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Both teams use the same 3-4 over/under scheme, which one would expect given Kirby Smart learned everything he knows about it from Nick Saban. Other than pass efficiency defense, where Georgia ranks 29th and Alabama 6th, the two teams are close enough to being statistically identical that parsing numbers is sort of pointless. There are subtle differences, namely in how Georgia plans to pressure Tagovailoa given some issues up front, but for the most part these are probably the two best-balanced defenses in the SEC going at it.
Production up front wasn’t supposed to be an issue for Georgia in 2018, but it has become one. Georgia ranks a respectable 27th against the run, but the defensive line has struggled to get any kind of penetration. Georgia ranks 101st in sacks and 118th in tackles for loss – shocking numbers, really, given the Bulldogs’ overall record and statistical prowess in both raw run and pass defense.
DE Jonathan Ledbetter, who was expected to emerge as one of the SEC’s best pass rushers, has one sack. So, too, does tackle Tyler Clark. NT Julian Rochester actually leads the starting linemen with 1.5 sacks on the year. Ledbetter also has just 2 QB hurries compared to 3 each for Clark and Rochester. It’s certainly possible Ledbetter could go off in this game, as he has the raw talent, but it would certainly be a new development. Jay Davis, Michael Barnett and Jordan Davis will provide depth, with only Davis really flashing special ability.
Alabama counters with the SEC’s best defensive lineman, Quinnen Williams, in the middle, flanked by Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis. Buggs was injured on a cut block against Auburn, but is expected to play. Expect to see more of LaBryan Ray in relief at that position regardless; Ray responded to the increased workload against Auburn by recording 9 tackles. Johnny Dwight and Phidarian Mathis round out the top group. Our reaction to Georgia’s low production is mostly one of shock; it makes this category not particularly close. Advantage: Alabama
Georgia’s top defensive playmaker, without a doubt, is Jack linebacker D’Andre Walker, who has more than a third of the team’s total sacks (6.5) and more than triple the QB hurries (13) of the next guy up. Alabama is going to have a tough time dealing with all the ways Walker can affect an offense.
The rest of the unit is deep, but Georgia has been rotating personnel all year trying to find the right fit. Expect Natrez Patrick to start somewhere, with either Tae Crowder or Monty Rice at the other inside position. Walter Grant is the designated starter at strongside linebacker, but he won’t play much against Alabama’s multi-receiver sets.
Juwan Taylor provides depth and is a good tackler, but really is a chasedown linebacker rather than a guy that can get into the backfield. Patrick probably has the most ability against the run, while Crowder has some pass-rush skills. Rice is a good fit in multiple roles.
Alabama will start Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses inside, with Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller at outside linebacker. The amount of improvement Alabama has gotten from this group over the course of 2018 is substantial, and Jennings is basically back to where his 2017 season ended. Miller’s production rivals that of Georgia’s Walker.
The question for Alabama is the same as it’s been all year: Can the inside linebackers hold up in coverage? With Nauta in the picture for this game, it’s a significant issue. The other question this week is whether Terrell Lewis is going to return to the field for Alabama, as he is practicing with the team again. The answer is probably not, but Georgia will have to think about it regardless. Even without Lewis, this is a close call, but Walker’s ability to singlehandedly affect a game stands out, as does Georgia getting more consistent play from the middle linebacker spot.
We’d call it a push but we don’t use pushes in the individual unit comparisons. Advantage: Georgia
There’s certainly nothing wrong with Georgia’s defensive backfield, but nothing really stands out, either. Safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte are good players, but their stats are … well, boring. They’ve combined for just 3 tackles for loss, whereas Alabama’s safeties have 8.5.
Alabama’s safeties also make more plays on the ball and force more turnovers. Perhaps it flows downhill from Georgia’s lack of pass rush from the defensive line, but any way you slice it, it’s a problem. Deandre Baker will start at the other corner spot, but there’s some shuffling going on across the way, where Tyrique McGhee and true freshman Tyson Campbell have been trading the position back and forth, along with redshirt freshman Eric Stokes. Stokes, whose 7 pass break-ups in very limited work (Baker leads the team with 9, three times that of any other starter), started the UMass game but it’s not immediately clear how he ranks in Georgia’s plans for this game.
Alabama will start Patrick Surtain II and Saivion Smith at the corner positions, with Xavier McKinney, Deionte Thompson and Shyheim Carter at safety. Production strongly favors Alabama, and the Crimson Tide has good depth. In the first half, when Bama works in dime, Keaton Anderson will replace Jared Mayden, who is sitting out following a targeting penalty against Auburn. It would be a surprise if Alabama spent more than 10 snaps in dime per half, so this isn’t the issue it could have been against, say, a Missouri or Oklahoma. Advantage: Alabama
Georgia probably has the best special teams in the conference this year, ranking 7th in punt returns and 16th in kickoff returns, and of course, both kickers are fantastic. Rodrigo Blankenship has hit 86.4% of his field goal attempts, and is a threat from anywhere inside 60 yards. Punter Jake Camarda has been solid, and Georgia’s only spot of mediocrity is in punt return defense (50th).
Alabama continues to have issues, as the Tide had a punt blocked against Auburn. Other than that, punter Mike Bernier had a solid day against Auburn and continues to add length to his kicks.
Placekicker Joseph Bulovas has reached the 75% mark on field goal tries, but all those missed PATs still loom large. The Crimson Tide is probably better in the return game than Georgia, and Bama ranks 2nd in the nation in punt return defense. If the kickers continue to improve incrementally, Alabama should be fine down the stretch, but Georgia has proven it can win games with its group. That’s a step ahead. Advantage: Georgia
Alabama leads in five categories, Georgia in three, but linebacker is a glorified toss-up and the running back category is closer than it looks. In regards to OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama’s defensive line leads Georgia’s offensive line. And from the looks of it, Alabama’s offensive line also leads Georgia’s defensive line.
A sweep in the OL-DL cross-matchups is rare at this point of the season and with this much at stake, but the fact of the matter is the Bulldogs have been unimpressive up front defensively. If Alabama can exploit that, the Crimson Tide ought to win this game, and win it comfortably. Even if Georgia plays what we think is its potential best, the Bulldogs will work to a stalemate with Alabama’s offensive line.
In that case, unless the Bulldogs release Justin Fields upon the Tide and he has a Tua-like day, Alabama should be your 2018 SEC champions. The Crimson Tide looks more dynamic on defense, and there’s a clear edge both under center and on the perimeter of the offense.
The best way to answer the question of whether Alabama would make the College Football Playoff in the event of a loss to Georgia, is simply not to lose to Georgia. From where we sit, something weird would have to happen to make such an event come to pass.
Editor’s Note: Last week marked the season’s end of our weekly SEC Preview and Predictions article. Last week’s results were an 8-0 record, for a season total of 93-17 (84.6%). The SEC Championship Game is our final game to be counted for 2018; bowl predictions are not included.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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