Monday, January 8
College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T
Alabama (12-1) vs. Georgia (13-1)
8 p.m. ESPN
Alabama -3.5 vs. Georgia
Against the Spread:
What You Should Know
This matchup pits Alabama HC Nick Saban against former top lieutenant Georgia HC Kirby Smart. Smart coached under Saban at LSU, with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, and again at Alabama. Between 2004-2015, Smart was on Saban's staff every year save one.
Smart was Saban’s best recruiter in Tuscaloosa, and that skill emphatically carried over into his new job. In a mere two years, Smart built a knock-off Alabama in Athens. That may sound pejorative, but it’s about as high a compliment as a neophyte head coach could be paid.
Just how similar are these programs in makeup and philosophy? Consider that Smart had a hand in recruiting nearly every Tide player who’s been on campus for over a year, while Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama’s DC who held the same job at Georgia between 2014-2015, played a part in recruiting a majority of Bulldog contributors who’ve been on campus for over a year. Smart’s DC, Mel Tucker, used to be Saban’s DB coach.
Heck, this is downright inSECtuous: Pruitt and Georgia LB coach Kevin Sherrer will square off against each other on Monday. On Tuesday, Pruitt will be Tennessee’s head coach, and Sherrer will be his defensive coordinator.
Much has been made this week of Saban’s 11-0 record (9-2 ATS) against his former assistants (he’s faced five). Most recently, in the 2017 opener, Saban and his Tide manhandled Jimbo Fisher’s FSU Seminoles 24-7. Saban has similarly beaten former assistants Jim McElwain (0-1 at Colorado State, 0-2 at Florida), Derek Dooley (three ugly blowouts at Tennessee), Will Muschamp (0-2 when he was Florida’s HC) and Michigan State HC Mark Dantonio (two blowouts) by an average of 28.7 points per game (427-111 combined scoring margin).
Alabama covered those games by an average of 11.7 ppg. But keep in mind that Alabama was favored by an average of 17 points per game. They were expected to be lopsided games, and to the Tide’s credit, they answered the bell with blowouts that usually exceeded the Vegas line.
Smart’s current Georgia roster is far better equipped to give Saban trouble. That’s acknowledged on the Vegas spread. While we’d hate for you to read too much into the 11-0 number, we also must recognize that the perfect record is no fluke: It’s nearly impossible to out-Bama Alabama, and that’s what most of Saban’s former assistants have tried to do (always with inferior talent).
The Tide can be beat, though they’ve almost exclusively lost to teams that play in diametrically opposed ways during the Saban era. (Much more on that below).
Alabama and Georgia have circled each other since Smart defected to Athens, but they haven’t actually played. The last time these schools met, in 2015, Smart was Alabama’s DC and (current Alabama DC) Jeremy Pruitt was Georgia’s DC. The Tide, ranked No. 13 at the time, beat then-No. 8 Georgia 38-10. The schools last met in Atlanta for the 2012 SEC title game, a classic in which Alabama stopped a final Georgia drive to prevail 32-28.
Line, Location, Lowdown
Not only is this the first time in the Playoff Era that two teams from the same conference have met in the national title game, it’s the first time that two teams from the same conference have qualified for the Playoff, period.
Alabama opened as 5.5-point favorites at 5Dimes for early-bird bettors. After the line had been shaped, Alabama opened to the public as 4.5-point favorites. Since then, the line has vacillated between 4-4.5. The over/under opened between 47-48 and had dropped to 44-45 when this column was published on Friday night.
Up until Friday, 60-percent or more of betting tickets were being purchased on Alabama. So why has the line fallen slightly? Per SportsInsight’s PJ Walsh: “It appears the early bets from sharp bettors took Georgia and the under. Our Bet Signals data triggered Steam Moves on Georgia (+4) and the under (45), which caused both lines to move down to the current numbers (+3.5 and 44).”
Barring an incredible turn of events, this game will mark the 111th time that Alabama has been favored in its previous 112 games. The only time they weren’t? The Tide closed as consensus one-point underdogs at Georgia on Oct. 3, 2015, the last time these schools met. As mentioned above, Alabama annihilated the Bulldogs 38-10.
