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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Dec. 2, 2012
If the argument from the purveyors of Big 12 circus football in 2011 against an Alabama-LSU rematch hinged on the complaint that SEC football was boring, those critics will need some new material in the future.
Alabama beat Georgia 32-28 in one of the most exciting, dramatic intraconference matchups in many decades. For a neutral fan, being able to watch the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs square off must have been the football equivalent of a foodie scoring a free shipping crate full of black truffles. There was nothing about this game that left anyone bored or wanting more. It couldn’t have – everything both teams had was poured out onto the field for all to see.
Most people expected a close game, and they got it. What few people expected was for Alabama to channel Paul “Bear” Bryant’s spirit, rack up 350-plus rushing yards and manhandle one of the most talented front sevens in college football. But as we noted in our preview of the game earlier this week, Georgia’s biggest fight is always the one between its ears.
Georgia head coach Mark Richt – who should get ample credit for preparing his team well – has never been one to make much of a fuss over undisciplined play. For that matter, he seems to encourage it. Unfortunately for Richt on this night, his Bulldogs drew Thomas Ritter’s officiating crew for the game, and Ritter’s crew has never been shy about throwing the laundry when teams go rogue.
If Georgia was dangerous but undisciplined, Alabama was focused and measured. The difference in personalities easily explains why Alabama didn’t fold despite having multiple opportunities to do so. Particularly when Alabama fell behind 21-10 in the third quarter – a two-score margin to a talented team in a conference championship game – it would have been easy to see Alabama players resign themselves to their fate.
Instead, the opposite occurred. Alabama buckled down, got meaner, and if anything, got more conservative. The playcalling changed, the attitude of the Tide offensive line changed, and Alabama spent the last quarter and a half force-feeding the Georgia Dome artificial turf to the Bulldogs’ defensive line and linebackers.
There is so much about the way this game finished, statistically, that simply doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for one SEC division winner to be able to beat another SEC division winner in this fashion – particularly when those two teams are ranked Nos. 2 and 3 in the country. Alabama possessed the football for what amounted to an extra quarter compared to Georgia’s time with the ball. The only place Alabama didn’t dominate Georgia was the scoreboard.
And for that, you can thank Richt’s offensive plan, and a praise-worthy performance from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who stood in time and again in the face of the Tide defense and simply made plays. Running back Todd Gurley is the best Alabama has faced this year, and made life hard on Alabama’s defense by frequently finding a way to fall forward for four additional yards.
But despite Georgia’s weaponry, this was a night when Nick Saban and his staff came up aces on nearly every major decision. From the on-the-fly modification of the offensive gameplan to personnel choices to knowing when to pull out the dagger plays, this was one of Saban’s staff’s finer efforts.
Although the 2012 season isn’t over yet, it is somewhat mind-boggling to think of what Saban has accomplished in six years at Alabama: three division titles, two SEC titles and two (so far) national titles, spread out across the last five years. With the Crimson Tide one of the youngest teams in college football, there’s no telling how far this train will go. But there was a reason ESPN analysts and journalists from across the country were discussing “Alabama fatigue” and some even openly hoping for a Notre Dame-Georgia title game: Fear of what might be still to come.
Here’s the Five Point Breakdown for the SEC Championship Game:
1. Credit the coaches for adjusting the gameplan to fit the game. Nick Saban has a famous stubborn streak, but he kept it in the bag tonight and, along with offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and his other assistants, made the decision to take the game out of QB A.J. McCarron’s hands and put it in those of running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy, and the Crimson Tide offensive line. It was the right call. It’s highly doubtful Saban foresaw the possibility of amassing 350 rushing yards – in postgame comments, he mentioned the need to edit the gameplan based on the trouble Georgia’s rush ends were giving the Bama OL in pass protection – but kudos to him and Nussmeier for trusting Alabama’s offensive players to make the plays. Alabama’s three major faux pas in the game were all execution mistakes – McCarron’s interception, which was a result of poor route communication between him and WR Amari Cooper; Michael Williams’ lookout block on Cade Foster’s blocked field goal attempt; and Vinnie Sunseri failing to get the snap off in time on what would have been a successful fake punt. While Alabama’s offensive line and running backs certainly made the decision work, they would never have had the chance had the coaches tried to stay with the original plan. And let’s not forget what turned out to be the best single call of the night: Nick Saban electing to go for two points and cut the score to 21-18 with four minutes to go in the third quarter.
