By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 27, 2012
If you’re not an Alabama fan, the Georgia Bulldogs might just qualify as the most physically impressive college football team you’ve ever seen.
The Bulldogs have been stocking NFL-grade talent for years. It’s not a difficult task, given the richness of the Georgia high school system in terms of the talent it turns out, but even the most fervid recruitniks have to be impressed with the group Mark Richt has assembled in Athens.
If you’re not an Alabama fan, you would probably think this Georgia team could run roughshod over not just your team, but any other college team and might even be able to share the field awhile with a professional team. But for Alabama fans, looking at the Georgia Bulldogs is a bit of a different experience. Alabama fans see a similar team every time they venture to Bryant-Denny Stadium to watch the boys in crimson take the field.
The SEC couldn’t have picked a better matchup for its season-ender. The Florida Gators and LSU Tigers would certainly object, but Florida’s offense is still in an infant stage, while LSU was not able to get consistent quarterback play in 2012. Worse than any loss LSU suffered, its near-miss against a woeful Auburn squad served as a clear indication that this wasn’t meant to be LSU’s year.
No, the SEC wasn’t going to get its beauty contest unless Alabama and Georgia made it to Atlanta. Now that it’s happened, the question is who has the advantage when the rosters are virtually equal?
Whenever one is talking about Georgia, the subject of mental makeup has to be discussed. The Bulldogs haven’t always made the best choices when preparing for or playing in a big game. For Alabama to beat Georgia, the Crimson Tide will need to control the intangibles – which is nearly impossible to either analyze or predict.
Both teams operate from a pro-style attack, although there are two different forms on display. Georgia is more traditional, making the I-formation the cornerstone of its offensive attack. Alabama prefers to go three-wide with a single back, or use Ace formations with two tight ends or a tight end and an H-back. In execution, though, there isn’t much difference; both teams want to establish the run and attack downfield behind their veteran quarterbacks. Georgia has more balance to its offense. The Tide and Bulldogs rank No. 1 and No. 2 in passing efficiency. This will look more like an NFL game than a college game.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray is the second-best quarterback Alabama has faced this year (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel being the best), and while not necessarily a mobile quarterback, he is athletic and has good zip on his downfield throws. Murray is 213-of-320 (66.6%) for 3,201 yards, 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on the year. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has similar stats (178-of-265, 67.2%, 2,507 yards, 25 TD, 2 INT) even though Alabama doesn’t put the ball in the air as much as Georgia based on scheme. McCarron is probably a better scrambler than Murray, and he’s just now coming back to full health after a succession of minor-to-moderate injuries caused him to be visibly affected against both LSU and Texas A&M. Georgia probably has a slim edge among the backups, if for no other reason than the Bulldogs can run their base offense with either Christian LeMay or Parker Welch. Alabama has more game experience behind Blake Sims and Phillip Ely, although it’s questionable whether Alabama can stay in its base offense under either guy. So this is really about Murray and McCarron only. Taking nothing away from Murray as a quarterback, McCarron has the better resume. He has accomplished more, played in more big games and has played better in those big games than has Murray. McCarron appears to be better at running check-with-me offensive plays on the fly in the Tide’s hurry-up system. This one is very close. Advantage: Alabama
If T.J. Yeldon can have two solid games to finish the year, the Crimson Tide might end up with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. Yeldon (128 carries, 847 yards, 6.6 avg., 10 TD) and Eddie Lacy (164 carries, 1,001 yards, 6.1 avg., 14 TD) are both healthy at the same time – finally – and are coming off strong performances against Auburn. Georgia, though, has a pair of freshman runners who are great in their own right. Todd Gurley (176 carries, 1,138 yards, 6.5 avg., 14 TD) and Keith Marshall (107 carries, 720 yards, 6.7 avg., 8 TD) have had excellent debut seasons, and both have plenty of size and speed to give Alabama trouble. Picking a winner from those two groups is nearly impossible, but it’s worth noting that Georgia does have a third-team back, Ken Malcolme (57 carries, 272 yards, 4.8 avg., 2 TD) that it is more apt to use than Alabama is its third-stringer, Kenyan Drake, who doesn’t play at running back unless the game is out of hand. But perhaps the biggest edge Georgia has comes in the form of its fullback, Alexander Ogletree, who is one of the most underrated players not only at his position, but in the conference as a whole, thanks to missing the front half of the season and being out of sight, out of mind. Ogletree is a powerful blocker, a capable receiver and a decent runner, although he doesn’t get many chances to exhibit the latter two skills. What he is, is a far better option as a lead blocker than H-back Kelly Johnson is for Alabama. It’s funny that a running back comparison in the year 2012 could come down to discussion of a fullback, but that’s where this category breaks for the Bulldogs. Advantage: Georgia
Had Alabama not lost Kenny Bell for the season during the Auburn game, this would have been a solid edge to Alabama, thanks mostly to Georgia having injury issues of its own. Now, we’re not so sure. Alabama still has better depth, if for no other reason than its third receiver (Christion Jones) is a better option than Georgia’s third wideout, Chris Conley. But just like the running back discussion, the starters are mostly a push. Georgia will start Tavarres King (34 catches, 704 yards, 20.7 avg., 8 TD) and Malcolm Mitchell (36 catches, 532 yards, 14.8 avg., 4 TD). Alabama’s starting combo of Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood have very similar stat profiles. Where Georgia has made its biggest strides in the passing game this year is much to the credit of King, who went from being sort of an underachiever to being a feared option, both downfield and on possession routes. Georgia now enjoys a minor depth advantage in terms of bodies, as Rantavious Wooten has had significantly more game experience than either Marvin Shinn or Cyrus Jones has had for Alabama. But despite King’s improvement, Alabama’s Cooper is still the best receiver on either team. The most interesting part of the receiver discussion right now is whether Alabama will take the redshirt off slot receiver Chris Black, who has not played this year while rehabbing a shoulder injury. If he doesn’t play, look for more of Shinn, Cyrus Jones and possibly walk-on Nathan McAlister, who has plenty of speed but who has yet to catch a pass. Danny Woodson Jr. might also become an option. As for the tight end position, Georgia’s Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome are better receivers, but Alabama’s Michael Williams is the better blocker, and still a decent receiver besides. Brian Vogler and Kelly Johnson will also play there. Give this one to Alabama by a hair thanks to Cooper. Advantage: Alabama
After three close calls, Alabama opens up a bit of an edge along the offensive line, based simply on experience. Alabama starts just one underclassman – sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio – and he’s been arguably the best lineman of the last two or three weeks for the Tide. Barrett Jones starts at center, flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen. D.J. Fluker starts at right tackle. Georgia counters with David Andrews at center, with guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee beside him and John Theus and Kenarious Gates playing tackle. Andrews is a sophomore and Theus a true freshman, and the other issue here is size; Alabama is more developed. Depth is in Alabama’s favor. Statistically, Alabama has allowed fewer sacks, but it’s a minute difference, and both teams block well for the running game. Alabama’s experience is hard to overcome, however. Advantage: Alabama
Todd Grantham took a lot of heat early on when he moved the Dawgs from a 4-3 base to the same 3-4 over/under that Alabama runs, but no one is complaining now. Alabama’s Nick Saban called Grantham this week one of the best of his former assistants, and such praise doesn’t come lightly. Georgia is still making progress, but has nothing to be ashamed about given the following: 22nd in total defense, 16th in scoring defense, 9th in pass defense and 32nd in pass efficiency defense. Rushing defense, though, leaves a bit to be desired (67th). Alabama, meanwhile, is in the top 5 in all five categories, and leads in three of them. Both teams like to be aggressive, but Georgia probably takes a few more risks thanks to the makeup of its outside linebackers.
Nosetackle John Jenkins is the closest thing anyone has to a Terrence Cody in the SEC this year. Jenkins is massive (6’3”, 355 pounds) and plays with a bad attitude, but he’s better at clogging lanes than stopping people behind the line of scrimmage, as he has just 1 tackle for loss. Cornelius Washington and Garrison Smith start at the ends. They, too, are more placeholders than difference-makers, combining for 1.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss. Reserve nosetackle Kwame Geathers, though, is a force on passing downs, nearly equaling the production of all the others combined. Depth isn’t great; Ray Drew is the actual backup on both sides, although Mike Thornton is also listed. The problem there is Thornton is nursing an ankle injury. He won’t be 100 percent if he does play. The loss of E Abry Jones still smarts, too. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle flanked by Damion Square and Ed Stinson outside, with Quinton Dial, Jeoffrey Pagan and D.J. Pettway providing depth. Pagan and Pettway continue to improve – Pagan especially, in recent weeks – and that’s a good thing given reserve nosetackle Brandon Ivory won’t be 100 percent and might not even play, thanks to an ankle injury suffered against Auburn. If he can’t go, look for Dial, Pagan and Square to provide Williams a breather, or look for true freshman Darren Lake to get some snaps. Alabama has a better depth situation at the moment even with Ivory’s absence, and the Tide DL has done a better job of controlling the point of attack. Advantage: Alabama
