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By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 29, 2018
The last time we saw the Georgia Bulldogs, they – like everyone else in the college football world – were staring, dumbfounded, at an Atlanta scoreboard trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed.
Alabama’s true freshman backup quarterback, some guy named Tua Tagovailoa, had just dropped a perfectly-placed ball into the waiting arms of true freshman wide received DeVonta Smith, giving Alabama a 26-23 victory, its 17th national championship, and jump-starting the legend of Tua, which has only grown in the ten months since.
Georgia now gets a second bite at Bama, and Tagovailoa, except this time it’s for a piece of SEC championship hardware. The game is again at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia will once again hold a big crowd edge, with the game being in its back yard.
Most of the talk this week has centered on how the Bulldogs have responded these past few months to what happened to them in January. There has been a lot of talk about how Georgia will be better-prepared for Tagovailoa and his back of tricks – even though his bag of “tricks” is essentially just being the most accurate and/or effective quarterback in an SEC pro-style offense since guys named Wuerffel, Manning or Manziel. By the time Tagovailoa’s career is done, which will come no sooner than the end of the 2020 season, he may very well make fans forget those other guys ever existed.
Teams change from year to year and nothing is static. That includes Georgia, which had to replace more than half its starting defense since January. It also includes Alabama, which retooled its offensive style in the months since January’s epic come-from-behind victory and has become much more dangerous in the process.
There’s been plenty of talk this week about whether Alabama could still make the College Football Playoff if it loses this game to Georgia. The real question is whether Georgia is capable of forcing such a scenario.
Little has changed for Georgia in regards to offensive style. This is still a power-pro team that features a tough running game and is led by a quarterback who has plenty of ability in his own right. Georgia ranks 13th in total offense and it’s all because of a rushing attack that ranks 11th; passing offense is decidedly down the list at 72nd. But Georgia ranks 3rd in passing efficiency and 13th in scoring offense, a testament to how formidable the Bulldogs can be even when they seem to be keeping everything on the ground. Alabama’s multiple, pro-style spread leads the nation in passing efficiency, is 2nd in scoring, 4th in total offense, 6th in passing offense and 32nd in rushing offense.
Hard as it is to believe, there is somewhat of a quarterback controversy brewing for the Bulldogs. Jake Fromm has completed 69.1% of his passes and thrown for 2,236 yards, 24 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions, but he has committed the unpardonable sin of not being Tua Tagovailoa. He isn’t “dynamic enough” for a lot of Bulldog fans, but Fromm is getting the job done. He’s also shown no sign of being ineffective in big moments the way Jalen Hurts was trending at the end of 2017.
The Tua of Georgia’s roster is a true freshman named Justin Fields, who is 27-of-38 (71.1%) for 328 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in limited work. Fields has actually rushed for almost as much yardage (260 yards on 39 carries, 6.7 avg., 4 TD) as he has thrown, and he’s a true dual-threat quarterback with a lot of upside. The question for Georgia is will Kirby Smart have the guts to switch from Fromm to Fields if the situation leads him to do so.
For Bama, both Tagovailoa and Hurts return from a year ago, and both quarterbacks boast efficiency ratings in excess of 200.0. Each quarterback has almost doubled the passing output of his counterpart (Tagovailoa vs. Fromm, Hurts vs. Fields). The big difference, of course, is what Tagovailoa has accomplished, and how dynamic he can be with the game on the line. The performance against Auburn is probably still underappreciated, given the bigger games yet to come on the schedule. There’s nothing wrong with the Fromm/Fields combo; they’re just not Tagovailoa/Hurts. Advantage: Alabama
As early as the middle of 2017, college football fans were told to watch out for the emergence one day of D’Andre Swift as Georgia’s primary running back. While that admonition certainly has come to pass in 2018, what wasn’t nearly as expected was the emergence of Elijah Holyfield as a legitimate load-sharer – and Holyfield is now the starter. Holyfield earned only 293 yards in 2017 to Swift’s 618, but this season, their stats are practically identical. Swift has rushed 139 times for 962 yards, a 6.9-yard average, and 9 touchdowns.
Holyfield has carried 133 times for 896 yards, a 6.7-yard average, and 7 touchdowns. The big difference is their value to the passing game; Holyfield has only 4 catches, while Swift is sixth on the team in receptions with 21. The only question coming into this one is whether Holyfield is 100 percent healthy. Brian Herrien and true freshman James Cook are both averaging 6.0 yards per carry or higher in reserve roles and will play in this game.
Alabama has a formidable RB group of its own, led by Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Najee Harris will also play early in this game. The two Harrises have per-carry numbers that are within sight of Georgia’s, and both are powerful inside runners with good burst. Jacobs gives Alabama an edge Georgia doesn’t have, as he is able to fill multiple roles, including blocking back and split end. What Alabama hasn’t shown yet is the ability to feed one (or two) backs for 30-40 carries in a game when the Tide needs to chew clock. That probably goes more to a question of offensive philosophy and blocking schemes rather than running back ability. For now, though, Georgia holds the edge here due to Swift. Advantage: Georgia
This is probably the most surprising unit on the Georgia side, as the Bulldogs weren’t expected to be much better than average after losing Javon Wims to the pros. But Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley together have 14 touchdown receptions and have shown the ability to take the top off a defense, especially Hardman.
Raw production won’t equal Alabama’s, but there’s not a lot of difference in talent between Alabama’s starters and these two. There is, though, somewhat of a step back to Jeremiah Holloman and veteran Terry Godwin; Godwin’s production is off by more than half compared to 2017. Tight end Isaac Nauta is no worse than the second-best tight end in the SEC and some evaluators say he’s the best overall because of his in-line blocking ability.
Unfortunately for Georgia, if Nauta is second-best in the conference, he’s second-best to the guy lining up for the Crimson Tide this week, Irv Smith Jr. Alabama’s starting receiving rotation of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle all caught touchdown passes against Auburn and the production of this unit has been nothing short of insane. Only Smith, with 499 receiving yards, trails Hardman’s 519.
Every other Bama player in the Tide’s A-group is over that figure, and Jerry Jeudy (1,079 yards) doubles it. This is similar to the running back comparison in that one team has a fine group deserving of an ovation, but the other side is simply doing more. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama put back together its preferred starting five against Auburn, as LG Deonte Brown returned to the starting lineup. Together with RG Alex Leatherwood, center Ross Pierschbacher and tackles Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills, Alabama’s starting group has been fantastic, ranking 9th in fewest sacks allowed and 12th in tackles for loss allowed. Georgia has good numbers in those categories, too: 23rd in sacks allowed, 15th in tackles for loss allowed.
What Georgia doesn’t have right now is a stable situation at right guard. Three different players have started there, most recently a true freshman, Trey Hill. The other choices have included yet another true freshman, Cade Mays, and sophomore Ben Cleveland, who was replaced in Week 5.
Mays is also suffering from a shoulder injury and is questionable against Alabama. Aside from that, Georgia is in good shape; Adnrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson have done well at the tackles, while Lamont Gaillard starts at center and Solomon Kindley at left guard. This is a young group, with only Gaillard an upperclassman, and Georgia coaches have to be excited about the future. Right now, though, the present belongs to the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama
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