As the 2021 season went along, Alabama’s march to the College Football Playoff Championship seemed to adopt a theme – call it the “How many players could Nick Saban lose and still win a championship” theme, if you would.
Against Georgia in a rematch of the SEC Championship Game that Alabama dominated, the world found out. Down both starting cornerbacks and its most physical receiver, Alabama lost its top offensive playmaker in the first half, then sputtered to a finish with a disappointing fourth quarter.
Nick Saban is fond of talking about how his teams “finish.” A more appropriate question for this game would be, how many people were left to finish?
Saban will undoubtedly avoid blaming the loss on factors beyond the team’s control, because that’s not the way he is wired. But any analyst looking in from the outside will be happy to do it for him.
To be blunt, Georgia was the SEC’s best team all year, from game one until today. Alabama’s SEC Championship Game victory wasn’t a total shock, but it was a mild surprise to many. This Georgia team has been built through five recruiting cycles to get where it is now, and the upcoming NFL Draft will testify to the talent advantage the Bulldogs held over opponents all season long. As many as six Bulldogs could find their way into the first round; Alabama, under almost all draft prediction scenarios, will have a maximum of two.
Therefore, the fact Alabama not only won in Atlanta, but won by the margin that it did, doesn’t point to such tripe as Georgia “not caring” about the first matchup, an assertion so offensive and ridiculous on its face that no one aside from those prone to make dog woofing sounds in other people’s faces can help laughing at it, but rather to the job that Nick Saban and his staff did holding this team together with duct (medical?) tape, bailing wire and a couple of extra Hail Marys.
This may have been, for that matter, Nick Saban’s finest coaching job at Alabama. Against Georgia, the Crimson Tide started a cornerback that had run third team for the majority of the season, only to elevate to second-string status when Marcus Banks decided to hit the transfer portal early. The other corner, a true freshman with two starts under his belt coming in.
At receiver, Agiye Hall played more snaps in this game alone than in every other game of his season added together and doubled, if not tripled. The leading receiver was a former defensive end converted to play tight end. Two running backs were missing from the depth chart, and there’s no telling exactly how healthy starting RB Brian Robinson Jr. was, as he has answered the bell several times this year when it would have been perfectly excusable not to.
But the reasons for Alabama’s loss went beyond pure talent, and got into the kinds of things we talked about in our game preview. For starters, the Alabama OL did not keep Bryce Young’s jersey clean this time out. Against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Young ran 4 times for just over 40 yards; tonight, the yardage was the same, but there was a minus sign in front of it denoting sack yardage lost.
In similar fashion to December’s matchup, Alabama didn’t run the ball particularly well otherwise. Robinson carried 22 times for 68 yards, not enough production to allow Alabama to be balanced offensively. And with Williams out of the game for the second half, Alabama was not only forced to throw to win, but to do it without its top two threats available.
Meanwhile, Alabama allowed Zamir White and James Cook to run a combined 19 times for 161 yards, a 8.5-yard average. Not being able to run the ball while also not being able to stop the run is a bad combination when facing a pro-style team with a defense as good as Georgia’s.
And yet, Alabama was in it almost to the end, the death knell ringing only when Bryce Young was picked off for a touchdown the other way with 1:14 left on the fourth-quarter clock.
There is only so much adversity a team can take and still seal the deal, and Alabama probably went around that barricade sometime in late November. Georgia was always going to be tough to beat once, let alone twice, and by the second half of Monday’s game, Alabama wasn’t playing A-team against A-team.
The roles will be reversed heading into 2022; Alabama will be the team returning most of its defense, along with a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and plenty of offensive firepower. Here’s hoping the medical staff doesn’t get the same workout next year that it got in 2021.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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