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Georgia preview: Bama already had a tough task before Saban’s illness

When word broke that Nick Saban had tested positive for Covid-19 and would all but certainly miss this weekend’s game against Georgia, most fans had two questions: One, is Coach Saban OK; and two, did he manage to fix the defense yet?

Coming off a most unsatisfying win over Ole Miss last Saturday in which everything that could go wrong for the defense did, once it had been made clear that Saban appears to have a very mild case of Covid-19, the focus turned directly back to a defense that had made every Alabama fan sick to their stomach just a few days before.

Georgia is coming into town, and while the Bulldogs don’t have the kind of dynamic playmaker at quarterback that Ole Miss has in Matt Corral, the Bulldogs have a much better defense, and Alabama likely won’t be able to count on matching score for score with the Bullies.

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While there are similarities between Georgia’s offense and Alabama’s, Kirby Smart, who has made his program a carbon copy of the Alabama program in nearly every way, opted to copy a somewhat older style of Alabama offense. This is the offense of Nick Saban’s early Bama era, where the running game was highlighted at almost every opportunity. Alabama has moved on to a more wide-open, spread-based attack but one that still retains its pro-style leanings. Georgia has good balance – 31st in passing and 36th in rushing offense, for a ranking of 34th overall – but Alabama has explosiveness, ranking 2nd in passing offense, 3rd in total offense, 34th in rushing offense and leading the nation in scoring as a result.

Stetson Bennett traveled a circuitous route to becoming Georgia’s starter. He enrolled at Georgia, left to transfer to a junior college for more playing time, came back to Georgia just as the Bulldogs were recruiting transfers (J.T. Daniels from USC, Jamie Newman from Wake Forest) and signing the next big thing in freshman Carson Beck. But Newman opted out over Covid-19 concerns (after failing to impress as much in practice as he was supposed to), Daniels was injured and Beck hasn’t panned out yet. That has left Bennett holding the reins to the offense, and while he lacks the explosiveness of other quarterbacks, he has been quite efficient at running the Georgia offense.

A game manager to the core, Bennett is currently 53-of-84 (63.1%) for 689 yards, 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He carries a very respectable QB rating of 151.6. He has also carried the ball 13 times for 27 yards (2.3 avg.) and has scored a rushing touchdown. He won’t do much to “wow” anybody but he probably won’t be the reason Georgia loses, if the Bulldogs in fact do. His backup is a freshman, D’Wan Mathis, who is a much better runner than passer.

Alabama will start Mac Jones, who has already topped the 1,100-yard mark in passing for the year, has thrown 8 touchdowns against just 1 interception, and has a QB rating of a shockingly-high 220.3. The only thing Bennett has on Jones may be slightly better mobility and even then it’s probably a wash at worst. True freshman Bryce Young looks already far further along than Georgia’s Mathis, even if Young still has yet to play much. Head-to-head, this one isn’t close, but Bennett is doing enough in his offense to still be a strong contributor. Advantage: Alabama

Surprisingly, Georgia has not had the success on the ground one would think given the prowess of its offensive line. The team’s leading rusher is Zamir White, who has 4 touchdowns through 3 games but is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, a dismal figure in modern football. Najee Harris’ output against Ole Miss alone almost matches White’s for three games. Backups Kendall Milton, Kenny McIntosh and James Cook have all fared better in regard to average-per-carry, but none has scored. Neither has Daijun Edwards, whose per-carry average trails even White’s. There is no doubt the depth is there, as Georgia has found a way to integrate five backs into the offense, but the production needs to improve.

Production isn’t an issue at the moment for Alabama, especially not for Najee Harris and certainly not when Harris gets into the red zone. He has 10 rushing touchdowns so far on the year, 347 rushing yards (and another 76 receiving yards) and has generally been too much for SEC defenders to tackle one-on-one. His backup, Brian Robinson Jr., has had two solid games in a row (he actually overshadowed Harris against Texas A&M), and is developing into a hard-edged, one-cut runner whose size is hard for fatigued defensive linemen to handle when Robinson comes in fresh.

Trey Sanders and Jace McClellan aren’t integral parts of the offense yet. Alabama also has the makings of a real fullback in Josh McMillon, who has been highly effective as a situational blocker in short yardage. It will be interesting to see whether he plays more going forward. Overall, depth is about equal between the two teams, but Alabama had gotten better production per snap and has a higher ceiling. Advantage: Alabama

Injuries have cut into Georgia’s numbers somewhat, but the lack of development of a secondary receiver is the real issue. While Dominick Blaylock is out for the year and a top reserve, Matt Landers, is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, the question most on everyone’s mind in Athens is when George Pickens is finally going to break out. Pickens has the most touchdowns of the group (2), but has caught just 8 passes for 87 yards and hasn’t been the key to the receiving corps. That honor goes to Kearis Jackson, who has caught 19 balls for 300 yards (15.8 avg.) out of the slot this year, one of several talented slot receivers operating in college football right now.

Like many of the rest, Jackson is not the biggest guy on the team, but in his case specifically, he has a thicker build than many slot receivers and can break tackles after the catch. True freshman Jermaine Burton rounds out the starters but has just 4 catches on the year.

With Landers hurting, Demetris Robertson and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint will probably be the top reserves. Alabama will have to account for a deep tight end group led by John Fitzpatrick and Tre McKitty. True freshman Darnell Washington, who Alabama badly wanted to sign in the most recent recruiting cycle, gives the Bulldogs a 6’7”, 260-pound target.

Alabama certainly is getting better production at the three wide receiver slots, manned by Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III. Metchie is 3 yards short of having more yards on the season than Georgia’s Jackson, while Waddle and Smith are already past him.

The one lacking component has been depth. Slade Bolden is the fourth receiver but hasn’t been targeted yet. Xavier Williams and Javon Baker are expected to be the other reserves but haven’t been part of the offense at this point. Alabama is in better shape at tight end given the eclectic mix of talent there. Miller Forristall has developed into an excellent flex tight end, asked to work at both Y and H. He has improved his blocking skills greatly and is a talented receiver.

The rest of the group includes graduate transfer Carl Tucker, converted defensive end Cameron Latu, converted offensive lineman Kendall Randolph, and Jahleel Billingsley, who is built more like a tall slot player. Major Tennison still hasn’t completely recovered from an early injury. Georgia certainly has potential, but Alabama is realizing its potential more effectively. Advantage: Alabama

Despite the lack of domination running the ball, Georgia ranks 7th in tackles for loss allowed. Sacks allowed is a respectable 29th. There is plenty of experience inside, where junior center Trey Hill is flanked by senior guards Ben Cleveland and Justin Shaffer. Left tackle Jamaree Salyer is in his first year as a full-time starter but had plenty of experience coming into the year.

Right tackle has been the problem spot, where Owen Condon will likely miss this game with an undisclosed injury. That leaves a freshman, Warren McClendon, to start. Where Georgia is really in trouble is in regards to depth; with Condon out, freshman Xavier Truss is the only tackle listed on the depth chart, while Warren Ericson and Clay Webb will have to share reserve guard and center duties.

Alabama had as good a game against Ole Miss as it has ever had, and ranks 19th in sacks allowed and 21st in tackles for loss allowed. Landon Dickerson will start at center with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guards and Evan Neal and Alex Leatherwood at tackle. Alabama has the edge in experience due to Georgia’s situation at right tackle, and holds a wide edge in regards to depth. Advantage: Alabama

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