Bulldogs and Crimson Tide Punch Tickets to Rematch
All season, Georgia looked like the team to beat. They featured an absolutely stifling defense that looked insurmountable. Then came Alabama. Never short of tricks up his sleeve, Nick Saban led his team to a lopsided victory that exposed several chinks in Kirby Smart‘s defensive armor. With that win, Alabama–who appeared to be on the outside looking in for this year’s College Football Playoff–clinched a spot in the playoff for the seventh time in eight seasons. For the first time this season, Georgia looked vulnerable. With big wins in their respective semi-finals games, however, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide punch tickets to rematch on the biggest stage of the season.
More than One Way, A Rematch
After the conference championships, a National Championship did not seem a given. Alabama did not just beat Georgia. The Tide throttled them. Saban’s team won every battle on the field. The Tide forced two turnovers and coughed up none. Alabama got home for three sacks; Georgia had none. Bryce Young passed for 421 yards (essentially clinching his Heisman Trophy as a result); Stetson Bennett totaled 340. The Tide racked up 536 yards to Georgia’s 449. Those things summed up to a 41-24 throttling by Alabama, leaving Smart 0-4 against his former boss.
As a result of the loss, Georgia fell to number 3 in the nation. Their semifinal opponent, Michigan, looked pretty stout themselves. Just a month before the game, in fact, Michigan finally shed the Ohio State monkey off their backs. And they did it in convincing fashion, winning 42-27. Michigan rode into the Orange Bowl looking like favorites. But Michigan is not Alabama, and Georgia, seemingly refocused by the loss, handled Michigan with ease. Indeed, the Bulldogs handed the Wolverines a sound 34-11 loss.
With that win, and Alabama’s similarly-sound 27-6 win over Cincinnati, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide punched their tickets to a rematch on the biggest stage. The game is also a rematch of the 2017-2018 College Football Championship. In that game, Georgia gave Alabama all they could handle, but Saban’s Tide emerged victors in a 26-23 overtime win. Smart’s Dawgs will look for revenge for both losses in this year’s College Football Championship.
Alabama’s Tickets to Ride
Expectations can be a strange thing. After an early-October loss to Texas A&M, many dismissed Alabama as a potential playoff team. Given Clemson’s struggles this season, it looked like we might see the first College Football Playoff without either Alabama or Clemson. Going into the SEC Championship, it looked like Smart might finally have the best of Saban and Alabama might be left out of the playoff for only the second time. After all, Georgia featured the unbeatable defense.
Alabama’s relatively young offensive line, however, seemed to hit its stride after in-season inconsistency at just the right time. They held strong against the Dawgs defense that thrives on disruption through pressure. Georgia averaged three-and-a-half sacks per game, and Alabama surrendered none. They also minimized Georgia’s ability to disrupt and gave Young enough time to pick apart Georgia’s secondary. If they want to ride off into the sunset as repeat champions and claim their fourth championship in the playoff era, Alabama’s offensive line will need to repeat the task.
Georgia quarterback Bennett has been extremely efficient this season. He has thrown just seven interceptions to 27 touchdowns (just shy of a four-to-one touchdown to interception ratio). He completes 65 percent of his passes and racks up 10 yards per attempt. Against Alabama, however, he suffered just his second multi-interception game this season. He averaged a “meager” seven yards per attempt, and he completed just 60% of his passes. If Alabama can limit the impact of Georgia’s defense and limit Bennett’s inefficiency a second straight game, then the Tide can repeat as national champions.
With the National Championship rematch representing such a short turnaround from his team’s win in the SEC Championship, many wonder whether the results truly are repeatable. Saban addressed this outright. Both teams, he said, are “going to evaluate how [they] did in the last game.” He is certain that both teams will need to make subtle changes to put their “players in the best chance to be successful.” His players, of course, will need to adapt during the game to any different looks Georgia throws at them.
That said, he does not expect those looks to be too different. After all, he said, you can’t “make a lot of changes that the players are not going to be able to . . . execute with confidence.” That makes sense. Even if Georgia does present significant changes, however, he believes his team of younger players had a chance to refocus on the “importance of leadership, setting a good example, and holding each other accountable” after their early-season loss to Texas A&M. The maturity and growth shown from that loss should keep his players adaptable enough to respond to any new challenged the Bulldogs present.
Georgia’s Keys to the Game
On the flip side, Georgia must respond to Alabama throwing down the gauntlet in the SEC Championship. The Tide’s offensive line challenged Georgia’s defense, and now the Dawgs must respond. They played angry against Michigan, and they need to bring that energy once more. Similarly, Georgia’s offensive line failed to protect Bennett against Alabama’s front. They must do more to keep Bennett clean and efficient.
While they will need solid production from Bennett and tight-end Brock Bowers to win the game, the Dawgs cannot forget the recipe that brought them this far. Throughout the season, Georgia has supported its stout defense with a run-first, clock-control game plan. They have run the ball 57% of the time, averaging nearly five-and-a-half yards per carry.
Against Alabama, they let the Tide control the script, they got behind early, and, as a result, the Dawgs threw the ball 48 times. That recipe doesn’t work for them. Bennett has been so efficient precisely because he throws the ball less than 30 times a game. The run sets up the pass in Athens, and it should continue to do so. Georgia must dominate the line of scrimmage and impose their will on Alabama, not the other way around.
While members of the media like to build dramatic narratives around aspects of games this big, Smart downplayed the coaching matchup angle pretty succinctly. The game, he said, is “about the players . . . and putting them in a position to be successful.” After all, the players “determine the outcomes of games.” Smart’s answer to questions about the rematch echoed the sentiment. He realizes that both teams will be looking to see whether and how their opponent’s tendencies may have changed in the semifinal games. “At the end of the day,” though, Smart is “really not as worried about what [Alabama is] doing.” Instead, Smart adds, his team is “worried about what [they] are doing and how well you [they] can [play their game].”
Smart acknowledges that lack of pressure on Young helped Alabama win a month ago. He observed that Young is “way more elusive than people give him credit for,” saying that Young has “elite spatial awareness.” As a result, lack of pressure did not result from a lack of effort on Georgia’s part. Simply, though, Smart admitted that his guys need to win more one-on-one battles to be successful. They lost too many of those a month ago, and, as a result, Georgia had “some really critical third-down losses” that helped seal the outcome.
Who Punches the Final “W” on Their Card?
We all know the old adage. It is hard to beat the same team twice in the same season. Alabama looked like a team possessed by controlled desperation in the SEC Championship. If they lost that game, they were out of the playoff. As a result, they had little to lose. College football fans know one thing above all else: never count out Saban. Backed into a corner, he always seems to find an escape.
Now Georgia is the team pinned down with cleats on their throats. They will be looking for quick revenge. Smart will certainly take some of that added leadership, accountability, and maturity that Saban says his team benefitted from. After handing the Tide the conference championship, Georgia would certainly take the trade if it means their first National Championship since 1980. This could prove a strong motivator, and we expect Smart to remind his team often about their lack of success against the Tide.
Does that mean we expect Georgia to prevail? As we said, we learned long ago not to bet against Saban. For us, this game is a push. Fans do not seem to expect another high-scoring affair, as bettors are taking the under (currently 52.5) by three-to-one.
Regardless, we will find out at the same time as everybody else how this season’s story ends. Regardless, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide should put on a show for all to enjoy. Kickoff is at 8:00 on Monday, January 10. ESPN will broadcast the game from Lucas Oil Stadium. Join us before, during, and after the game for our continued thoughts.