In the offseason, the Westgate sportsbook opened Georgia at 20-1 to win the national title. Many books will be rooting heavily for Alabama on Monday, because they previously sold a bevy of Georgia futures tickets at long odds. The Tide, which opened as a 5-2 favorite to hoist the trophy, have been among the title favorites all season, even after their loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Monday’s game will be played in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bulldogs are the seventh team to play in the national title game in their home state since the BCS era began in the late-1990s. The previous six went 3-3.
Georgia beat Auburn 28-7 for the SEC championship at the site last month. The Bulldogs’ campus in Athens is 72 miles away, while Tuscaloosa is roughly 200 miles away.
Alabama enters as S&P+’s No. 1 overall team, with Georgia right behind at No. 3 (Ohio State is wedged between the two). Sagarin’s and FPI’s top-three is identical. The Sagarin model lists Alabama as 2.35-point favorites (with a total of 40.45), S&P+ lists Alabama as 2.3-point favorites (51.4), while ESPN’s FPI installed the Tide as 3.5-point favorites. Average the three, and you have Alabama -2.7.
We normally credit bowl teams playing closer to home with a partial home field advantage on the spread (around 1.5 points). Georgia is obviously the state’s flagship school, and Atlanta is its largest city. Per the Bulldogs’ alumni association, more than 90,000 UGA alums live in the Atlanta area. Even so, let’s knock UGA’s homefield on the spread to a single point because of Alabama’s proximity and the expected 50-50(ish) fanbase representation inside the stadium.
That leaves us with a Rotoworld Adjusted Spread of between Alabama -1.5 and -2. Even if you want to credit Alabama with a point on the line for championship experience (sixth title game in nine seasons; UGA hasn’t won the title in 37 years), and give them another point for playing a good portion of the season with key defensive injuries (many injured defenders have since returned), you’re still looking at a line of around Alabama -3.5—and that would be from an extremely favorable outlook on the Tide.
Last week, we mentioned that we were thrilled to be buying Alabama on a spread discount (-3) against Clemson. There is no such discount this time around. If you want to play the Tide on Monday night, you must pay the typical Alabama spread tax for doing so.
When Alabama has the ball
The Crimson Tide offense is similar to UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. It’s big, physical and athletic, but what separates it from other teams sharing those descriptors is its patience and situational intelligence. In any given fight, it’s extremely likely that Miocic is going to knock out his opponent. He rarely gets those KOs by brawling. That’s too dangerous. Too many things can go wrong.
Instead, Miocic plays strong defense while finding your weakness(es). He anticipates the openings you’ll leave him, and when a window opens, he’ll put you on your back before you see the punch coming. Miocic’s knockouts are often more a breathtaking display of technical mastery than a sheer outburst of violence.
Alabama’s offense finished No. 22 S&P+ (while ranking No. 13 with 41.1 ppg scored). It pairs one of the nation’s best offensive lines (No. 6 S&P+ adjusted line yards on runs)—led by T Jonah Williams and C Bradley Bozeman—with one of its best collections of running backs. Alabama is extremely careful with the ball. The Tide rank No. 2 in the nation with nine turnovers (down from 17 and 19 the past two years).
Tide RBs Damien Harris (983 yards and 11 touchdowns on 7.6 YPC) and Bo Scarbrough (573 yards and eight scores on 4.8 YPC) are both prime NFL prospects. If needed, the Tide can go four-deep. Sophomore Joshua Jacobs and true freshman five-star Najee Harris are both future stars. We may not see much of either on Monday night.
Tide QB Jalen Hurts remains underappreciated because he’s not a strong pocket passer. He’s one of the sport’s best running quarterbacks (928 yards and eight touchdowns on 7.4 YPC average with sack yardage taken out), though, and he doesn’t make mistakes when throwing. And boy is that a valuable combination in an offense like this. Alabama only plays to Hurts’ strengths, categorically refusing to inflate his import by asking him to do something he can’t.
Last week against Clemson, we got a vintage Hurts performance and box score. He went 16-of-24 for 120 yards and a 2/0 TD/INT rate with 40 yards rushing. On the year, he’s thrown for only 2,060 yards, but he boasts a stellar 17/1 TD/INT ratio on 61.4% completions and 7.2 YPA.
