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HomeFootball2021 FootballCFP Championship preview: What has changed since December?

CFP Championship preview: What has changed since December?

Given the recency of Alabama’s last meeting with the Georgia Bulldogs, TideFans.com has elected to break from our normal eight-unit preview format and instead talk about what we saw from these two teams in December and how that might affect changes in what we see out of the matchup this time around.

What follows is a look at how we rated the teams prior to the Championship Game, what we saw during the game, and how we feel things might play out now, given changes in personnel and how we evaluate the momentum each team has coming into this matchup. We’ll return this feature to its regular format for Alabama’s next game, the 2022 opener in the fall.

QUARTERBACKS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Alabama

How It Played Out: As predicted, Stetson Bennett paled by comparison to Bryce Young in the Championship Game. If Young hadn’t wrapped up the Heisman with his late-game heroics at the week before, he certainly cinched it with how he performed in this game. We previewed Bennett’s penchant for throwing a relatively high number of interceptions per attempt, as well as noting his prior struggles against Alabama, and both issues showed up in Atlanta. Bennett did throw for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he was picked off twice in critical situations, one of them a pick-six. Young threw for 421 yards and 3 scores, and no interceptions. Bennett had one of those performances that was statistically rich, but results-poor, an empty effort in the end but yet one that was good enough to keep him entrenched as the starter.

CFP Analysis: At this stage of his career, Bennett is what he is, an overachiever with a decent arm, albeit one limited by the distance of the throw, and good enough scrambling ability to make Alabama pay for overcommitting up front if the Tide also vacates the second level. As for backups, Georgia has kept J.T. Daniels on the sideline; he’s a much better option than either or Jalen Milroe is right now for Alabama, but we can’t imagine him playing unless Bennett either gets hurt or buries Georgia in such a hole early that Kirby Smart has no choice but to bring in Daniels.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Alabama. Nothing changes here.

RUNNING BACKS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: We penalized Alabama heavily due to Brian Robinson Jr.’s health status coming into the game. Robinson was questionable all the way through workouts the day before the game, to the extent that we expected Trey Sanders to start against Georgia, with Christian Leary and Demouy Kennedy the backups. Instead, Robinson started and carried the ball 16 times for 55 yards and added another 2 catches for 16 yards. While he didn’t score, and while his stat line wasn’t great on its face, his impact to the game went far beyond the numbers.

Robinson followed up that performance with utter destruction of the Cincinnati front six in the CFP semifinal, so now we have a different comparison on our hands. In the Championship Game, Georgia’s trio of James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and Zamir White was held well in check, especially Cook, who carried 11 times for 38 yards and was never a factor.

CFP Analysis: Neither team seems likely to run for a ton of yards, given the each will face. But Robinson being healthy tightens this comparison considerably. In addition, Trey Sanders looked serviceable against Georgia the last time and sharp against Cincinnati, too, so Georgia’s advantage essentially comes down to one additional backup being available.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Georgia. We don’t award pushes, even in this format, but we aren’t ready to call Cook overrated just yet, and can’t justify putting Alabama on top without seeing a little more explosiveness against fronts built like Georgia’s.

WIDE RECEIVERS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Alabama

How It Played Out: Unfortunately for Alabama, two things became very clear in this game – the first, Georgia tight end Brock Bowers has no peer at his position. But the bigger issue was Alabama lost John Metchie late in the first half, and we’re still not sure whether Ja’Corey Brooks and others are up to the task of replacing him. Georgia couldn’t defend Jameson Williams – 7 catches, 184 yards, 2 touchdowns – and did a good job providing an option on short routes, getting 54 yards on 5 catches.

Still, we can’t ignore the fact that Metchie’s 6-catch, 94-yard performance wasn’t replicated by anyone else, either in the second half of the Championship Game nor in the semifinal against Cincinnati. For Georgia, Bowers caught 10 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown and frustrated Alabama’s safeties and linebackers all day long. But the remainder of Georgia’s damage was basically contained to a single long pass to George Pickens and a touchdown to Ladd McConkey that was more the fault of bad tackling angles after the catch than anything McConkey did.

CFP Analysis: Alabama used Brooks against Cincinnati, with Javon Baker backing him up. Brooks was able to come up with an impressive touchdown catch, while Baker dropped his only target, albeit on a ball not thrown particularly close to his body. If Pickens continues to claw back into things – especially with him now going against Alabama’s second-string cornerback tandem due to multiple injuries – then Alabama’s only choice of holding serve here will be if Bolden increases his production, or if TE Jahleel Billingsley breaks out.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Georgia. It’s too much to ask to keep Alabama on top here given what has changed since December.

OFFENSIVE LINE

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: Talk about missing the boat on a pick. Alabama’s offensive line played its game of the year against Georgia, keeping Bryce Young upright throughout the course of the game, while also giving the running game enough that Georgia had to engage the safeties. It was a rare case of neither unit living to its predicted reputation: Alabama’s DL was able to get penetration against Georgia and frustrate its line, while at the same time the Tide OL kept the Bulldog relatively stoned. The principal reason for Alabama’s success, beyond such things as trying to prove a point to naysayers, was that Alabama’s OL group (especially RT Chris Owens) matched up better against Georgia’s defensive line than against smaller units that have more edge speed.

Georgia thought it could overpower Owens, but Owens is as good as most when he can square up on the defender. With a lack of edge bend, Georgia couldn’t pressure Owens’ footwork limitations, and the same will be true this time out unless the change up personnel. On the other side, Georgia’s offensive line looked slow off the ball at times and couldn’t figure out Alabama’s rush packages. Finally, DT/E Phidarian Mathis has emerged as a difference-maker inside for Alabama, and probably made himself a bunch of money with what he was able to do to the interior of the Bulldog OL.

CFP Analysis: We’re not ready to swing this one to Alabama just yet – the have better talent, man for man, at four of the five positions, with only Evan Neal outclassing his Georgia counterpart – but we feel comfortable saying it won’t be a runaway Georgia edge, either. Alabama exposed some issues in pass protection off the corners that the Bulldogs didn’t know they had, and Georgia’s subsequent performance against Michigan showed the Bulldogs had learned from the Alabama encounter. Whether Georgia can also get better penetration against Alabama’s OL is yet to be seen, because the Bulldogs weren’t close to doing it the last time.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Georgia, but only just.

DEFENSIVE LINE

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: Against the run, Georgia didn’t do poorly, holding Alabama to 115 yards and 1 touchdown. Remove Bryce Young’s scrambles from the mix, and Alabama would have finished with 23 carries for 75 yards (3.3 avg.) and no scores. But Georgia could not affect Young up front. Most importantly, the game revealed that Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis, not Georgia’s Jordan Davis, was likely the best player on either team. Davis was exposed as a one-trick pony, excellent at clogging running lanes but useless against tempo in the passing game. Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt ended up being far more important to what Georgia was able to do. Alabama showed it had the edge in effective depth, especially up the middle. Where Georgia was especially deficient was in edge speed – i.e., it didn’t have any.

CFP Analysis: Alabama is far more balanced than Georgia, that much was learned in December and isn’t up for much debate. Now we get into the complexities of game analysis, because the best way to counter Georgia’s defensive line is with tempo, but can Alabama afford to go tempo in the passing game with John Metchie unavailable to help take the heat off Jameson Williams?

This is where wide receivers end up affecting a defensive line comparison and is the primary reason TideFans.com has elected not to analyze matchups over the years, as the permutations are simply too many. The key to this matchup is whether Mathis can continue to be the disruptor he’s been in the middle over the last half of the season; he toyed with Cincinnati after frustrating Georgia in December. And if you’re one of those people who consider Will Anderson to be part of this analysis as well as, or in place of his evaluation as a linebacker, then it’s not particularly close.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Alabama. This one swings to the Tide the second time around.

