Even after Alabama had hit a miraculously long field goal to cut Georgia’s halftime lead to 24-20, if you had been able to get anyone in the stadium to place a bet that Alabama would shut out the Bulldogs in the second half and eventually win by three scores, that person would have been immediately drug underneath the catacombs of Bryant-Denny Stadium and administered a test not for Covid-19, but for either drunkenness or basic sanity.
Alabama played as well in the second half of the game as it played poorly in the first half, at least on defense. Offensively, this is a juggernaut of a team that can basically do whatever it wants right now. Need to run the ball with bulldozer-like effectiveness to eat clock? Najee Harris can do that for you. Need to hit a 90-yard bomb from the shadow of your own goalposts and not get sacked for a safety while doing that? Cue Mac Jones and Jaylen Waddle. Need an acrobat in a football uniform who can confound and even embarrass defensive backs who will one day get paid seven figures a year to play the sport? Hello, DeVonta Smith.
So complete has Steve Sarkisian’s programming of the Alabama offense been that Alabama is now using 5-6 tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks on a given night, and every one of them has a key role in the offense. Miller Forristall has been made such a weapon in this offense that when he missed most of the first quarter with a twisted ankle, there was real concern that Alabama was losing one of those “glue players” that holds entire systems together.
But one of the biggest takeaways from this game was just how much distance there is between QB Mac Jones and whoever is calling signals for the teams Alabama plays. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV has been the very definition of a solid game manager quarterback so far in 2020, but when it was Alabama he was facing and not a lesser team, his game folded up. Jones, on the other hand, facing the best defense he’s likely to face during the conference season, again went over the 400-yard mark passing and torched the Bulldog secondary for 4 touchdowns.
At one point in the game, Jones was 5-of-11. He finished 19-of-21 to go 24-of-32 total on the night. Those are video game numbers with cheat codes enabled.
The game, though, turned not so much on what Jones accomplished, but what Bennett did not – much of that due to adjustments the Alabama defense made at the half. Bennett threw two second-half interceptions, and both were absolute daggers. A tipped pass that Malachi Moore caught and ran back 42 yards stopped a potential Georgia scoring drive in the third quarter while the outcome was still in doubt. Then, Daniel Wright picked off a fourth-quarter pass and returned it 18 yards, a pass attempt poor enough to be considered one of the worst decisions any SEC quarterback has made this season.
Whether Alabama’s second-half defensive shutout would have happened absent those two plays is another matter, but the point is the defense got the stops it needed. This has been a defense that hasn’t stopped opponents so much as it has hindered them on their way to paydirt. But Alabama is in no position to be choosy about the way in which good things happen. The Crimson Tide will take this win and head into Tennessee with the momentum, and now a clear path to Atlanta that basically involves taking care of business against LSU and Auburn without falling victim to some of the craziness those two series have visited upon the Tide in recent years.
All eyes will still be on the defense, but improvement can start anywhere, and the second half of the win over Georgia is as good a starting place as any.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Georgia:
1. The offensive design, and the number of weapons on O, give Alabama a stilted advantage. The basic design of the wide receiver route tree on Jaylen Waddle’s 90-yard touchdown reception is a perfect example of using the chalkboard to effect actual results on the field. The simple crossing of the routes at the line of scrimmage turned good coverage into bad coverage, and Waddle getting Tyson Campbell off-balance was just icing on the cake. A larger look at the play (which we might provide a breakdown of on our forums later this week, as we did with Josh McMillon’s key block on Najee Harris’ fifth touchdown last week) shows at least two and perhaps three other receivers running free.
While raw talent certainly is the biggest factor, Sarkisian’s mastery of offensive theory has really risen to the top of the cup in 2020. What is happening now is that Alabama can attack in whatever way it wants to, either on the ground or through the air, with the knowing that eventually something will break through against the opposing defense. It starts with an offensive line that is playing positively out of its mind right now, then adds a quarterback who has a strong case for being the best in college football at the moment, a wide receiver group that will all play in the NFL at some point, and two bruiser running backs who are built to own the fourth quarters of games. There simply is not a weakness on the offensive side of the ball – not one single position out of 11.