When Hurts is passing, he’s looking for star WR Calvin Ridley (59-935-4), who may be the first receiver off the board in April. Ridley has been targeted 90 times. No other Alabama pass-catcher has even 28 targets. Hurts may have a noodle for an arm, but he’s tremendous with the run-pass options (RPO) Alabama’s offense has become centered around.
Since Hurts doesn’t make mistakes, and since your defense can’t possibly be everywhere at once, he simply locates the mismatch and funnels the ball that way. It usually isn’t sexy, but boy is it effective in conjunction with the running game. Hurts and Ridley will punish you deep if you cheat up or bite on play action. The Tide likes to fake a traditional handoff (or a jet sweep) and send Ridley on a deep post. He often finds himself in one-on-one coverage. Alabama ranks No. 14 S&P+ in passing explosion.
Last time out, Georgia’s defense surrendered 531 yards and 48 points to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Pay those stats no mind: Oklahoma has one of the great offenses that we’ve even seen (easily the No. 1 S&P+ offense this year), and Georgia had to engage in a firefight to beat it, going score-for-score while trying to pick up stops and turnovers when available.
Heading into that game, Georgia ranked No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 points per game) and No. 2 in passing defense (158.3 passing yards per game). Georgia fell from S&P+’s No. 8 defense to No. 11 after the performance. Either way, this unit is top-notch.
Georgia’s 3-4 defense is built around its all-star LB unit. Roquan Smith, the Dick Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker, was named the defensive player of the game against Oklahoma. He’s one of the best players in college football, regardless of position.
Difference-makers Lorenzo Carter, D’Andre Walker, Natrez Patrick and Davin Bellamy surround Smith on the second level. It’s an athletic, physical crew that delivers crushing hits sideline-to-sideline.
The front is mostly tasked with occupying blockers and knocking heads, and it succeeds on both fronts. DE Trenton Thompson, DE Jonathan Ledbetter and NT John Atkins average 292.2 pounds. Georgia and Alabama both boast top-three front sevens nationally.
The Bulldogs’ secondary doesn’t get much ink, but it’s extremely reliable. That crew rarely gets beat deep. Second-Team All-SEC CB Deandre Baker, a wiry athlete and a sticky cover man, will line up across from Ridley. Georgia is superb against both the run (No. 9 S&P+) and pass (No. 3 S&P+).
That defense weathered a veritable storm against Oklahoma’s transcendent offense. Against Alabama, Georgia can return to what it does best: Going strength-on-strength in a phone booth. The Bulldogs defended Baker Mayfield more effectively than they were given credit for, and earlier this season, Georgia bottled up dual-threat quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush, Nick Fitzgerald and Jarrett Stidham.
Needless to say, this isn’t a great matchup for Hurts. He isn’t likely to accrue much in the ways of stats. This game will be a success for him if he posts a “0” in interceptions and fumbles lost. Alabama could sure use an intermediate stud like former TE OJ Howard in a matchup like this.
Alabama’s running backs will have to shoulder a majority of the load, with Hurts stealing first downs here and there by tucking and running. Harris and Scarbrough are nearly impossible to take away completely, and we wonder if they might have a bit more success than expected against a Georgia front that just went 15 rounds against Oklahoma.
If Georgia needs to devote additional resources to slowing Alabama’s ground game, or if its fatigued safeties start taking false steps in RPO situations, Hurts can and will find Ridley for an explosive play (or two or three). If things start trending in that direction, Georgia is cooked. But if the Bulldogs can control the line of scrimmage, they could slow Harris and Scarbrough while freeing the secondary to play a bit deeper in an attempt to take away Ridley's favorite trick.
Outside of the offensive line, the Tide offense is extremely reliant on a mere three players: Hurts, Harris and Ridley. Auburn proved that you could shut down this crew by controlling the line of scrimmage. In Alabama's 26-14 loss in the Iron Bowl, Harris and Scarbrough combined for a mere 12 carries and Ridley's long reception was only 26 yards (3-38-0 receiving line).
That's the blueprint for Georgia: Dominate the battle up front, stone Harris and Scarbrough at the line, and refuse to let Ridley break free deep. Do all that, and Hurts will be cut off from his allies, forced to win the game with his legs and secondary receivers. When Alabama's offense devolves into that, it becomes aimless, and ultimately toothless.
When Georgia has the ball
This is a ground-heavy attack that pairs a dominant RB duo with a passing attack that is more dangerous than it appears. Last week, we mentioned that the Bulldogs are better on offense than outwardly perceived. After what the Bulldogs did to Oklahoma, perception may have finally caught up to reality.
Georgia runs the ball on 69-percent of its offensive snaps. Despite the heavy usage, the ground game remains efficient (No. 20 and No. 9 S&P+ rushing success rate and opportunity rate, respectively) and explosive (No. 4 S&P+ IsoPPP). The offensive line is nasty (No. 12 S&P+ adjusted line yards). That unit is built around All-American LT Isaiah Wynn, a tackle in a guard's body (6'2/302). Wynn, a mauling run blocker with the quick feet and athleticism to handle collegiate edge rushers, has a huge assignment on Monday. Not only will he usually be responsible for powerful DL Da'Shawn Hand off the line, but Wynn also must deal with speedy Tide OLB Rashaan Evans off the edge.
S&P+ ranks UGA’s ground game No. 7. RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel destroyed Oklahoma, running for a combined 326 yards. Chubb finished with 145 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries (10.4 YPC) and Michel had 181 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries (16.5 YPC). Chubb and Michel rank Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on Georgia’s all-time career rushing list behind the legendary Herschel Walker. Each could be starting in the NFL next fall.
Chubb and Michel fit the thunder-and-lightning cliché that most dynamic running back duos are tagged with. But this isn’t a Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn situation. The 5-foot-10, 225-pound Chubb (1,320 yards and 15 TDs on 6.4 YPC average) is a hammer back, but he’s more athletic and well-rounded than your typical bruiser.
Similarly, Michel (5’11/215) is quick-twitch athlete who’s harder to wrestle down than your typical speed back. Michel (1,149 yards and 16 touchdowns on 8.0 YPC) accelerates like a Ferrari and darts like a squirrel. He manages to stay near top-speed when changing direction or turning the corner. Michel was closer to a traditional change-of-pace back earlier in his career, but he’s clearly spent a ton of time in the weight room. Arm tackles no longer suffice, and he’ll crack blitzing linebackers in pass-pro.
Heading into last week’s game, Oklahoma DC Mike Stoops compared the two to former Sooner dynamic duo Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. We’ve seen Chubb comped to players like LeGarrette Blount (6’/241 coming out of Oregon), Todd Gurley and Frank Gore. We’d like to submit Marshawn Lynch as our preferred Chubb reference. Our favorite Michel comp is Kareem Hunt (that flatters Michel a bit, but not by much). As if those two weren’t enough, the Bulldogs boast a stud third-string RB in D’Andre Swift (603 yards, three touchdowns on 7.7 YPC).
Last year, it was Alabama who started a true freshman quarterback in the title game. This year, it’s Georgia. Interestingly, Jake Fromm will tie Jalen Hurts’ FBS record of 13 wins by a true freshman quarterback if Georgia wins on Monday. Fromm is coming off an exceptional showing against Oklahoma (20-of-29 passes for 210 yards and a 2/0 TD/INT rate).
On the year, Fromm is completing 63.7% of his passes for 8.3 YPA and a 23/5 TD/INT rate. This season, in this offense, Fromm is used as a game manager. Even as a true freshman, he’s probably college football’s best caretaker. Defenses simply must slow down Chubb and Michel to have any shot at beating Georgia, and Fromm consistently burns opponents for cheating up.
He directs the S&P+ No. 5 passing game, a ranking that is inflated a bit due to the system’s weight on per-play production (for reference: Alabama’s passing attack ranks No. 3 S&P+). Both schools use the passing game as a supporting actor, and they shine as such. Georgia’s aerial attack is both explosive (No. 25 S&P+) and efficient (No. 20 S&P+).
Fromm leans on WRs Javon Wims (44-704-7) and Terry Godwin (35-615-6), both of whom can beat defenses deep, as can third-banana Mecole Hardman, more famous for his returning exploits. It’s a decent, but not great, position group.