LINEBACKERS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: Again, this is a question of inside versus outside. Georgia may not have made much of a racket in the pass rush, but the inside linebackers lived up to their gold-chip billing and clogged running lanes for the majority of the day. Alabama, on the other hand, held a strong advantage off the edges. It’s going to be a lot of the same thing this time around, with one caveat: Alabama inside linebacker duo of Henry To’o To’o and especially Christian Harris have turned their games up even another notch, after significantly improving from the midway point of the season forward. Harris is finally playing at the level expected of him when he signed, and while Georgia’s inside backers are still better than Alabama’s, the drop-off isn’t as much as previously thought. But the gap between Alabama’s outside linebackers and Georgia’s is more substantial.

CFP Analysis: As stated in the above paragraph, we’ve seen enough at this point to be able to appreciate the way both units are put together and play. There isn’t a weak link on either side, and it’s probably the strongest unit for each team’s defense, respectively.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Alabama. This one flips to Bama, too, but is honestly probably more of a push than a true edge to one team or the other.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: A mirage, that’s what it was. Georgia’s secondary had the statistical advantage, but it was one based on the pressure the Bulldog front seven was able to bring to bear against lesser teams. Against Alabama, Georgia’s secondary proved unable to not only stay with the Tide’s faster receivers, but it was clear Georgia’s corners hadn’t been forced to deal with many second moves. Alabama was able to put even more distance between itself and Georgia at the safety position, where both Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams had strong days and Brian Branch proved to be an X-factor. We simply missed the boat on this one.

CFP Analysis: Now for the fly in the ointment – the injury to CB Jalyn Armour-Davis that means Alabama will be starting one cornerback who began the year as a second-teamer (Ga’Quincy McKinstry) and one that began the year as a third-teamer (Khyree Jackson). Were it not for this, we might have not even written a paragraph here before moving on to the business of flipping the analysis in Alabama’s favor. We still like Alabama – Georgia got virtually nothing out of a warm-up game against Michigan to prepare it for Alabama’s receiving corps – but Jackson has to back up his Cincinnati performance with an equal or better one this week. Branch must also duplicate his CFP semifinal performance, and keep an eye on dime safety Daniel Wright, whose play has been improving steadily over the past month or so.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Alabama. We will bet on Jackson, Branch and company this time out.

SPECIAL TEAMS

SECCG Pregame: Advantage – Georgia

How It Played Out: Alabama PK Will Reichard was as much a factor in the win in December as anyone, thanks to his steady, steely effort. Georgia didn’t really do anything wrong in this game, backing up our pregame analysis pretty much down the line. If there was anything unexpected, it was James Burnip’s strong effort punting the ball for Alabama, but most punters and kickers have excelled in Atlanta dating back before Mercedes-Benz Stadium was even built.

CFP Analysis: Alabama was shaky against Cincinnati, missing a field goal after a bad hold, dropping a punt and allowing a long kickoff return. Burnip had another good day punting indoors, however.

CFP Prediction: Advantage – Georgia. We’ve seen nothing to change what we said in December, and Alabama is coming off a poor effort in the CFP semifinal besides.

SUMMARY

Now the tough part. A whopping four categories switched from December, the receiver category to Georgia and all three defensive categories to Alabama. That turns a 6-2 Georgia lead in December into a 4-4 split today. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, we’ve gone in-depth above: Alabama won both those battles in December, but was that a one-off, or does it portend a repeat performance?

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether Georgia was properly focused for the December game it lost, and that’s one thing we feel confident about labeling as bull crap, for lack of any better way to say it. Except perhaps as “dog crap” instead.

If Georgia wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the December matchup, it’s an indictment on Kirby Smart and his staff, especially since Georgia could have kept the starters home for a scrimmage the week before against Georgia Tech and let the scout team play the game in their stead. The fact is, Alabama was good enough to win that game and is good enough to win this one, too, and Georgia can doubt it at its peril.

