On the same field that Landon Dickerson was lost for the eventual conclusion of the 2020 Alabama football season, replaced by Chris Owens at center, Chris Owens came into this game against Georgia as somewhat of a marked man.
Owens had come back for a sixth season in Tuscaloosa, was originally slated to play center (with Kendall Randolph at right tackle), and then an injury to Randolph late in camp mixed things up a bit. Randolph was moved back to his role as a short-yardage tight end, in large part to reduce his snap count while he healed. Owens took over at right tackle, and Darrian Dalcourt slid into the now-open spot at center.
By the end of the year, both Owens and Dalcourt were in danger of losing their jobs, Dalcourt to injury and Owens to performance. It remains to be seen whether Seth McLaughlin, who has played phenomenally for six quarters now in relief of Dalcourt, will be Alabama’s center when the College Football Playoffs start. Owens, on the other hand, would have stayed benched behind youngster Damieon George Jr. had George not struggled so badly against Auburn’s elite defensive ends in the first half of last week’s game.
Owens came off the bench last week to, at the very least, stabilize the situation. The Alabama coaches elected to go for veteran continuity over the more physically impressive George in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia.
And were they ever rewarded.
Quarterback Bryce Young finished as the no-doubt MVP of Alabama’s 41-24 thrashing of Georgia this day. But Chris Owens should at least get the opportunity to have his picture taken with the trophy.
It wasn’t just Owens. A right tackle having a career game isn’t enough to make an offense go. The entire Alabama offensive line played out of their minds against Georgia, against type for the year and in defiance of prognosticator after prognosticator (including this one) who more or less laughed in the face of any comparison of the Alabama and Georgia offensive lines.
Consider this: Georgia never sacked Bryce Young, and even though they hurried him 8 times – a hallmark of a Georgia defense, whose QB hurry total on the season looks ridiculously inflated on paper but may actually be legitimate – in this game, Georgia only got one clean hit on Young.
Stetson Bennett? Sacked 3 times, hurried 5 times, and pressured into 2 interceptions, one of them of the back-breaking pick-six variety.
Young, on the other hand, broke Mac Jones’ record for passing yardage in the SEC Championship Game, torching the Bulldog secondary for 3 touchdowns and putting up a QB rating of 98.0, which consequently is the same percentage chance that no one on the Georgia sideline ever wants to have to face Bryce Young again so long as they live.
Alabama is now SEC champions in a most unlikely unfolding of events, that have included the losses of key personnel – including bellcow WR John Metchie III in this game to what will almost surely be confirmed as a season-ending knee injury by the first of the week – a young team that struggled for direction in the first half of the year, and a loss to an underachieving Texas A&M team that nearly derailed all of Bama’s postseason plans. Turns out, the worst thing to come out of the A&M loss is that Jimbo Fisher will now be able to incessantly brag about being the first Nick Saban assistant to ever defeat his former boss.
Alabama will now sit back and wait to see who the College Football Playoff committee assigns them for a semifinal opponent. Alabama will likely face that opponent without John Metchie, and potentially without other key personnel, such as CB Jalyn Armour-Davis.
But it will face them nonetheless. As of 5 p.m. in Auburn, Ala., last Saturday, few would have thought it possible. Today, Alabama goes back to Tuscaloosa with yet another piece of hardware that the Bryant Museum staff will have to find a spot for in a building already bursting at the seams with the spoils of greatness.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Georgia:
1. OL was superbly prepared for Georgia’s front pressures and blitz schemes. Perhaps this is because the Kirby Smart defense is the Nick Saban defense with a different coat of paint, but whereas other teams seemed to be able to confuse the Alabama OL, against Georgia, Alabama was patient, poised and prepared. We’ve already talked about Owens’ play at right tackle, but McLaughlin’s work at center was revelatory.
Line communication has looked much better since he took over for Dalcourt, and the Alabama coaches will have a decision to make next game when Dalcourt is presumably healed from a moderate ankle injury. McLaughlin is a callback to William Vlachos, Saban’s first championship-winning center, who didn’t look like the most impressive physical specimen, but who played with great technique and plucky toughness. Emil Ekiyor Jr. also probably had his best game at right guard, and appears to work better in combo block situations with McLaughlin than he did with Dalcourt. Alabama’s familiarity with the defensive scheme certainly helped this week, but the line still had to execute, and it did.
2. Brian Robinson Jr.’s effort Saturday goes right up there with Paul Bryant playing on a broken leg. Robinson was a scratch as late as Friday morning, according to TideFans.com sources. How Robinson managed to overcome a hamstring injury and an ankle injury both, and have the game he had, is one of the most jaw-dropping displays of toughness from an Alabama player in the long, storied history of the program. Trey Sanders played very well in relief before exiting with what looked like a possible concussion, but without Robinson, Alabama might not have won the game.
Robinson was close to flawless in blitz pickup, and still managed to carry the ball 16 times for 55 yards and catch 2 passes for another 16 yards. He didn’t score, and his per-carry average was just 3.4 yards, but it wasn’t so much the totals as it was the timing. He was clutch when he absolutely had to be, picked up first downs when it was close to a do-or-die situation for the Bama offense, and kept Bryce Young upright. We mentioned in the pregame preview that if Robinson was available for this game, it might be enough to swing the running back comparison at least to a push situation. Georgia’s running backs carried the ball 22 times for a relatively empty 97 yards. Robinson was far more impactful than was Georgia’s stable of backs.
3. Stetson Bennett hadn’t been challenged. Bama’s defense confused him, and subpar arm strength was also an issue. For a supposed game manager-type quarterback, Stetson Bennett’s INT-to-attempt ratio coming into the game was surprisingly high. Bennett had thrown 5 interceptions in just 183 attempts, and after this game has now thrown 7 interceptions in 231 attempts. That’s a ratio of one interception every 33 attempts, which is not terrible but for a quarterback who can’t stretch a defense vertically, it’s not common, especially not on a modern, elite-level team. Both interceptions were back-breaking; one stopped a drive in the red zone while the other was a pick-six at a critical moment. Bennett almost threw another pick-six on one of his initial throws of the game.
For the game, you could probably win a bar bet getting someone to guess his stats, because Bennett threw for a total of 340 yards and rushed for another 11 yards, including a key first down. But because of the forced turnovers, those yardage totals look awful empty right now. Alabama has been criticized over the years for being too complex in the back end of its defense, but it was that complexity that caused the issues Bennett suffered from on Saturday. He especially had issues reading Alabama’s high safeties, DeMarcco Hellams, Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright. This is not the first time it’s happened for Bennett in a game against Alabama, either.
4. Young’s performance should have clinched the Heisman Trophy. Young would be the first Alabama quarterback to win the award, and he’s earned it. He put up record-setting numbers despite Alabama being limited to 75 yards rushing from its running backs (Young himself added the other 40), and his calm demeanor under heavy fire has become his calling card. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart gave a telling interview with CBS Television going into halftime that made it clear he already knew what kind of impact Young was having on the game.
This is the second year in a row that Alabama has had a quarterback unlike any other in college football. Mac Jones was the king of accuracy and deep-ball daggers, but Young has Johnny Manziel’s escapability from pressure combined with fantastic arm strength, maturity and the ability to forget a bad play as soon as it’s over. And he’s going to be Alabama’s quarterback next year, too.
5. The loss of Metchie had a clear effect on the offense, even in this game, and will demand someone else steps into that large void. Jameson Williams has developed into the top deep threat in college football, but John Metchie’s season, which really took off at about the halfway point of the year, has been just as big. He was more than just a possession receiver – and wasn’t really a prototypical possession receiver anyway, because he didn’t have elite hands. What he did have, though, was incredible toughness. He brought the same toughness he showed in last year’s SEC Championship Game when he forced a fumble after an interception and applied it to the way he went against opposing cornerbacks and safeties. While official word hasn’t been given on his injury yet, early word is that he has most likely torn an ACL and will be lost for the playoffs.
If Metchie is out, Alabama really needs a receiver to step into that role, and the best prototype Alabama has is probably Traeshon Holden. Ja’Corey Brooks came up big in relief of Jameson Williams against Auburn, but Brooks is more the typical quick, fast receiver with a bit of length, and acceleration out of his breaks. Holden, much like Metchie, is physical but doesn’t have the natural hands for the role. JoJo Earle will be back for the playoffs, but he’s not an outside receiver. It’s very possible that the solution will be to use TE Jahleel Billingsley for some of that work, as well as increasing the load of slot receiver Slade Bolden, who played a phenomenal game in his own right Saturday, coming up big on third down and throwing several key blocks for others. Like losing Landon Dickerson last year, Alabama is losing one of its “heart” players in John Metchie. He won’t be easy to replace.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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