Outside of that, Georgia is thin on pass-catchers. We don’t want to call TE Isaac Nauta a recruiting bust just yet, but he hasn’t lived up to his five-star pedigree. Chubb and Michel are rarely used as receivers; UGA’s preferred receiving back on that front is Swift, who’s extremely reliable in the screen game and as an outlet (75.0% catch rate).
Due to its dynamic running game and its efficient passing game, Georgia is stellar in the red zone. They've scored on an incredible 51-of-53 trips this season.
Georgia’s offense matched up extremely well with Oklahoma’s undersized front seven in the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs rolled up 527 yards in the 54-48, double-overtime victory. When considering those numbers, it’s crucial to keep in mind that Oklahoma ranks No. 101 in S&P+ defense and No. 57 in S&P+ rushing defense.
Oklahoma was not built to defend a team like Georgia. Alabama was built by the Anakin Skywalker to Kirby Smart’s Luke.
Alabama boasts S&P+’s No. 1 overall defense and S&P+’s No. 1 rushing defense. It’s also No. 1 in defending explosive running plays and No. 2 in S&P+ rushing success rate. If you could build a defense from scratch to defend Chubb and Michel, you’d want it to look like the Crimson Tide’s. No team has rushed for even 175 yards against Alabama this year, and no back has averaged even 3.6 yards per carry.
Alabama’s defense weathered a series of injuries during the fall. Its healthier now, but still missing a few key pieces. LBs Christian Miller, Mack Wilson and Terrell Lewis and DE LaBryan Ray are all back and healthy, but LBs Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses remain out. Most unfortunately, LB Anfernee Jennings suffered a sprained knee against Clemson and will also miss Monday’s game. Luckily, Alabama’s outstanding depth at linebacker got plenty of experience during the regular season.
Overall, Alabama ranks No. 1 in the FBS with 12.0 points per game allowed. Last Monday, Alabama held Clemson to a mere 124 passing yards and 64 rushing yards. Alabama picked off Tigers QB Kelly Bryant twice, with recently mended LB Mack Wilson returning one of those 18 yards to the house.
In the most simplistic possible terms, casual fans should think of Alabama’s defense as a better version of Georgia’s. They’re built similarly. The Tide’s 3-4 defense begins with a rotating quintet of linemen who average around 6-foot-4, 300 pounds apiece (Hand, Raekwon Davis, Da'Ron Payne, Isaiah Buggs and Quinnen Williams). Payne’s name was forever etched into Alabama lore last week when he was named the defensive MVP against Clemson. In one of the stranger sequences you’ll ever see, the big boy had an interception on defense and a touchdown reception on offense as part of a goal line sub-package during a five-minute stretch in the third quarter. An NFL executive told NFL.com recently that Payne will be a better NFL player than former Alabama star DL A'Shawn Robinson.
That group is supported by a diverse, athletic group of run-stopping ILBs and athletic edge-rushers. But just like Alabama's offense misses a diverse talent like OJ Howard, the defense misses edge-rushing savants Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. The 2017 Tide aren't quite as disruptive up front, and the defense as a whole isn't quite as good as it was last year. But that's a bit nit-picky: It's still the nation's best.
Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick, who won the Chuck Bednarik (defensive player of the year) and Jim Thorpe (best defensive back) awards, appeared healthy against Clemson after suffering through a hamstring injury in November. However, he suffered a kidney injury against the Tigers and was checked out at a hospital on Tuesday. Fitzpatrick told reporters that he's fine, though that's a situation to monitor.
On the field, Fitzpatrick moves around the formation and consistently foils opposing offense's best-laid plans. One-hundred percent or not, Fromm and company better know where he is at all times. Fitzpatrick, Tony Brown, Ronnie Harrison, Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace form a strong secondary (S Hootie Jones remains out with a knee injury). Over the past six games, Alabama has allowed only one touchdown pass. On the year, the Tide have allowed a 7/17 TD/INT ratio. They lead the country in pass efficiency defense.
A game-changing talent, Fitzpatrick ranks No. 2 on the Tide’s career interception return yards list. He’s been a key part of the defense dating back to the beginning of the 2015 season. Since then, Alabama has forced one turnover or more in 41 of its 43 games.