This will probably be the best group of linebackers Alabama has faced this year. The best single talent Alabama has seen thus far was Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore, and Alabama kept him bottled up. But A&M didn’t have the depth Georgia has. The principal name here is Jarvis Jones, who has 19.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and causes havoc on a weekly basis from what amounts to a Jack position. What makes him even more dangerous is that the supporting cast may be just as good. The inside tandem of Alec Ogletree and Amarlo Herrera are solid, in particular Ogletree. He’ll line up on the same side as Jones, most of the time. Fellow outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins comes off the field or moves down to end in nickel and dime sets, but when he’s on the field he’s an accomplished pass rusher. Alabama counters with its inside group of C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson, with Adrian Hubbard at Jack and Xzavier Dickson at strongside linebacker. Mosley is the team’s leading tackler and is a weapon against multi-receiver sets in coverage, but Alabama figures to be in base defense more often against the Georgia offense, putting DePriest and Johnson on the field together more frequently. Pass rush from the outside has been erratic all year, one reason why Alabama has auditioned true freshman Denzel Devall at Jack a lot recently. Georgia has the depth advantage here, especially inside, where both Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard are available. Alabama has Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland and Tyler Hayes available inside, but they rarely play in non-blowouts, with the exception of Patrick as an extra goal-line linebacker. Even without Jones, it would be hard to call this one for the Tide, and with Jones, the Bulldogs hold the edge. Advantage: Georgia
Even though Alabama is 3rd in the nation in pass defense and 5th in efficiency defense, Alabama fans haven’t been entirely comfortable with the secondary as of late. Against both LSU and Texas A&M, the Tide struggled to contain good receivers. Alabama has modified its personnel groupings, and the results look more favorable. Alabama will start Dee Milliner and Deion Belue at corner, with Robert Lester and Nick Perry at the safety positions. As Alabama figures to be in base defense more often in this game, Perry will probably see more action than Vinnie Sunseri or Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix. Sunseri and Clinton-Dix will be part of Alabama’s nickel and dime sets, though, along with reserve corners Geno Smith and John Fulton. Georgia will start Damian Swann and Sanders Commings at the corners, with Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams at the safety positions. Sheldon Dawson, Branden Smith and Devin Bowman will provide corner depth, while Conner Norman and Corey Moore back up the safeties. Alabama has a minor depth advantage and probably an edge at cornerback, while Georgia’s safeties are more dynamic. This one is coin-flip close, with the Tide being more consistent by a hair. Advantage: Alabama
This might be the only area where one team has a definitive edge over the other. Georgia placekicker Marshall Morgan is not only 8-of-12 on field goals with questionable accuracy beyond 35 yards or so, but he’s missed four extra points. Punter Collin Barber has decent stats, but Georgia doesn’t cover punts well enough and is just 79th in net punting. The Bulldogs have also been rather anemic in the return game. Alabama counters with Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster at kicker, Cody Mandell at punter and a return game that has proven it can make plays. It’s odd that Georgia has kicking issues, as the Bulldogs usually have NFL talent at both kicking slots, but this hasn’t been a great year in that department. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Georgia in two, but beware: Only two categories, special teams (an Alabama edge) and linebacker (a Georgia lead) are even close to substantial. The truth is, these two teams are very evenly paired. As for OL-DL matchups, Alabama holds a slim lead in both.
But really, what will make the biggest difference here is emotion and attitude, and that’s where Alabama stands the greatest chance to pull away. Almost immediately following Alabama’s beatdown of Auburn Saturday, Georgia players were tweeting their disdain for Alabama football and its players. The concept of “swag” has been bandied about on multiple UGA sites.
This is, after all, the program that orchestrated a “blackout” in 2008 when Alabama came to visit Athens, was penalized en masse once after the entire team celebrated a touchdown against Florida in 2007 and has been criticized for too much flash over substance for several seasons, occasionally landing Richt on somewhat of a hot seat.
It makes for an interesting dichotomy for Richt, who outwardly projects the image of family man and a man of strong faith, but whose football team seems to take most of its cues from Richt’s alma mater, the University of Miami. It’s reflected somewhat in the amount of penalties each team gets – Alabama received the fewest of any SEC team, while Georgia ranked 10th in the conference in the stat, averaging nearly 7 flags a contest to 4 for the Crimson Tide.
It would seem, looking at the way these two teams have prepared for the game thus far this week, Alabama is going about its work in a business-as-usual fashion. With Georgia spending so much time concerned about image, “swag” and the importance of the game itself, the Bulldogs look to be wound as tight as a Titleist.
If both teams play the game they appear to be preparing to play, it’s hard not to imagine an Alabama win. The Bulldogs are certainly dangerous, even more so than was Texas A&M thanks to the consistency of the Bulldog defense. But as long as Alabama avoids a first-quarter meltdown like the one it sustained against the Aggies, the Tide looks like the likeliest opponent for Notre Dame in January.