2. Defense made the adjustments it needed at the half, but there are still many improvements needed. Shutting out Georgia in the second half was unexpected and is deserving of all due praise. And we hope this comes across with all the respect the feat was due, without throwing water on the accomplishment, but at the same time glossing over issues does no one a good service. Linebacker play in the first half, particularly against the run, was just not where it needed to be, and it hasn’t been where it needed to be for the entirety of the 2020 season.
Most of the actual adjustments were minor – linebackers taking more of a read/react approach over crashing into the first gap they saw, using true freshmen in their first action (DLs Jamil Burroughs and Tim Smith), using twin Jacks more often in lieu of three large-bodied linemen. Getting S Jordan Battle back after a one-half suspension for targeting also changed the look of the secondary, as it allowed Daniel Wright to take the simpler role of dime, and he responded by having a much better second half that included an interception. But the turnovers themselves were the greatest “adjustment,” giving the defense confidence more than any Xs-and-Os change could.
3. LB play in the first half continued to show too many problems. On Georgia’s four biggest chunk plays in the running game in the first half, MLB Dylan Moses was out of position on three of them. Alabama’s inside linebackers continue to struggle for large swaths of the game. Christian Harris was unfortunately to blame for most of the lead-up to James Cook’s 82-yard pass reception, but overall he had a much better game than Moses and appeared to be taking the lead in communication of defensive positioning in the second half. Christopher Allen had a much better second half, the second straight week in which he’s gotten more effective as the game has gone along, a tribute perhaps to a change in conditioning programs. Will Anderson Jr. had a mixed night, to be expected out of a true freshman sometimes.
Georgia’s running game is highly respected and Alabama was never going to completely shut it down, but communication lapses and busts continue to be an issue. Given how much raw talent there is among the starting group, calling for bench time after mistakes might not be a productive solution, but it might have the same effect that playing two true freshman on the defensive line – their first action of the year, coming against Georgia of all teams – seemed to have on the other members of that unit. The Moore interception especially helped stop the bleeding and flip the momentum of the game; the biggest issue from Alabama’s linebackers at the moment is that they seem to be good at neither setting up 3rd-and-8 or worse, or playing coverage assignments. One of those two things has to change and fast.
4. Bennett’s struggles show the value of a playmaker at QB in modern college football. As recently as probably 10-15 years ago, a team could compete for and even win a national championship with a second- or even third-tier talent at quarterback, and Stetson Bennett is somewhere in between those two rungs. But in today’s game, the importance of having someone at quarterback who can consistently change the flow of the game in some way has become a necessity. Bennett simply didn’t have the ability to do that against Alabama.
While relying on offense has always been a bit foolhardy at the college level, Alabama seems to have found a way to make it work, and when it does work it puts incredible pressure on the opposition to keep up with the pace of the game. Bennett was put into situations where the game was on his shoulders; at two of those critical junctures, he threw interceptions, one a very bad interception on a very ill-advised throw. Once Alabama got up by three scores, it was over. Without a running game to keep Alabama honest, Bennett had no chance to pull it back in.
5. Reichard’s long kick may have turned the game, but punting could turn a future game the other way. It was a minor miracle that Alabama was even able to get into position to try a 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half; that Will Reichard converted on the chance was a huge pick-me-up for an Alabama team about to go into the locker room trailing by 7. Reichard has been just what Alabama needed as a field goal and extra-point kicker in 2020, but that’s one-third of the actual kicking game. Kickoffs and punts make up the other two-thirds and Alabama is hurting right now in both. Chase Allen was pulled mid-game as kickoff specialist in favor of Reichard, but neither kicker was able to get the ball into the end zone even once.
Georgia’s Jake Camarda, on the other hand, got 4 touchbacks in 5 kicks. For Alabama, these were unacceptable results, made more dangerous by the fact that Kenny McIntosh, Zamir White and Kearis Jackson are all talented return men and every kickoff return became a breath-holding moment.
The punting situation continues to degrade. Sam Johnson averaged just 32.8 yards per kick, although he did put 3 of 4 kicks inside Georgia’s 20. His one long punt attempt, though, was shanked. Either Johnson needs to fix things, or Alabama needs to move on to either Charlie Scott or Ty Perine and see what they have to offer. Alabama is giving up 10-15 yards on each punt right now against most opponents.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN