By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 30, 2015
Prior to the season, fans and pundits alike circled the Alabama-Georgia game as one of the potentially more important and most interesting games of the college football season. Nothing has changed.
Well, almost nothing. Alabama dropped its third-week game, 43-37 to Ole Miss, which spoiled the aura of this game a bit as a potential prelude to a final four rematch – or even a rematch in the SEC Championship Game. Instead of both meeting up as undefeated teams, Alabama comes in with a blemish on its record and the knowledge that a second loss on the season here likely ends whatever hopes the Crimson Tide has or playing for a national championship.
So in addition to its potential to absolutely ruin future attendance figures (especially for the Charleston Southern game) in advance, Alabama also has to worry about this game as one of those so-called “program changers” that every media gadfly is looking for as evidence that Bama has slipped to a lower plane. And depending on how the Crimson Tide plays in this game, they might be right.
Georgia is a master of efficiency in 2015. The Bulldogs are 3rd in passing efficiency, and have racked up an average of 491.3 yards per game on the season, good for 23rd overall, while at the same time coming in 115th in time of possession. The takeaway? Georgia doesn’t spend a lot of time messing around.
Defensively, the Bulldogs rank in the top 25 in all five major defensive statistical categories, and are 9th in red zone defense. To put it lightly, Alabama has a fight on its hands.
Neither team was tested by its Week 4 opponent. But this will be all-out war.
Georgia runs the offensive style Alabama allegedly is designed to stymie: The Bulldogs are an NFL-based, I-formation offense built around the running game and the play-action pass. Surprising no one at all, Georgia ranks 17th in rushing offense at 257.8 yards per game, and ranks 66th in passing offense. They are 11th in scoring offense. The offensive system is built around a running back, fullback, tight end and two wideouts, and there isn’t much flash – just grind-it-out execution, done superbly. Alabama is still fishing for its true form, but for now is using a multiple, pro-style offense with both I-formation and spread elements. Bama has showed good balance, but is below the Bulldogs in all facets, and significantly so in passing efficiency (84th for UA vs. 3rd for UGA).
Georgia’s Greyson Lambert has Alabama ties and prior starting experience at Virginia, but it’s his Georgia work that has been the most impressive: Lambert is 52-of-68 (76.5%) for 733 yards, 7 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His backup, Brice Ramsey, has completed three-fourths of his passes and thrown for another touchdown. Lambert is a decent athlete, but is not much of a scrambler and is certainly not a dual-threat QB. But what he has been, thanks to the tutelage of Brian Schottenheimer, is a dangerous and adept triggerman who is at home in the pro-style attack. Alabama counters with Jake Coker, who has attempted almost twice as many passes as Lambert but has thrown for only 53 more yards. As a comparison, Lambert has averaged 10.8 yards per attempt, while Coker has averaged only 6.4. Cooper Bateman will be Coker’s backup; his completion percentage is much higher but arm strength limitations put Coker on top. Coker played well against Ole Miss and in the second half of the Louisiana-Monroe game last week, but Lambert has far more experience and looks more comfortable in Georgia’s offense.
