Expectations are a funny thing. When misplaced, they can ruin relationships, tank productivity, and eviscerate the confidence and psyche of someone in most any aspect of life.
Alabama fans (myself included) have spent most of this season bemoaning poor performances against Mercer, Florida, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. Despite the Crimson Tide continuing to win games, in our eyes, they were falling short of expectations, and it was miserable.
But Thanksgiving weekend, facing off against the hated, annoying Auburn Tigers, something broke.
The War Eagle-Tigers spent the entire game blasting QB Bryce Young for sack after sack as the team and fans spent 59 minutes taunting Alabama players as the team floundered. And in the process, our expectations died in the middle of a cow pasture in West Georgia.
Suddenly, how things looked didn’t matter. There was no longer the aspect of “well, Alabama needs to do this better if they want to be a championship team down the road.”
We saw what Alabama was, with all of their (very real) flaws exposed, and we were forced to accept it. At that point, there was no longer any looking forward. The rest of this season became do-or-die, and nothing else mattered.
Well, Alabama chose not to die.
After pulling off the miraculous win over Auburn, the Tide entered into a contest with the Georgia Bulldogs as an underdog for the first time since 2015. The entire national media gave Alabama no chance to win this game.
In my previews leading up to the game, I mentioned a few areas that Alabama might be able to exploit to pull off a win, but I generally expected Georgia to pull it off.
For the first chunk of the game, it looked like we would all be right.
The Bulldogs remembered that speedy running back James Cooks gave Alabama’s defense some fits as a receiver out of the backfield in 2020, and Todd Monken opened the game trying to get Cook out in space in any way they could. Alabama’s defense held up and forced a punt, but the Tide offense couldn’t get anywhere either and punted it back.
This led to the Bulldogs marching down the field right up the throats of Alabama’s 2nd-ranked rushing defense with chunk plays of 8+ yards all the way down the field before Dallas Turner got a redzone sack to force a field goal. Another failed Alabama drive gave Georgia the ball back, and this time Stetson Bennett torched the Tide downfield, making a few huge passes before throwing a lob to 6’7” monster TE Darnell Washington for an impressive touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 10-0 lead.
For the entire first quarter, Georgia looked every bit the best team in the nation on both offense and defense. They were just overpowering Alabama on every play.
But power doesn’t matter when it can’t catch speed.
In one play, Alabama was back in it. And from that moment on, Alabama outscored the Bulldogs 34-14.
After forcing a quick three and out, Bryce Young took the field and put together arguably the best string of plays of his career. He lofted a phenomenal ball down the left sideline to John Metchie in a tight window, hit Jameson down the field again, and capped it off with a tremendous throw to the back corner of the endzone to Metchie again.
Another nice drive got Alabama a field goal, and a flurry of flags gave Georgia a full field of penalty yards and an easy touchdown tied the game back up.
With 2 minutes to go, Bryce Young was given the greenlight to go aggressive and try to take the lead to go into halftime. Young delivered on that trust from the coaches, too, driving right down the field, including a a huge pass to Metchie on 3rd down.
Disaster almost struck when Young scrambled for a first down. He juked a man and picked up 14 yards, but was hit from behind and fumbled. Against all odds, the diminutive Young reached out and corralled the ball one-handed as multiple defenders fell on top, and he managed to hang on to it.
It was a small thing, and something the announcers barely talked about, but I think that moment of scrappiness from our QB was one of the biggest moments in the game. Two plays later, he darted into the endzone to take a 7-point lead and the bonus of getting the ball back after the half.
Dampening the heroics, though, was watching star wide receiver John Metchie limp off the field after falling down while running a route. It didn’t initially look bad or weird, but non-contact injuries are rarely good, and Metchie was ruled out for the rest of the game.
So for the second straight game, Alabama had to gut-out a win without one of their two star receivers for the second half. And, gut it out they did. Bryce Young launched a 55-yard moonball to the endzone that hit Jameson Williams in between two defenders for a quickfire touchdown to open the half.
BRYCE YOUNG— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 4, 2021
W O Wpic.twitter.com/HdnkAG2ikm
With a 31-17 lead, Alabama now had an entire half in front of them to nurse a 2-score lead and try their best to prevent a comeback. However, it’s really, really difficult to kill the clock when your entire running back room is hurt. From that moment on, the vaunted Georgia defense finally stepped up and stuffed Alabama on three straight drives as the Tide did their best to hang on.
With everything on the line, the Alabama defense did the job. Safety DeMarcco Hellams picked off a pass in the redzone after a long, clock-killing 7 minute drive. Then the defense forced another 6 minute drive and got the turnover on downs on a risky 4th down safety blitz.
One drive later, Jordan Battle undercut Stetson Bennett’s attempt to hit James Cook down the field, and Battle raced all the way home for a pick 6 to put Alabama up three scores.
Now, to their credit, Georgia didn’t fold. They marched right back down the field after that pick-6, and uber-athlete TE Brock Bowers just put the team on his back. He made a monstrous 31 yard catch despite being perfectly double covered, and then a few plays later, broke about 5 tackles for a beastly 18 yard touchdown. Sometimes, the #1 team in the nation just has great players that make great plays.
