Both teams run the 3-4 over/under scheme; there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the philosophy. Alabama, though, has put up blisteringly dominant numbers, ranking 1st nationally in four of the five major defensive categories (total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense) and 3rd in the fifth category (raw pass defense). Georgia is no slouch; its ranking of 20th in rushing defense is its worst ranking among the five categories.
Probably the most notable improvement for Alabama from the Auburn game to the Clemson game was the effectiveness of its front seven, which benefited from not having to play in the SEC Championship Game and got fresher because of it. Additionally, Alabama played just 70 defensive snaps against Clemson, not an overwhelming amount. Da’Ron Payne had a game to remember, intercepting a pass and then scoring on a gotcha play in Alabama’s Jumbo package. He’ll start in the middle, flanked by Da’Shawn Hand on one side and Raekwon Davis on the other. Isaiah Buggs will rotate with the two ends, along with Quinnen Williams, while Joshua Frazier backs up the middle.
Alabama is expecting to get LaBryan Ray back for this game after sitting out the Clemson game with a foot injury. Georgia will start John Atkins in the middle, with Jonathan Ledbetter on one side and either Trenton Thompson or Tyler Clark on the other. Clark in particular played a solid game against Oklahoma. Julian Rochester backs up the nose, while David Marshall and Michail Carter provide depth at the ends.
With the exception of Clark, there isn’t a single dominant player for Georgia the way Alabama uses Payne to disrupt gameplans, but production has been spread out better and Georgia has an inch better depth. Still, Alabama has more sacks, gets more tackles for loss and is fresher. It adds up. Advantage: Alabama
Even with all the losses at inside linebacker, if Anfernee Jennings could have just stayed upright another 5 minutes, Alabama would have been the clear winner here. Even with Jennings out, this will be a close call. Mack Wilson returned to the middle of the Bama defense against Clemson and was a homewrecker, disrupting passing routes and attacking holes against running backs. Rashaan Evans was just as disruptive. Provided both stay healthy for the balance of this game, Alabama has nothing to worry about up the middle. Terrell Lewis’ return at outside linebacker offered a glimpse into what could have been had he been available all year long. He punished Clemson’s tackles, kept Kelly Bryant uncomfortable in the pocket and was solid against the run. He appeared to tweak an ankle late in the game, but should be fine for this one.
The key question is whether Christian Miller – who looked clearly less than 100 percent against Clemson – and Jamey Mosley can replace Jennings at the other outside post. Joshua McMillon might also get a look. One interesting possibility is to see a defensive end, LaBryan Ray or Da’Shawn Hand, lining up as a stand-up end.
Not unlike Alabama, Georgia has had a rotating lineup in 2017, and a real lack of production at middle linebacker. Natrez Patrick should get the start, but he’s only played in nine games, has no sacks and just 2.5 tackles for loss, and hasn’t shown a lot of focus. Devin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter will line up outside. The most effective outside linebacker hasn’t been a starter, but pass-rush specialist D’Andre Walker. Georgia’s rock is weakside linebacker Roquan Smith, the team’s leading tackler with almost twice as many tackles as the guy sitting in second place. He’s Georgia’s Reuben Foster this year.
Despite having a guy like that, though, with Evans and Wilson at full strength for Alabama and Lewis back to optimum health as well, Alabama is more consistent across the board. The pressure is on Miller, Mosley and McMillon to keep the strongside linebacker spot nailed down. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s unit answered the call against Clemson after the Auburn game exposed potential flaws. Georgia doesn’t turn teams over much in the secondary, but its consistency makes this one another close call. Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker will start at the corner spots, with Dominick Sanders and J.R. Reed the safeties. This may be the only noticeable difference between the two teams’ schemes, as Georgia tends to go more left-right with both the safeties and the cornerbacks, while Alabama aligns that way only on the outside. Aaron Davis will play the Star position for Georgia. Tyrique McGhee offers depth at corner, while Richard LeCounte is the spare safety.
For Alabama, Levi Wallace and Anthony Averett will start at corner, with Ronnie Harrison at free safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick missed two days of practice this week after getting nicked up against Clemson, but he is expected to be ready to go by Monday. Deionte Thompson did a fabulous job replacing the injured Hootie Jones in his first substantive action last week, and Tony Brown also played a solid game. Both teams have solid secondaries, but Alabama’s more opportunistic approach gives them the edge. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s Andy Pappanastos is still apparently shaking off whatever injury he suffered leading up to the Mercer game, as he didn’t strike the ball all that well against Clemson. But punter J.K. Scott did, and Scott gives Alabama a field position weapon that few schools have. Trevon Diggs had a nice day returning kicks, and Alabama’s coverage units, among the best in the sport, defended their reputations well.
But this week, it’s all about Georgia. The Bulldogs were 5th in the nation in net punting behind Cameron Nizialek, and placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship is a weapon out to almost 60 yards. Georgia also has superb return teams and better-than-average coverage teams, so Alabama is unlikely to find the kind of unit advantage it enjoyed last week against the Tigers. In fact, this one’s not really that close at all. Advantage: Georgia
Alabama and Georgia both lead in four categories each. Both teams’ defensive lines control the matchup with their opponent’s offensive line.
This is as even a matchup as you’ll find, but what probably puts Alabama over the top a bit is the fact the Crimson Tide lead all three defensive categories. The defensive line makes more plays, the linebackers are more consistent, the secondary more able to turn a game around. In a game where even the smallest miscues will be magnified, Alabama is more apt to be able to take advantage of them.
As for who has the advantage in a matchup of teacher and student – meaning Nick Saban versus Kirby Smart – the numbers are clearly in Saban’s favor. Maybe that will change at some point in the future – maybe even starting with Monday night. But for now, it would be almost foolish to assert Smart was in the superior position for this game.
Expect something like Alabama’s 2011 rematch with LSU in the Sugar Bowl, but Georgia has more dangerous weapons on offense than did that particular LSU team. Expect the SEC to do what the SEC does best: Put on a show of old-school, win-it-in-the-trenches football.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN