage, the middle of the field is where hay is made. There will be no margin for error, so the drops that have plagued the team simply cannot happen.
As Saban says, it isn’t who you play but how you play against them. That will be the theme on Saturday. Here’s hoping the good guys are up for the challenge.