By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 6, 2018
For those analysts and pundits who complain that Nick Saban has sacrificed defense of spread-style attacks in order to focus on defending pro-style attacks, an Alabama-Georgia matchup makes Saban look like a sooth-saying mystic.
Alabama will face off against a team that was more or less built to mirror Alabama. And Alabama’s attack plan is more or less designed to attack teams like this.
Most Alabama fans probably breathed a small sigh of relief when Oklahoma was knocked out of its semifinal – not because Georgia is seen as sub-par, but rather because Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield comes straight from the same central casting office that produces the kind of quarterbacks Alabama struggles with: Quick and mobile, accurate, with a persistent can-do attitude. Georgia’s Jake Fromm may eventually grow into that kind of quarterback, but for now he’s a guy Georgia has to scheme around somewhat, not scheme through.
Unfortunately for Alabama, two of its best performers in the win over Clemson – right guard Lester Cotton and Jack linebacker Anfernee Jennings – will be absent from this game. Jennings’ absence in particular could be tough to survive. He played the game of his life against the Tigers, and Alabama could surely use his edge-setting abilities against a running game of this caliber.
While the rest of the college football world grouses about an all-SEC final, for Alabama, this is a matchup between the SEC’s today and potentially the SEC’s tomorrow, and the outcome could have an impact that stretches far outside the confines of Atlanta’s snazzy new stadium.
Both teams run the ball well and struggle throwing it. Georgia accomplishes its goals via a play-action passing game firmly rooted in pro-style concepts. The only significant change from the Mark Richt days is Georgia no longer employs a fullback in its default base package, although Georgia does use one in certain package plays. Beyond that, both teams typically operate from either a three-wide or two-tight-end look. Alabama utilizes tempo more often, and because of its superior athleticism at quarterback, a heavy dose of zone-read shotgun plays. Alabama ranks 10th in rushing and 91st in passing for a total ranking of 27th, while Georgia ranks 8th in rushing and 109th in passing for a total offense ranking of 31st.
There hasn’t been quite as much talk about it this year as it was last year when Alabama faced off against Clemson for the title, but Georgia is attempting to be the first team to win a national title with a true freshman quarterback since Oklahoma with Jamelle Holieway in 1985. Fromm has similar passing numbers to Alabama’s Jalen Hurts – just 14 more yards on 13 more attempts – but the obvious difference between the two is in the running game. Fromm is a good athlete – his 94 yards on 48 carries (2.0 avg.) and 3 touchdowns is indicative of a decent athlete at the position, given that sack yardage is taken down from rushing yardage in the college game. But Hurts – with 808 yards on 145 carries (5.5 avg.) and 8 touchdowns – is in another stratosphere.
Trying to predict where these players are headed is equally tough. Fromm was 20-of-29 for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns against Oklahoma, an efficient performance. Hurts’ work against Clemson was equally efficient given the gameplan. Hurts is just a few weeks removed from both his best performance of the year (Mississippi State) and his worst (Auburn). Judging this category on depth is tough; Georgia has superior depth and experience with Jacob Eason and Brice Ramsey, but Eason has barely played this year, logging just 7 pass attempts and 3 rushes.
Alabama would use true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, and while he is just a true freshman, Tagovailoa’s numbers and proficiency bested what Eason showed earlier in the year. It’s very possible too much criticism has been leveled at Hurts off the results of one game (Auburn), but if Fromm is equally capable of keeping mistakes to a minimum, his superior field vision and ability to work the downfield play-action game might prove to be the difference here. Advantage: Georgia
There aren’t a lot of schools that can definitively best Alabama in a comparison of running back groups, but Georgia is certainly one of them. Nick Chubb has rushed for 1,320 yards on the year, Sony Michel for 1,129 and D’Andre Swift for 603. Swift averages 7.8 yards per carry and Michel a gaudy 8.0. The three have 34 touchdowns on the ground combined, along with another 273 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. If that isn’t enough, Georgia maintains positional depth equal to Alabama with names like Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield.
Alabama’s Damien Harris is peaking at the right time, and is all but assured of crossing the 1,000-yard mark during the course of this game. But Alabama suddenly has questions behind him, as Bo Scarbrough seems to be in a rut, and talented third-down back Joshua Jacobs not at 100 percent following a hamstring injury suffered prior to and then aggravated during the Clemson game.
Alabama utilized Najee Harris in a package situation against Clemson, and his role could easily be expanded here. Brian Robinson Jr. adds depth. But it would seem to be Damien Harris, then Scarbrough and Jacobs, and then hope for the best. Alabama utilizes no fullbacks, but Georgia has a good one in Christian Payne when they need a specialist at that position. As such, this one isn’t really close right now, despite how Harris looked against Clemson. Advantage: Georgia
Both teams are top-heavy, with most of Georgia’s production coming from two players (Javon Wynn, Terry Godwin) while Alabama relies to a great degree on Calvin Ridley. Slot receiver Mecole Hardman, who will likely get a touch or two as a runner as well, fills out the depth chart for Georgia, along with Riley Ridley, Calvin’s brother. Alabama’s depth situation is a little better. Cameron Sims and Robert Foster will start, but the younger players – Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III – have begun to step forward in the second half of the season.
Georgia has a numbers advantage at tight end, with the position split between Jeb Blazevich, Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner, but Alabama has probably the most complete tight end on either team (Irv Smith Jr.) along with Hale Hentges. Woerner is also listed as questionable for this game with a leg injury.
Consistency is a key for Georgia’s success. Godwin has had a solid year but has never been quite the playmaker he was predicted to be, while Wynn can be a physical matchup problem for awhile and then disappear for long stretches. This is as close as the quarterback comparison and shows the degree to which these two programs have equalized. Advantage: Alabama
Georgia has had a revolving door at right guard all year; unfortunately, now Alabama has to switch up personnel there, too. The season-ending injury to Lester Cotton brings J.C. Hassenauer into the starting lineup once more. Hassenauer did well in relief of Cotton against Clemson, just as he did in relief of Ross Pierschbacher earlier in the year. He seems to do better in limited snap work, though, which could touch off a merry-go-round on the right side if he’s ineffective.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, Pierschbacher at left guard and Jonah Williams at left tackle. Matt Womack will start at right tackle, and Womack would also be the top candidate to replace Hassenauer if he struggles. That would bring Jedrick Wills into the game at right tackle. For Georgia, Isaiah Wynn will start at left tackle, Kendall Baker at left guard, Lamont Gaillard at center and freshman Andrew Thomas at right tackle. At right guard the last two games has been Ben Cleveland, but Dyshon Sims and Solomon Kindley have also logged starts there in 2017.
Both teams have been excellent in preventing tackles for loss, and Georgia has been exemplary in reducing sacks allowed despite having a less mobile quarterback than the Crimson Tide. If Cotton were here to replicate his Clemson performance, this one might go Bama’s way, but Georgia has the superior stats and health at the moment. Advantage: Georgia
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