2. As is not uncommon in big games, the supporting cast came up huge. H-back Kelly Johnson, CB/S Geno Smith and TE Brian Vogler weren’t on anyone’s list of potential game-changers prior to kickoff, but all three played big parts in Alabama’s victory. Johnson had his best day blocking, and especially stepped up big during the time Jesse Williams wasn’t available for short-yardage specialty blocking. Vogler, whose blocking has been his weak suit for some time, threw several key blocks in this game, including the one that sprung Eddie Lacy for a 41-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. And Smith, over the last two or three games, might be the most improved Alabama player. He was out of the playing rotation through the LSU game, but beginning with Texas A&M and continuing through Auburn and finally against Georgia, he gave Alabama a big-time upgrade at the Star safety position. Georgia targeted Smith early and often in this game, but he more than held his ground against a very good receiver corps. Alabama is a much better team with Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix playing dime and letting Smith play the Star position. Hard to believe he was fighting with Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington for attention just a month ago.
3. SEC must standardize replay procedures. It’s a moot point now, but the tipped-or-not-tipped controversy surrounding a third-quarter pass never should have happened. There was pass interference on the play that was waved off after the field officials decided A.J. McCarron’s pass had been tipped at the line. On the next play, Georgia blocked a field goal and scored to go up by 11 points. This is not to throw umpire Casey Moreland under the bus – an umpire gets to see a play one time, for about a tenth of a second – and officials will miss calls. But the replay booth has all the time in the world. The booth basically took one quick look and let the play go. Contrast this to Dee Milliner’s would-be interception on Georgia’s final drive that must have gotten all the attention of the Abe Zapruder film. Although the decision to overturn Milliner’s interception was the correct one, a similar inspection of McCarron’s pass would have clearly reversed the call on the field. It nearly cost Alabama the game, and that’s not acceptable. Having said that, SEC officiating as a whole hasn’t been as good as it is now since Jimmy Harper was still blowing whistles.
4. The value of Jesse Williams and Brandon Ivory is now clear to everyone. In a 3-4 defense, the nosetackle typically doesn’t roll up a lot of stats. That’s because the job of the front three is to basically occupy blockers and let the linebackers make plays – with one caveat: In short-yardage situations, the nosetackle is expected to hold the point of attack. Jesse Williams – and, as the season has progressed, Brandon Ivory as well – have been the immovable objects in the middle of the Alabama attack, and tonight everyone got a look at what the Alabama defense is without them. Damion Square was pressed into service when Williams went down (Ivory’s snaps were being managed from the outset thanks to two injured ankles) and Georgia’s rushing attack ate that formation for lunch. Square often plays the nose in some of Alabama’s pass-rushing formations, but he wasn’t effective against Georgia in base. When Williams finally returned, Alabama got a key third-and-short stop late in the fourth quarter. Williams might not possess gaudy stats, but without him, Alabama doesn’t field the same defense.
5. Special teams have too much Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy factor. It never fails; anytime we give Alabama a big edge in the special teams category in a preview article, Lucy Van Pelt suddenly appears wearing a crimson jersey. First, the good: Cade Foster put all kickoffs through the end zone, and punter Cody Mandell was solid again. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley was his usual, consistent self. Punt returner Christion Jones had his best game, just from the standpoint of decision-making. But Cyrus Jones fumbled a kickoff, Alabama botched a good fake punt call, the punt coverage team made an elementary mistake in coverage on a successful Georgia fake punt call, and then Michael Williams completely whiffed a block that led to a blocked field goal and Georgia touchdown. In the end, Christion Jones had the final word by fielding a difficult Georgia punt and saving Alabama about 20 total yards of field position, but the Tide’s overall game resume was spotty at best. This is one area Notre Dame can exploit six weeks from now.
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