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If Georgia’s offensive line and efficient offense don’t scare you, the defense can probably do the trick. The Bulldogs use the same 3-4 over/under that Alabama does, and lead the nation with it. The Bulldogs also rank 1st in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. They are 2nd in raw pass defense and 3rd in rushing defense. Alabama’s defense isn’t bad, and has taken more grief than deserved, but it will have to play its best game of the year to match Georgia. The Tide rank 7th in total defense and 4th in rush defense, but pass defense numbers are more milquetoast – 42nd in raw pass defense and 68th in pass efficiency defense.
The Bulldogs rank 5th nationally in sacks, but are just 36th in tackles for loss in the rushing game. Alabama, meanwhile, ranks 3rd in both categories and has showed more innovation up front in getting things done. This category is probably closer than Georgia wants it to be, and Alabama would have a fighting say in it were it not for the apparent loss of NT D.J. Dale, who suffered a pregame knee injury of some degree against New Mexico State and hasn’t fully rebounded yet. Phidarian Mathis will start inside, with Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. getting most of Dale’s snaps. Justin Eboigbe, LaBryan Ray and Byron Young make for an efficient tackle/end combo spot rotation.
Georgia has the best overall player, NT Jordan Davis, who is highly productive for a 3-4 nose and who makes everyone around him more effective. The fact he’ll be working against potentially a new starting center for Alabama doesn’t make things any easier on the Tide. Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt will start at the end spots, and they have combined for a staggering 35 QB hurries on the year. Backup tackle Jalen Carter adds another 22 hurries. The relative lack of high-impact plays against the run offers Bama some hope, but the overall run defense numbers still point to a stifling performance on a weekly basis. Advantage: Georgia
Georgia’s starting unit – inside backers Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker and outside backers Robert Beal Jr. and Nolan Smith – are a well-rounded group, solid against the run and also able to affect quarterbacks. Beal, the strongside linebacker, doesn’t play as often as the others, but a third of his tackles on the year are sacks, so when he’s in, he tends to make an impact. Quay Walker is viewed as the best pro prospect of the bunch, but it’s Dean who has had the best year on paper, and he has an uncommon level of effect on opposing passing games given he’s an inside player. Channing Tindall will rotate with Walker and Dean and is actually the team’s leading tackler even though he doesn’t start.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s that Georgia doesn’t have Alabama depth at outside linebacker. The Crimson Tide will start Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o inside, with Jaylen Moody backing up, while Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner, Drew Sanders and Chris Braswell patrol the outside. Alabama’s Anderson is probably the best overall player on either team, but Georgia has been more consistent inside and has the depth advantage there. This is the closest call on the board and both units have the capacity to be elite. Advantage: Georgia
Despite Alabama trailing Georgia significantly in raw statistics, this is a closer comparison than it first looks due to the teams on Alabama’s schedule. Taking nothing away from Georgia, the Bulldogs have enjoyed a fantastic year in pass defense, but it’s probably due more to what’s happening up front. Alabama’s secondary makes more transformational plays and holds a solid lead in interceptions on the year, for instance, but Alabama will again be dealing with injury, as CB Jalyn Armour-Davis is unlikely to play due to a hip injury.
However, Alabama already dealt with this problem last week, and Ga’Quincy McKinstry, Armour-Davis’ replacement, had multiple key plays in the win over Auburn. McKinstry will start opposite Josh Jobe at corner, with Khyree Jackson likely backing up both spots. Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will start at safety, backed up by Daniel Wright, while Brian Branch has apparently moved ahead of Malachi Moore at Star. For Georgia, Ameer Speed and Derion Kendrick will start at the corner spots, with Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine at safety and Latavious Brini at Star. Cine is the one to watch here. Again, a close call, and if Armour-Davis was 100 percent, Alabama might actually steal this category due to the larger number of impactful plays. Advantage: Georgia
Given what happened against Auburn last week, this is a Georgia walkover. Alabama gives up nothing at placekicker, where Will Reichard probably holds a measurable edge over Georgia’s Jack Podlesny. But that’s it. Georgia punter Jake Camarda holds a dominating edge over Alabama’s James Burnip. Georgia ranks 3rd in kickoff return defense, but is just 103rd in punt return defense. However, with JoJo Earle probably still off the return team for Alabama, it remains to be seen whether the Tide can leverage that edge. If Georgia has a weak spot here, it’s in the return teams. The Bulldogs have used multiple punt returners and while overall the Bulldogs have put up respectable averages, they haven’t been dynamic.
Kickoff returns heavily favor Alabama – it’s probably the weakest spot on the Georgia team – but Georgia’s coverage abilities may negate that lead. The biggest question for Alabama this week will be whether Paul Tyson holds for kick attempts, or whether Burnip is the new permanent holder. Alabama shouldn’t be having to answer those questions heading into the 13th game of the year. Advantage: Georgia
Georgia leads in six categories, Alabama in two. Georgia also holds strong, clear edges in both OL-DL cross-matchups despite the strength of the Alabama defensive line. That should tell you the steep angle of the hill Alabama must climb to win this game.
The last time Alabama was a 2-6 underdog in one of our game previews probably came during Saban’s first season at Alabama, or maybe even back into the Mike Shula years. A lot of it is due to injuries. Put both teams back to 100-percent health, and Alabama probably wins the defensive back category, and might win the running back category as well. That would tie things up. It’s not that Georgia has completely avoided the injury bug, either – it’s that Alabama’s injuries have had a far more brutal impact, especially in the offensive backfield.
Is Alabama completely without hope in this game? Of course not. Again, Alabama has been in dogfights all year long and has learned how to win those games. Georgia beat Clemson 10-3 in the season opener and hasn’t been challenged since. The second-closest game on the 2021 Georgia schedule was a 17-point win over Kentucky in a game that wasn’t nearly that competitive.
For Alabama, the much larger question is can it score enough points to pressure Georgia’s offense into getting out of its churning, clock-eating preferences. The most points any team has scored on Georgia all year was 17 from Tennessee. Only four teams total scored in double digits at all. Those are numbers that seem more at home in the year 1961, not 2021.
If Alabama wants to get into the College Football Playoff, it really needs to win this game. Failing that, Alabama must be competitive. Any kind of substantial Georgia victory will likely send Alabama out of the final cut, if for no other reason than “Bama Fatigue” is real, it’s bad, and it’s nationwide (two cents to Billy Gibbons).
It’s been a while since Alabama had its back squarely against the wall. Let’s see what they do with it.
Editor’s Note: Because Alabama is one of the participants in the SEC Championship Game, there will be no standalone SEC Preview and Predictions article this week. Last week, the Predictions Dept. finished up the 2021 regular season with a 8-1 (88.9%) week, for a 13-week total of 85-27 (75.9%). This game will be the final game included in our season totals; TideFans.com does not publish a full preview of bowl games involving SEC teams.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN