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SECCG Preview: Bama riding a wave of excitement, but Georgia is still the toughest test of the year

 

If you subscribe to the notion that the SEC is down as a conference this year and that Alabama’s toughest test of the season was the game it lost to Texas, the question then becomes just what does Alabama’s resume look like, anyway?

Wins over LSU and Tennessee were both revenge games, and again cemented Nick Saban as the world’s best in stopping opponents’ winning streaks at 1. Ole Miss was a quality team all season long, but wasn’t particularly outstanding at any one time. Alabama also made the extraordinarily less-talented Arkansas and Auburn teams look like contenders. Alabama’s strength-of-schedule rating may have been high, but was that fool’s gold due to an SEC going through a transitional season?

Whatever the case, Georgia has not been penalized for any such concerns about the conference at large. Georgia is atop this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, and is widely regarded as the best team in college football. But consider the following: Georgia’s best win so far this year? Tennessee, Ole Miss or Missouri. Georgia didn’t face LSU, one of the few teams in the conference capable of pressuring the Bulldogs’ defense. Georgia also played a non-conference slate of UT-Martin, Ball State, UAB and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech, which sits currently at 6-6 on the season, came within a score of Georgia in its game.

The CFP committee has made it clear, through its seeding of one-loss teams the last few weeks, that Alabama has a hill to climb to get into the playoffs. Alabama likely needs both Florida State and Texas to lose, and absolutely needs at least one of them to do so. If that doesn’t happen, the likelihood that the committee chooses to leave a one-loss SEC champion Alabama team out of the playoff mix, taking Florida State, Texas, Michigan and the PAC-12 winner.

But first, Alabama has to get there. Lose to Georgia, and all discussion of the committee is moot. Georgia would go on to play for an unprecedented third straight championship, while Alabama would be left to wonder how to catch back up to the Bulldogs on a grand scale, as Georgia would unquestionably be the king program of the SEC – if it isn’t already.

OFFENSE

There’s a lot of similarities between these two teams, but Alabama’s offensive philosophy has gotten a bit more flavorful as the season has moved along and QB Jalen Milroe has matured. Both teams still use multiple, pro-style attacks to get where they want to go, but Georgia’s attack is at the same time more dynamic but also more traditional, a strange dichotomy. Alabama will use more zone-read and RPO plays to take advantage of Milroe’s superior athleticism, but that’s about it. Georgia is by far the statistical champ here, ranking 6th in total offense, 8th in scoring offense, 8th in passing offense and 30th in rushing offense, while Alabama ranks 48th in total offense, 17th in scoring offense, 44th in rushing offense and 57th in passing offense. Alabama has moved forward in a big way over the last few weeks, but an explosion of points and yardage against FCS Chattanooga has to be accounted for there.

QUARTERBACKS
At this point, there’s no telling where Jalen Milroe’s ceiling really is. Milroe was a liability the first month of the season, but didn’t just develop into a serviceable signal-caller; he became one of the SEC’s most dangerous playmakers, especially over the final 4-6 weeks of the year. Milroe’s stats don’t add up to those of Georgia’s Carson Beck, but that might not be telling the whole story right now due to the timing of Milroe’s surge. Milroe has a superior QB rating to Beck, 179.6 to 168.2, but both of those numbers are exceptional; neither is weak. Beck is also not a bad athlete; he’s Georgia’s fifth-leading rusher with 128 yards on 51 carries (2.5 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, which includes yardage lost to sacks. Even though Milroe has a big edge in the ground game (126 carries, 439 yards, 3.5 avg., and especially 12 TD), Beck is anything but a statue in the pocket. In raw passing numbers, Milroe is 158-for-238 (66.4%) for 2,526 yards, 21 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Beck is 268-of-370 (72.4%) for 3,495 yards, but the TD/INT numbers are virtually identical to Milroe’s: 22 TD and 6 INT, which explains why Milroe’s efficiency numbers are higher. Alabama probably has the better backup, as Ty Simpson appears to be a more dynamic quarterback than Georgia’s Brock Vandagriff, but it’s hard to see either team winning with its backup. We give a slight edge here to Milroe based on two things: his proven ability to come back in the face of extreme adversity (meaning, the final drive of the Auburn game, on the road) and the fact that his performance arc has been on a steady shot upward over the second half of the season. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
In addition to having superior depth, and somehow figuring out how to have a power running game despite throwing far more often than Alabama, there’s now a health element to consider. Alabama will likely be without the services of Jase McClellan for this game, as he appeared to re-aggravate a foot injury against Auburn. Even if he’s available, he’ll likely be far from 100 percent. We expect Roydell Williams to start and get the lion’s share of the action, with Jamarion Miller getting most of the relief snaps. Justice Haynes and Richard Young would provide depth. For Georgia, it’s a team of running backs fronted by Daijun Edwards, who has rushed 147 times for 781 yards (5.3 avg.) and 11 touchdowns on the year. Kendall Milton (99 carries, 644 yards, 6.5 avg., 10 TD) is the backup; both are seniors. Cash Jones and Andrew Paul are the top backups. Williams has been running better for Alabama as the season has progressed, and he gets further from the knee injury that ended his 2021 campaign early. But Edwards and Milton would have already gotten the nod here, even if McClellan had been healthy. Alabama’s backs are, however, superior to Georgia’s as receivers, especially Milton. Advantage: Georgia

WIDE RECEIVERS
Alabama’s wideout unit is probably the most improved unit on the team from 2022 until now, and one of the most improved units at any SEC program. But it’s not on a level with Georgia’s, at least not yet, or not unless some of Georgia’s injury issues prove more severe than thought. For Alabama, Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond have become a reliable 1-2 punch, as good as probably any in the league. Tight end Amari Niblack is a mismatch problem for any defense, but he is more of a large slot receiver than a true tight end. C.J. Dippre hasn’t been utilized to his fullest as a receiver at the tight end position this year, but he’s been a more reliable inline blocker than his predecessor, Cameron Latu. Kendrick Law and Malik Benson will likely split most of the snaps at Bama’s third WR position this week, especially if Kobe Prentice isn’t 100 percent yet. Jalen Hale provides depth, and Alabama might get Ja’Corey Brooks back as well. Robbie Ouzts is a valuable H-back and spare tight end. For Georgia, everything runs around TE Brock Bowers, both the running and the passing game. No other team in college football has a tight end like Bowers, and Alabama frequently has trouble covering the tight end with its defensive scheme. If it were just Bowers, that would be manageable, but Georgia also has wideouts Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint flagging him to each side. McConkey in particular has been a pain for Alabama in the past, and when he gets rolling in a game he’s hard to knock off a streak. The leading wideout, though, has been Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett, a smaller slot-type receiver who is second only to Bowers in receptions and yardage. Dillon Bell, Mekhi Mews and Mississippi State transfer Rara Thomas provide depth, along with C.J. Smith, Arian Smith and others. If Bowers can’t go at 100 percent, Alabama would still have backup tight end Oscar Delp to contend with; he has 20 catches on the year. McConkey, Thomas and C.J. Smith are listed as questionable for the game, but at least the first two are likely to play, and maybe all three. As good as Alabama’s group has been, this one’s actually a fairly wide-margin edge for Georgia. Advantage: Georgia

OFFENSIVE LINE
Georgia’s offensive efficiency starts up front with an offensive line that ranks 6th in fewest sacks allowed and 11th in tackles for loss allowed. Center Sedrick Van Pran is the piece that makes the whole thing work, while tackles Earnest Greene III and Xavier Truss have been effective against edge rushers. Tate Ratledge and Dylan Fairchild will likely handle the guard spots, although Amarius Mims is back after missing the middle portion of the season and could be a factor at either tackle or guard. Micah Morris is the other interior player who might see action with the starters. Alabama regressed with its snap issues against Auburn, and that alone is cause for concern against the Georgia defense. Alabama ranks 113th in sacks allowed and 74th in tackles for loss allowed, and although Alabama’s line has played better as of late, that’s still too much of a gap between the Tide and the Bulldogs. Seth McLaughlin will start in the middle, with Tyler Booker and Jaeden Roberts at the guards and Kadyn Proctor and J.C. Latham at tackle. It’s a good group and an improving group, but clearly second banana this week. Advantage: Georgia

DEFENSE

Two pure 3-4 over/under teams going against each other. Alabama toughened up its defensive approach in 2023 but again, Alabama finds itself in a statistical weak spot compared to Georgia. Alabama ranks 17th in total defense, 33rd in rushing defense, 15th in both raw pass defense and pass efficiency defense, and 14th in scoring defense. Georgia ranks 9th in total defense, 26th against the run, 12th in raw pass defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense and 6th in scoring defense. The one big edge the Tide has here is in turnover margin; Alabama ranks 20th in the category while Georgia lags in 62nd place.

DEFENSIVE LINE
This is where Georgia may be quietly different than in years past, and not for the better. Nazir Stackhouse starts at nosetackle, with Zion Logue, Mykel Williams, Tramel Walthour and Warren Brinson rotating outside. Of that group, only Williams has shown a consistent ability to make impact plays, and even then, Williams’ production trends strongly to quality over quantity – meaning, he makes good plays, just not enough of them. Christen Miller offers depth up the middle. Georgia ranks just 64th in sacks and a horrid 98th in tackles for loss given the level of competition the Bulldogs played at times this year. Alabama, meanwhile, ranks 9th in sacks and 33rd in tackles for loss, although most of the sack production comes from the linebacker group. The bigger concern for Alabama is that the defensive line, which surged in effectiveness starting at about the middle of the season, plateaued against UT-Chattanooga and then regressed against Auburn, playing a generally mediocre game. The issues began about the time DT/E Jaheim Oatis got nicked up, and he’s still not completely healthy. Tim Keenan will start at nose with Justin Eboigbe on one side, and a mixture of Oatis and Tim Smith on the other. Jah-Marien Latham provides further depth at tackle/end, while Damon Payne Jr. and James Smith offer depth at nose. Alabama could wind up leading this category if we could be convinced that the last two weeks have been more of an outlier than the start of a trend. Right now, it’s almost in push territory, but we’ll take Georgia due to Oatis’ injury issues. Advantage: Georgia