Alabama’s Derrick Henry has had a strong start to his 2015 season, rushing for 8 touchdowns already and 422 yards. Kenyan Drake gives Alabama a rare rushing and receiving threat off the bench, while true freshman Damien Harris has a bright future. Alabama will add Bo Scarbrough to the mix this week, now that he’s clear of a four-game suspension. Scarbrough is a bruiser more like Henry than the other two, but it’s unclear how much work he’ll get in his first week on the field. Michael Nysewander will play fullback for Alabama at times, and he is growing into a reliable weapon in the passing game, to say nothing of his blocking ability or hustling special teams play. For Georgia, Nick Chubb has rushed 71 times for 599 yards (8.4 avg.) and 6 touchdowns, while Sony Michel (32 carries, 223 yards, 7.0 avg., 4 TD) and Keith Marshall provide good depth behind him. Quayvon Hicks will start at fullback; like Nysewander for Alabama, he hasn’t carried the ball from scrimmage yet, but he is a strong blocker and offers a legitimate option in the passing game. Henry beats Chubb in touchdown runs so far, but Chubb has better upside and the Bulldogs have better depth. Advantage: Georgia
When Robert Foster went down hurt for Alabama, that changed the complexion of this comparison by quite a bit. Alabama will start Richard Mullaney and ArDarius Stewart at the wide receiver positions, while Calvin Ridley takes Foster’s old spot. Chris Black, Cameron Sims and Daylon Charlot provide depth for Alabama. Alabama has yet to establish a downfield threat, however, as Mullaney, Stewart and Ridley are all averaging less than 10 yards per reception. O.J. Howard, Dakota Ball, Hale Hentges and former Georgia player Ty Flournoy-Smith form up the tight end group, but other than Howard, no one has made much of an impact yet. For Georgia, Malcolm Mitchell already has 20 catches for 306 yards (15.3 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, but he needs help. Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis have been semi-productive, but neither has cracked the end zone. McKenzie is also facing potential legal trouble and his status for the weekend is uncertain Tight ends Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome are arguably the best 1-2 combo at that position in the SEC. Although Georgia hasn’t targeted receivers nearly as often as Alabama, the Bulldogs have been much more efficient in their production. Depth favors the Bulldogs, especially in regards to experience, unless McKenzie is out. There have been reports that Alabama might try to break in a new receiver into its rotation this week, whether that name is Deionte Thompson, Derek Kief or perhaps a defensive player who has yet to play on the offensive side of the ball yet this year. But until Alabama gets more consistent, particularly in its route-running, Georgia holds the edge here, McKenzie or no McKenzie. Advantage: Georgia
Alabama’s offensive line has been a mystery thus far in 2015. Run-blocking has been spotty but mostly OK, but pass-blocking is a work in progress, with Alabama’s quarterbacks frequently forced to scramble or work the pocket. Ryan Kelly starts at center, with Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor at the guard slots and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson starting at the tackles. Bradley Bozeman will be the primary spare player inside, while Brandon Greene will back up the tackle positions and also play as a sixth lineman in some short-yardage sets. Georgia counters with Brandon Kublanow at center, Isaiah Wynn and Greg Pyke at the guard spots and John Theus and Kolton Houston at the tackles. The middle of the line is Georgia’s strength, although Theus can also be a spectacular tackle when he’s playing well. Hunter Long offers experienced depth at center, but the rest of the depth situation favors Alabama. However, the Crimson Tide trails Georgia in sacks allowed (36th vs. 13th), although Alabama’s ranking isn’t terrible, all things considered. Alabama needs to prove it can be effective against quality opposition. Until then, Georgia’s starting five holds the edge here. Advantage: Georgia
There is a cult of personality that surrounds Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, an ace recruiter and former Nick Saban protege who has certainly helped the Bulldogs improve their standing against the pass. Both teams will run a 3-4 defense, although Saban’s seems to have more flexibility and more moving parts. Georgia’s defense has good numbers: 14th in total defense and in pass efficiency defense, 24th in rushing defense, 23rd in raw pass defense and 11th in scoring defense. Alabama is 12th in total defense and 4th in rushing defense, but is a mediocre 40th in scoring defense and the pass defense is erratic: 28th in pass efficiency defense but 60th in raw pass numbers. It may be those pass defense numbers that decide how this game goes for Alabama.
