If the offenses are similar, the defenses are downright identical. Both teams utilize a 3-4 over/under scheme. Nick Saban designed it, taught it to Kirby Smart early in his career as an assistant, and now Smart seems to be – shocking as this might initially sound – improving upon it. Alabama is struggling, especially against the pass, while Georgia is ranked 2nd in total defense and 1st in rushing defense nationwide.
Surprisingly, despite boasting the nation’s top rush defense, none of Georgia’s starting defensive linemen have recorded a tackle for loss. Georgia ranks 47th in that category overall, a ranking that is below the midpoint for teams currently playing. Jordan Davis will start at nosetackle, with Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt starting at the two end spots. Jalen Carter, Travon Walker and Julian Rochester form the second line, and finally there’s a TFL; Carter has it. The line has not recorded a sack, although the linebackers have been so adept at rushing the passer, it’s a stat that really hasn’t been missed.
Alabama will start D.J. Dale in the middle with LaBryan Ray and Justin Eboigbe starting outside. Phidarian Mathis, Christian Barmore and Byron Young are next up. Like Georgia, Alabama utilizes its linemen more for gap control and to take the heat off the linebackers, so the stats aren’t as gaudy. But Georgia has been more disciplined in its fits, and it has allowed the linebackers the ability to make more plays. Advantage: Georgia
Given that Alabama probably has four future NFLers among its starters, and one of those is projected to go in the top 20 picks of next April’s draft, the following isn’t said lightly: This is a huge mismatch in favor of the Bulldogs. Alabama linebackers simply aren’t playing well. Dylan Moses had a horrific game against Ole Miss, but due to the limitations on his backup Shane Lee in coverage, there’s not much Alabama can do besides ride it out.
Christian Harris had a far better effort at weakside linebacker, but he is still learning the position to an extent after playing defensive back in high school. His backup, Jalen Moody, might be in line for playing time at one of the two spots if the starters continue to struggle. Outside linebackers Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. have looked better than the inside players, but it’s not by enough to cover up the issues inside, plus the reserves (Drew Sanders, Ben Davis) haven’t made much of a contribution yet.
For Georgia, it’s a completely different story. Jack linebacker Azeez Ojulari is putting up gaudy stats already as a pass rusher. Nolan Smith did a good job at strongside linebacker while Jermaine Johnson was out with injury, and Georgia now has Johnson back. But the real key has been the play on the inside linebackers, Monty Rice and Nakobe Dean. Georgia has also more successfully integrated its depth players, including Smith outside along with Adam Anderson, and then inside with Quay Walker and Channing Tindall, the latter of which has been highly effective off the bench as a pass rusher. The raw talent is very close, comparing the two sides. The production, on the other hand, has not been. Advantage: Georgia
Georgia is 21st in raw pass defense and 3rd in pass efficiency defense. Alabama is 70th and 55th, respectively, and the biggest surprise is probably that the pass efficiency defense number isn’t worse. Aside from the first half of the Missouri opener, things have been frequently rough for the Crimson Tide. And now they’ll have to do it without their best safety, at least for the first half, as Jordan Battle will miss the first two quarters due to a targeting suspension. In his absence, Daniel Wright, who lost his job mid-game to DeMarcco Hellams last week at free safety, will likely start again at one of the two spots.
Brian Branch and Malachi Moore figure to keep the Star and dime positions, but Moore had a terrible game against Ole Miss just a week after playing like a seasoned veteran against Texas A&M. For those reasons, Eddie Smith might get a look this week. Cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain Jr. were not part of the problem against Ole Miss and both will start again this week.
Georgia will start Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes at the corners, with Richard LeCounte and Lewis Cine at the safety spots. LeCounte in particular has been a problem for Alabama in the past. The Star position will be either Mark Webb or Tyrique Stevenson, as the competition for the job continues, with the loser probably playing the dime spot. Georgia’s concerns revolve around trying to get the best mix at Star and dime; Alabama is almost at system-wide failure mode in regards to pass defense, and must fix it quickly. Advantage: Georgia
Another potential mismatch. Georgia’s Jake Camarda may be the best punter in the conference right now, while placekicker Jack Podlesny is 7-for-8 on field goals, including 2-of-3 from beyond 40 yards. The Bulldogs lead the nation in net punting and are also 4th in kickoff returns behind Kenny McIntosh, who paces the conference in the stat. Georgia also plays good defense on returns. This was a point of interest for Alabama fans long before this game, as former Bama strength coach Scott Cochran now coordinates these units for Georgia.
Alabama will apparently still use Sam Johnson at punter, while Will Reichard is the placekicker. Alabama can match strength-for-strength in the return game thanks to Jaylen Waddle on punt returns, although the kickoff return unit has yet to really get going. Until Reichard is put in a critical situation, it’s not clear what Alabama has at placekicker this year. Georgia holds a wide advantage in punting, and kickoff distance has been an issue for Alabama’s Chase Allen at times. Advantage: Georgia
Alabama leads in four categories, Georgia in four. As it stands, the OL-DL cross-matchups both favor Georgia, although we’re not completely sure of the extent by which Georgia’s OL leads Alabama’s DL. Neither team is playing to their potential in that matchup at the moment.
But Georgia more than makes up for it when it comes time to inject the second level of the defense into the discussion. The Bulldog linebackers are the difference-makers here. And everything good they do immediately translates to the secondary, which isn’t under the kind of pressure Alabama’s defensive backfield is due to struggles in front of them.
We haven’t yet talked about the sideline impact of Alabama not having Nick Saban available, but this was shaping up to be a likely Alabama loss even before Saban tested positive for Covid-19. The game is going to hinge on how well Alabama’s offensive line can handle the second level of the Georgia defense, because otherwise, Georgia should be expected to score some points, and potentially, a lot of them. Alabama hasn’t really stopped anyone yet, save for Missouri in the first half of the opener. Georgia is far from the most dynamic offensive team Alabama will face the rest of the year, but it is a sound team with a good approach.
The question of what is better in football, a good defense to stop them with or an offense that can outscore them, is one that gets frequently asked. While the answer varies, good defense has generally been the more reliable option. Alabama doesn’t have that right now, so the pressure is on the offense to over-perform.
And now, Alabama must get to that point without Nick Saban helping the defensive assistants call the came, and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian must now add game control decisions to playcalling, as he has been named the interim head coach.
The subplot to that decision is whether Sarkisian will treat this as a pseudo job interview for whatever point in the future Nick Saban decides to call it quits. Such an opportunity can be either just that, an opportunity, or it can create strife by amplifying the pressure and scrutiny regarding every decision he makes during the game, no matter how small.
Without a large hometown crowd to help Alabama along, the problems on defense just look too many to overcome at this time. But if Alabama were to stage a repeat of last week’s track meet with Ole Miss, and somehow come out on top yet again, maybe the fundamentals underpinning the question of good offense versus good defense would need to change.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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