What will determine the outcome is whether the game comes down to the more traditional assessment of the winner of trench warfare, or the more modern mensuration of quarterback play. If it’s strictly a discussion of line play, we like Georgia to find a way to come out on top there, as some of the issues the Bulldogs struggled with in December can be ameliorated by using different personnel groupings. But if it comes down to the quarterback position, you have to like Alabama’s chances with a Heisman winner calling the shots.

We picked Georgia to win 27-24 in December, and maybe if Stanton Bennett’s pick-six comes off the board, we wouldn’t have been far off. But if John Metchie hadn’t have gone down at halftime, maybe Alabama hangs 50 on a Georgia secondary that was clearly outgunned.

In the end, as much as we’d like to take Alabama, we have to be aware of the fact that since halftime of the Championship Game – roughly the point in time that John Metchie was lost – Alabama has scored just 7.3 points per quarter. Will that be enough to stay ahead of a Georgia offense that has something to prove? Can Alabama even put up 28 points again against the most talented it faced in 2021, without the same receiver personnel?

In a follow-up comparison that saw so many categories flip from one side of the ledger to the other, the one thing we can’t convince ourselves to flip is the most important category of all: the one that contains the final score.

Georgia 23
Alabama 20

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

Projected Depth Chart for Alabama vs. Georgia

Disclaimer: This is not an official University of Alabama document. The depth chart is taken from individual practice and game observations, and is color-coded. Seniors are in black, juniors previously on the team are in green, junior transfers in their junior year are in purple, junior transfers in their sophomore year are in yellow, sophomores previously on the team are in blue, redshirt freshmen are in cyan, and true freshmen are in red. NOTE: Because Alabama operates from multiple alignments on both offense and defense, 12 positions are listed on both sides of the ball to account for those specific alignments.

OFFENSE
SE 11 Traeshon Holden 5 Javon Baker 84 Agiye Hall
FL 1 Jameson Williams 7 Ja’Corey Brooks 36 Bret Bolin
WR 18 10 JoJo Earle 14 Thaiu Jones-Bell
TE 81 Cameron Latu 85 Kendall Randolph 83 Richard Hunt
HB 19 Jahleel Billingsley 88 Major Tennison 44 Charlie Skehan
RT 79 Chris Owens 74 Damieon George Jr. 51 Tanner Bowles
RG 55 Emil Ekiyor Jr. 65 J.C. Latham 77 Jaeden Roberts
C 56 Seth McLaughlin 71 Darrian Dalcourt 58 James Brockermeyer
LG 70 75 Tommy Brown 69 Terrence Ferguson
LT 73 Evan Neal 78 Amari Kight 76
QB 9 Bryce Young 17 2 Jalen Milroe
RB 4 Brian Robinson Jr. 6 Trey Sanders 12 Christian Leary
PK 16 Will Reichard 95 Jack Martin 82 Chase Allen

  

DT/E 18 LaBryan Ray 47 95 Monkell Goodwine
NG 94 D.J. Dale 50 Tim Smith 90 Stephon Wynn Jr.
E 48 Phidarian Mathis 92 Justin Eboigbe 93 Jah-Marien Latham
JACK 31 Will Anderson Jr. 41 Chris Braswell 34 Quandarrius Robinson
WLB 8 Christian Harris 35 Shane Lee 32 Deontae Lawson
MLB 10 Henry To’o To’o 42 40 Kendrick Blackshire
SLB 15 Dallas Turner 20 Drew Sanders 30
RCB 1 Ga’Quincy McKinstry 23 Jahquez Robinson 45 Joshua Robinson
FS 2 DeMarcco Hellams 3 Daniel Wright 27 Devonta Smith
S 14 Brian Branch 13 Malachi Moore 38 Jalen Edwards
SS 9 Jordan Battle 11 Kristian Story 49 Kaine Williams
LCB 6 Khyree Jackson 5 Jalyn Armour-Davis 12 Terrion Arnold
P 86 James Burnip 95 Jack Martin 99 Ty Perine

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