Since the current dynasty began at Alabama, Saban’s defenses have had a very specific bugaboo. Let’s return to our Stipe Miocic metaphor. Miocic has only lost twice since he began fighting in early 2010—a decision loss to the iron-chinned Junior Dos Santos, whom he could not fell, and a knockout loss to seven-foot Dutchman Steven Struve. Because of his length, Struve is one of the UFC’s most difficult matchups. He’s a nightmare to defend, even for the most technically skilled and patient fighters. A specific kind of offense with a specific kind of quarterback has emerged as Alabama's Struve under Saban.
Here’s a list of the teams and signal-callers Saban and Alabama have lost to since 2011:
- 2011: Lost 9-6 to LSU (QB Jarrett Lee, pro-style offense)
- 2012: Lost 29-24 to Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel, spread offense)
- 2013: Lost 34-28 to Auburn (Nick Marshall, spread)
- 2013: Lost 45-31 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl (Trevor Knight, spread)
- 2014: Lost 23-17 to Ole Miss (Bo Wallace, spread)
- 2014: Lost 42-35 to Ohio State in Round 1 of the CFB Playoffs (Cardale Jones, spread)
- 2015: Lost 43-37 to Ole Miss (Chad Kelly, spread)
- 2016: Lost 35-31 to Clemson in the national title (Deshaun Watson, spread)
- 2017: Lost 26-14 to Auburn (Jarrett Stidham, spread)
From 2012 to today, Saban has only lost to spread teams, many of whom were directed by experienced dual-threat quarterbacks who had one or more surefire future NFL receivers on the perimeter. Those teams were generally offensive-leaning in nature, and they forced Alabama out of its comfort zone. Check out those final scores one more time: Those are not final scores we typically associate with Alabama football.
Georgia’s offense fits none of the traditional criteria to solve Alabama’s defense. A pocket-passing true freshman quarterback directs the Bulldogs’ pro-style offense, and his receiving corps is not only thin, but it’s lacking in star power. As mentioned before, nobody has been able to out-Bama Alabama since LSU did so in the ugly, low-scoring 2011 game (mostly because of Alabama’s offensive struggles that day).
Alabama dominates traditional two-back, downhill-running offenses. And that’s what Georgia has. That’s what Georgia is. How do you beat a superior army? Easy: You refuse to face off with it in an open battlefield. Coax the bigger, superior force into the forest, or into a valley, and hit it from all angles. Davids beats Goliaths in our society all the time. But never, ever in a fistfight.
Alabama held Clemson to 261 total yards last week. QB Kelly Bryant’s struggles through the air meant that you could shut down Clemson’s entire offense by taking away its rushing attack. The Tide did so.
Even though Fromm is inexperienced and pocket-restricted, the assignment for Bama’s defense will be tougher this time around. Not only is Georgia’s offense multi-faceted, and not only will it find itself in much better positions due to its special teams units (Clemson’s special teams are poor), but the Bulldogs’ running game is elite and impossible to take away completely.
Even so, it needs to be repeated once more: Alabama has not lost to a team that looks like Georgia in a long, long time.
Prior to the Rose Bowl, we noted that Georgia’s vast special teams advantage over Oklahoma could play a key role in the game. And boy did it.
Rodrigo Blankenship, who in pads, with his goggles, looks something like “Wild Thing” Rick Vaughn from Major League, kicked his way into folklore against the Sooners by going 2-for-3 on field goals (and 6-for-6 on extra points) with a long of 55 yards right before halftime.
Mecole Hardman continued to be a flammable return man, bringing a punt to midfield. When called on, P Cameron Nizialek boomed it deep. And last but not least, Lorenzo Carter set up the winning sequence in double-overtime by blocking a field goal (Carter also blocked a field goal in the SEC Championship game against Auburn).
Nizialek ranks No. 9 in the FBS in punting average (44.9 yards per punt), Blankenship’s 64 touchbacks are No. 4 in the country, and Hardman ranks No. 10 in punt return average (11.3 yards per return).
Georgia has the No. 1 overall S&P+ special teams unit. The Bulldogs outfit all their special teams units with exceptional talent, from the specialists to the return man to the personnel on the coverage and kick blocking units. Carter is far from the only stud Georgia deploys on special teams. Roquan Smith is on the punt team. Roquan freaking Smith!
