No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia to lock horns again
It has been nearly 11 months since the 2017 national championship, yet a lot has changed with Alabama and Georgia ahead of the SEC championship game Saturday in Atlanta.
The coaches are still at their respective schools, and the teams are still at the top of the SEC. But the personalities of the teams are different.
No. 4 Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks like it’s completely embraced the Crimson Tide persona, running the ball and playing strong defense while finishing atop the SEC East for the second straight year. The Bulldogs are ranked 13th nationally in scoring offense (40.1 points) and 10th in scoring defense (17.2).
“Georgia is one of the most complete teams in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They haven’t really like dramatically changed. I think they’ve made a lot of improvement. I think their efficiency on offense has been very good all year long.
“Defensively, their scheme has not changed a lot, but some of their players have. They still have really, really good players and they play well together. They’re well coached. Nothing easy against them.”
No. 1 Alabama (12-0, 8-0 SEC), has new coordinators and six new assistant coaches overall, plus a different run-pass-option offense that’s geared toward taking advantage of sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s skills.
Georgia fans were introduced to the Heisman Trophy frontrunner last year, as he came off the bench to lead the Crimson Tide’s comeback in the 26-23 overtime title game.
“Quarterback play and third down conversions and protecting the ball and not turning the ball over a lot. Those are similarities,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Both got good set of backs, good set of receivers. Both teams are scoring points.
“The biggest difference is they play better defense, obviously, than we have.”
There are two spotlight matchups with this game that can’t be ignored, the first being the sophomore quarterbacks.
Jake Fromm, who flipped his commitment from Alabama to Georgia in March 2016, is 23-3 as a starter and his completion percentage of 69.1 percent is on pace to set a school record (67.9 Hunter Mason in 2014). He’s 161-for-233 for 2,236 yards, with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions for a season passer rating of 179.4.
That rating is third in the league behind Alabama quarterbacks Tagovailoa (212.5) and Jalen Hurts (204.5). The former is 189-for 269 (70.3 percent), for 3,189 yards, with 36 touchdowns and two interceptions.
The touchdowns are already a single-season school record, while the passer rating is on pace to set an NCAA record.
“He’s got an elite arm talent,” Smart said about Tagovailoa. “He’s really fast. He’s got really good wide receivers around him. He’s got powerful backs, and he’s got a talented tight end and a great offensive line, and he knows where to go with the ball. He’s got great vision downfield. He’s got the ability to look off safeties. He can throw the touch pass. He can throw bullets. He’s really good at the RPO game. And then on top of all that, he can run.
“So he’s a lot to take in.”
The other major matchup is Alabama’s run defense against Georgia’s ground game.
The Crimson Tide went from giving up 115-plus rushing yards against five straight opponents during the first half of the season, to 70 yards against Missouri, 31 at Tennessee, 12 at LSU and 44 against Mississippi State.
Auburn managed 130 last week but averaged 3.0 yards per carry with the longest gain 9 yards.
Meanwhile, Georgia seemed to find its niche after losing at LSU 36-16. Sophomore running back D’Andre Swift has topped 100 rushing yards in four of the last five games, and along with Elijah Holyfield hoping to match Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as the Bulldogs’ second 1,000-yard tandem in as many years.
“We kind of refocused on ourselves and went back to the basics and went back to work, and ever since then we’ve been clicking a little bit higher,” said Holyfield, who has 896 rushing yards while Swift has 962. “I think it’s come from a lot of guys getting more experience, and everybody just kind of figuring each other out and playing together better.”
The Crimson Tide is second nationally in scoring offense (49 points per game) and third in scoring defense (13.8). Alabama has made tremendous strides and shut out LSU and Mississippi State, when they were ranked No. 3 and 16, respectively.
Statistically, the Crimson Tide appears to have an advantage most categories but special teams.
However, the Bulldogs will be playing close to home, knowing that they almost certainly have to win to make the College Football Playoff, and there’s that whole thing about getting another shot to the team it lost to 26-23 in overtime.
It’s a factor that both teams have been playing down.
“Last year’s last year,” Tagovailoa said. “I’m just worried about what we can do as a team this year.”