The combination for Georgia of nosetackle Chris Mayes and defensive ends John Atkins and Sterling Bailey have been decent so far, especially in run defense, but they have given the Bulldogs virtually no pass rush up front and have combined for only 1.5 tackles for loss. This was feared to be the weak spot for the 2015 Georgia defense and those fears have largely held up, although the line still should get kudos for contributing to the ranking of 24th in rush defense. Depth is a mixed bag. Veteran Josh Dawson on one side and another veteran, James DeLoach, is on the other. But the Bulldogs lack a true backup at nosetackle, with Atkins forced to play the position ahead of a freshman, DaQuan Hawkins. Alabama will counter with Darren Lake in the middle flanked by A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed outside, as the Crimson Tide finally gets to start its base package against the Bulldog running attack. Josh Frazier and Daron Payne offer depth inside, while D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and possible Jonathan Allen offer depth at the ends. Allen’s presence is needed, but a shoulder injury suffered against Louisiana-Monroe almost can’t help but affect his performance. O.J. Smith might have a role if Allen can’t go. Even without Allen, however, this is the best line Georgia will face, and one that is exponentially better than its own. Not close here. Advantage: Alabama
Outside linebackers usually don’t make a lot of noise in a modern 3-4 defense, but Georgia has found a way to use both Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins in ways that frustrate the competition. The two have combined for 10 tackles for loss and 5 sacks already, 2 pass breakups and 13 QB hurries. For that matter, the rest of the Georgia team combined has only 3 sacks. But as strong as the outside backers are, the inside linebackers, Jake Ganus and Tim Kimbrough, are potential weak spots. Georgia will need all four players to be on top of their game this week, as Alabama is capable, by formation, of drawing the weaker two players onto the field. Kimbrough is the more talented of the two inside players; he has 2 tackles for loss and a sack, while Ganus hasn’t made a play all year behind the opponent’s line of scrimmage. Alabama will counter with somewhat the opposite scenario: Inside linebackers Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland and Shaun Dion Hamilton have been the go-to players for the linebacker unit, while outside linebackers Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee have been much more situational. Devall, to this point, has rarely played without his hand down, so this game will be the first time Alabama will really know if he can patrol behind the line. Lee hasn’t played much at all. Ryan Anderson played extremely well in relief of Devall last week, and will be on the field again in a backup role along with speed-rushing specialists Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans. There is no question that Floyd and Jenkins have displayed the superstar ability thus far, but Alabama has better depth and is more consistent across the group. But this is very, very close and could easily get called for UGA. Advantage: Alabama
This category gets interesting because while Georgia has the better numbers thus far, Alabama may have the better unit. Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish will start at the corners, while Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders get the call at the safety positions. Mauger has been the bellcow of the group so far, third on the team in tackles and adept at blitzing. Sanders has had two long interception returns, but has been just OK in run support. Davis and Parrish, both sophomores, have just 1 interception between them and struggle with dynamic receivers, but Alabama has no such player on its roster. The second unit is made up entirely of freshmen: corners Juwuan Briscoe and Rico McGraw, and safeties Johnathan Abram and Jarvis Wilson. Alabama counters with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with Geno Matias-Smith and Eddie Jackson at the safety slots. Alabama gets Jabriel Washington back as a spare safety this week, but he’ll have to go through Ronnie Harrison, who appears to have moved past Maurice Smith in the pecking order. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the third corner and Star safety, while Bradley Sylve provides depth at corner. Jones is the best player on the field for either team, although Alabama would love to have Mauger patrolling center field. Despite Alabama’s breakdowns in coverage against Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide has more to work with here and is better on the edges. Advantage: Alabama
Adam Griffith hit two field goals last week, which made worthwhile the offense bogging down on a couple of drives against ULM. Punter J.K. Scott continues to shake off early-season rust. Alex Harrelson has done a fine job replacing Cole Mazza at snapper. The kick-return game is still shabby, but Cyrus Jones has shown a flash or two as the punt returner. Compared to Georgia, however, Alabama trails significantly. The Bulldogs have actually struggled more than Alabama on kickoff returns and the punting has been equally disappointing, but Georgia is better on punt returns and placekicker Marshall Morgan is a proven weapon. Alabama needs to show about three weeks of consistency before this unit will start being taken seriously again. Advantage: Georgia
Georgia leads in five categories, Alabama in three, and the LB comparison could easily go Georgia’s way. The interesting comparison is the one dealing with line matchups. Alabama’s DL enjoys a comfortable level of control of its matchup with Georgia’s OL. Alabama might also lead the other comparison (UA OL vs. UGA DL), but we’ll call it a push since neither group has been particularly dynamic.
That leads to a summary that finds Georgia with the better offense and Alabama with the better defense. Were the game in Bryant-Denny Stadium, such findings would generally lead to an Alabama victory. But this game, of course, is being played in Athens, Ga., which changes things.
There is no question which team is under greater pressure. That would be Alabama, who, with a loss in this game, probably sits out the year-end playoffs. Georgia, though, is desperate to prove it can beat tough teams. During Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, the Bulldogs have found themselves clearly behind Alabama as a program. Winning this game would go a long way toward erasing Georgia’s deficit there.
The last time this season that Alabama found itself on the wrong side of the overall matchups, the game was Ole Miss and TideFans.com took the Crimson Tide in the upset. Not this time. Like the Ole Miss game, we expect quarterback play to be the key factor above all others in the game. We do not expect either team to run roughshod over the other on the ground, despite the impressive degree of running back talent that is present here. And if this comes down to a quarterback battle, Alabama is not the lead horse in the race.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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