LINEBACKERS
Georgia lost a critical playmaker a month ago when Jamon Dumas-Johnson was lost for the year with a forearm injury. True freshman C.J. Allen took his place, but he has made just a fraction of the big plays that Georgia was getting from Dumas-Johnson. Smael Monden will start alongside Allen inside; he’s a steady playmaker with occasional flash, but this isn’t the typical Bulldog linebacker group Alabama has seen in the past. Chaz Chambliss is listed as the starting Jack linebacker, but has zero sacks on the year, unacceptable production from that spot. Backup Marvin Jones Jr. has fared a bit better, but Georgia isn’t getting the kind of backfield pressure it’s been accustomed to. Alabama has a canyon-sized edge at outside linebacker as a result, with Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell leading the way and Quandarrius Robinson chipping in. At inside linebacker, Alabama should have an edge no matter what’s going on with Deontae Lawson, but anyone who watched the Auburn game knows Lawson’s ankle isn’t top-shelf right now. Trezmen Marshall and Jihaad Campbell will rotate at weakside, while Kendrick Blackshire provides depth behind Lawson. This may be the biggest lead for either team on the board. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Most of Alabama’s issues, few as they have been, can be blamed on injuries. When everyone is humming along at full song, Alabama’s secondary has been tough to beat. The problem in this game is that S Jaylen Key is still not close to 100 percent with a quad injury, and he looked a step slow against Auburn. Assuming Bama sticks with Key in this game, he’ll play a high safety spot next to Caleb Downs, while Malachi Moore plays the Star position. Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold will start at the corners, with Trey Amos providing depth. Look for Kristian Story to play at safety especially if Key remains slowed. For Georgia, Kamari Lassiter and Daylen Everette will start at the corners, with Javon Bullard and Malaki Starks at the high safeties and Tykee Smith at the Star position. Alabama and Georgia are tied in interceptions, both ranked 22nd in the country. There is virtually no separation here other than what comes from Key’s injury. For that reason, Georgia gets the slight edge. Advantage: Georgia

SPECIAL TEAMS
Will Reichard is leaking a bit of oil down the stretch, although there’s nothing to suggest he can’t be counted on, plus he will be kicking indoors. James Burnip continues to do a solid job at punter. Alabama appears to have moved on from Ga’Quincy McKinstry at punt returner, going with Caleb Downs. Kendrick Law continues to get incrementally better as a kickoff returner. For Georgia, even with Reichard’s recent delve into normalcy, Peyton Woodring is simply not in Reichard’s class yet. He’s missed two kicks under 30 and hasn’t attempted anything over 49 yet. Punter Brett Thorson doesn’t have quite the leg Burnip does, but Georgia is so good at punt return defense (4th nationally) that the meager difference in the punters themselves gets swallowed up in the net category. Both teams are about the same in kickoffs and returns, but Georgia is far more sound than Alabama on both ends of the punting game. The question then comes down to whether that is more important than Reichard’s edge over Woodring, and with Reichard’s recent misses from long-intermediate distances, we have to take the Bulldogs. Advantage: Georgia

OVERALL

Georgia leads in six categories, Alabama in two, but Alabama could easily be a 5-3 leader here if things were slightly different at defensive line, secondary and special teams. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, though, that’s where things start to break for the Bulldogs. Georgia’s offensive line should control the matchup with Alabama’s defensive line not by a wide margin, but a significant one. Additionally, Georgia’s defensive line probably pushes against Alabama’s OL or even takes a small lead.

In games like this, it takes a lot for us to go against the OL-DL edge when one team has both, and one by a clear margin. Add in Alabama’s recent struggles on special teams and the loss of RB Jase McClellan, and it’s not easy to pick an Alabama upset. For it to happen, Jalen Milroe essentially has to show up and show out even more than Jalen Hurts did the year he relieved an injured Tua Tagovailoa and led Bama past Georgia at the end.

The road to the College Football Playoff might not be completely within Alabama’s control, but the first step is. Here’s hoping Alabama is able to take that step.

Georgia 30
Alabama 24

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because this preview also serves as our SEC Preview article for Week 14, here is how TideFans.com finished the season: In Week 13, we went 8-1 (88.9%) on our picks, losing only the Kentucky-Louisville game. For the season, TideFans.com’s Predictions Dept.’s record stands at 94-17 (84.7%), with only the result of the SEC Championship Game remaining. TideFans.com does not produce an SEC preview article for bowl games.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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