After trading a couple of punts, Alabama took over with a 14 point lead and 7 minutes to go. In football time, 7 minutes is a loooong time for a lot of chaos to happen, and the Tide’s offense had been totally shut down since the opening drive of the half. They HAD to find a way to burn clock here, or the game was about to get really interesting again.
And burn it they did. They got into 3rd down quickly, but Young lasered a beautiful throw down the center post to Slade Bolden for a drive-saving conversion, and Trey Sanders broke through for the Tide’s first successful run play in ages for another first down that got the Tide very, very close to field goal range.
One more pass to freshman Ja’Corey Brooks, and Alabama went into a 4-play clock-kill and field goal offense.
Ultimately, they burned up over 5 minutes and extended to a three score lead to win the game. The defense did get to go out one more time to stuff the Georgia offense on a meaningless attempt for the Bulldogs.
-The offensive line for Alabama has had some really, really bad games lately. And with starting center Darrian Dalcourt out with an ankle injury, we expected the worst against the best defensive line in college football. Instead, backup C Seth McLaughlin was phenomenal, and the whole crew picked up stunts and blitzes all over the place like a whole bunch of veterans.
I honestly don’t know what the coaches did for these guys over the last week, but it worked. Was it as simple as a change at center? I’m not sure. But the offensive line turning things around is what won this game. Bryce Young wasn’t sacked a single time, and with all that time, he threw for an SEC Championship record 421 yards.
-Losing John Metchie really, really sucks, and his absence was felt as Alabama struggled to move the ball in the second half. If he’s going to be out for the playoffs, someone HAS to step up alongside Jameson Williams.
Slade Bolden made more downfield catches today, and I think that needs to be his role in the offense. Ja’Corey Brooks and Traeshon Holden both got a couple of catches in the second half, and one of those two guys needs to be the guy.
-Credit to Brian Robinson for playing hard and making some nice runs despite still obviously being slowed with injury. He only got 55 total yards, but he made a couple of short yardage conversions and got some critical pass block pickups. Trey Sanders mostly struggled to generate any push, but his speed off-tackle did convert one first down late in the game that helped the Tide seal things away.
-Bryce Young played the best game of his career. He hit throw after throw on all levels of the field and in tight windows. He made big plays in the face of blitzes. He decisively scrambled with UGA went to man defense.
I still think he has a good bit of development to do as a QB, but being able to connect on these deep shots has made a world of difference from some of the slumps we saw from him mid-season. He’ll likely win the Heisman trophy by default after this game.
-The defensive line was great again. They held the Bulldogs to 3.6 yards per rush, racked up 6 TFLs, and notched 3 sacks, The Georgia OL definitely had their wins, and they did their best to keep Will Anderson double-teamed as much as possible, but the Tide DL held their own.
Tim Smith in particular had a big role in this game, as the big nose tackle racked up five tackles, doing his best create havoc up the middle all game long.
-The real story of the defense today, though, was the safety play. The Tide’s safeties have taken their lumps this season, but they were nearly perfect today. Jordan Battle had a critical pressure and and pick six. DeMarcco Hellams led the teams with 9 tackles, got a pick, and broke up another pass. And while Brian Branch led the team with 2 pass breakups, he doesn’t show up on the stat sheet for how many times he trucked anyone trying to block him to allow his teammates to make tackles.
Since settling on Branch as the full-time starter at Star, the safety group has become a major strength for the Tide.
-Things were a little more interesting at corner for the Tide. Jalyn Armour-Davis was clearly missed out there, and hopefully his hip will be good to go for the playoffs. Kool-Aid McKinstry was great last week, but was called for a pass interference and gave up a huge long ball down the sideline (granted, George Pickens is a BIG receiver). And on the other side, Josh Jobe continues his trend of negative play. I know he’s bothered by turf toe, but he’s getting called for too many penalties and whiffed a bad tackle on Georgia’s first touchdown.
-As a bonus, James Burnip had his best punting game of his career. His first one was a 50 yard bomb that flipped the field early, and he pinned the Bulldogs on the 3 yard line on the next one. Overall, he averaged 44 yards per punt. If he can keep that up, then dare I say it? Alabama just might have a BOTH a competent punter and kicker at the same time.
Despite everything, Alabama has secured a berth in the playoffs yet again. This team is massively snake-bitten by injury on offense and have been plagued by inconsistency in the defensive backfield. They’re clearly not as dominant across the board as previous iterations (especially when compared to 2020’s Scorched Earth version that broke college football), but the Tide has possibly the best QB and the best coach in the nation. Those two things are a great equalizer, and gives Alabama an advantage over anyone in the country.
The injury the Metchie and a broken RB room, combined with an OL that may or may not actually be fixed, might doom Alabama in the playoffs. Or maybe it won’t matter as Bryce Young just outduels whoever we face. Maybe the defensive continues to play at a high level, but they’re always going to give up some big plays to a tight end or two.
Whatever happens from here, Alabama has already exceeded my expectations. They exceeded it once they finished off Auburn in overtime, and beating Georgia today was playing with house money. They can lose, and will still finish very, very positive in my books. But if they double down and keep winning... Man. Who would have thought?