Does any of the above sound like a description of Virginia Tech’s old special teams units? It should, because Frank Beamer’s son, Shane Beamer, is Georgia’s special teams coordinator. Shane has brought Beamer Ball to Athens. Smart gave Beamer some help this offseason by hiring former Auburn special teams coordinator Scott Fountain as an analyst. Beamer and Fountain have the Bulldogs firing on all special teams cylinders.
Special teams is the facet of the game where Georgia holds a significant advantage over Alabama. The Tide rank No. 40 in S&P+’s special teams rankings. JK Scott is a stud, but outside of that, meh. Alabama’s return units are middling and the kicking game can’t be consistently trusted.
For Georgia to win this game, it must leverage a tiny offensive edge and a big special teams advantage to overcome a defensive disadvantage. The Bulldogs don’t have much of a choice but to try to turn this game into a quasi-shootout; say 31-28 or 27-24.
In Alabama’s eight losses since 2012, 50 combined points or more were scored six times. The other two times, exactly 40. Never less. You cannot beat Alabama in a 17-14 game, and you are not advised to try. The Tide offense will not disappear on Monday like it did against LSU in 2011. That’s not the path to victory for UGA. The path to victory is guerilla warfare. Block a field goal, have an explosive return or two, take chances on offense, mix in trick plays and go for broke. If Georgia comes in with an Alabama-like gameplan, they're going to meet the same fate as Saban's previous assistants.
At the end of the day, we just don’t think Georgia is quite ready to pull of that type of ambush. During the early signing period in December, Kirby Smart and crew somehow convinced five-star dual-threat QB Justin Fields—considered by many to the best prospect in the class—to sign (despite the presence of Fromm and sophomore Jacob Eason). Fields is the type of quarterback needed to upend Alabama. And Smart knows it.
Fromm is a tremendous talent, but the national championship against a defense this good is too much, too soon. For Georgia to win, not only do Chubb and Michel need to star, but Fromm would need to play just about flawlessly. We just can’t get there in wagering that he will. Fromm can only beat you one way. And if/when Alabama jumps to a lead and he’s forced to throw, he won’t have his legs to fall back on when the Tide takes away his two preferred receivers.
Alabama let a second consecutive championship slip through its fingertips on a furious Deshaun Watson drive late in the fourth quarter last year. That Clemson team was uniquely built to give Alabama’s defense fits. Georgia’s offense isn’t. And it’s fair to wonder what this young Georgia team has left in the tank in its 14th game of the season. Since Nov. 4, the Bulldogs have played South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Auburn in the SEC title game and Oklahoma in a double-overtime instant classic. That’s four bowl teams, a series of physical games and a wide variety of offensive systems.
Alabama, on the other hand, got to skip the SEC title game after losing to Auburn. They got a bye that week, and they had another on Nov. 18 thanks to scheduling Mercer late in the year. Last Monday’s game against Clemson was an utter demolition, a bigger butt-kicking in reality than it was on the scoreboard. Late in that game, the Tide were able to sub in young receivers and defenders.
Alabama is the fresher squad, and the superior team in a vacuum due to their No. 1 defense. They hold edges in championship experience and on the sideline. The Tide also match up well with Georgia. It's true: Alabama isn't as good as they were the past two seasons, and they have a few specific weaknesses that can be exploited. But can the Tide-like Bulldogs take advantage? We'd have been more confident in Oklahoma's chances: The Sooners are the type of team that traditionally upsets Alabama, with a powerful offense, a stud dual-threat quarterback and a wide variety of offensive weapons. If Saban were injected with truth serum, we imagine he'd admit that he's happy to be facing Georgia.
As a program, Georgia is fast closing on Alabama. But the Bulldogs are probably a year away from having the type of roster that can flatten the Tide at close distance. That’s the way the Bulldogs are built to play, and nobody beats Alabama in a phone booth.
2017 Bowl Record: Straight-Up: 23-16 (59.0%); Against the Spread: 21-17-1 (55.3%)
2017 Regular Season Record: Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)
2014-2016: Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)