Can anyone stop the Tide?
That’s been the question that has lingered over the college football world since that fateful January night earlier this year, when Tua Tagovailoa dropped a rainbow of a pass into the hands of Devonta Smith to beat Georgia in overtime in the National Championship Game. Now, 11 months later, that task once again falls to Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs, as the teams meet in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
While the team names are the same as they were in January, the teams themselves are different. The Alabama squad that entered last year’s title game was a prototypical Saban unit. Strong defense, powerful running game, and a quarterback (Jalen Hurts) who wasn’t going to turn the ball over.
This year’s edition has been quite different. Whereas last year’s Alabama team ranked 23rd in Bill Connely’s S&P+ metric on offense and first in defense, this year’s team has ranked second in offensive S&P+, while the defense has held relatively steady at sixth. Georgia has also made a big leap on offense, going from 14th in 2017 to just behind ‘Bama at third in the rankings this year. In another similarity, the defense has remained largely the same, going from 11th (2017) to 14th this season despite the loss of several keys players in that unit.
The biggest difference for the Tide on offense? The Tide have allowed Tagovailoa and arguably the most talented receiving corps in the country to go to work. The Tide rank first in Passing S&P+ this season and 3rd in Connelly’s explosiveness metric, a far cry from last year’s unit, which ranked 27th in explosiveness.
Georgia, while they have lost some key players on defense, has been one of the best teams in the country in defending against explosive plays, ranking second. The Bulldogs have been strong at producing big plays in their own right this season, ranking ninth among FBS teams, while Alabama’s defense has struggled in that department, checking in at number 96 in the country. With how adept these two offenses have been at producing big plays, CBS Sports play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler thinks we’ll see plenty of points in Atlanta on Saturday.
“I hope we do have some explosive plays, because that makes our job fun. Alabama has had 15 pass plays of 50-plus yards which, how often does that happen? Georgia has a couple of pretty good guys in the secondary that I think could maybe prevent some of that,” said SEC on CBS play-by-play man Brad Nessler on a conference call Tuesday. “But, I don’t know that I have seen four receivers on one team as good as what Alabama has. Five, when you count tight end Irv Smith. That group is dangerous every time they touch it, and I know that if anybody knows that it’s Kirby, and he’s making his guys very well aware of where those guys are at all times. I don’t see how we’re not going to have a lot of offense from both teams to be honest with you. Even with as good as the defenses have been, I just see that there are going to be points and yards for both sides.”
So, with that in mind, who has the edge coming into this game? Vegas likes the Tide as a 13-point favorite in this game likely due to the fact that we haven’t seen an opponent come within closer than 22 points (Texas A&M) of them all season. However, color analyst Gary Danielson thinks the matchup is better than that line would suggest.
“These teams are built very broadly where they can win in a lot of different areas. I think Alabama has one fear in this game and it comes down to the kicking game. Otherwise, I think they feel good about their team,” said Danielson on the conference call. “Georgia feels good about the fact that they played Alabama toe-to-toe, took on the physical play of Alabama a year ago, and it was a historic play that beat them, and they want a chance at a rematch. I think we have a perfect matchup here. You can throw out the stats of who played who and who got big plays in the past out. We have two good football teams.”
Connelly’s S&P+ projections would seem to agree. The stats have Alabama (30.4) being about a 3-point favorite over Georgia (27.1) in a neutral field scenario like we have on Saturday. That said, Connelly does have one caveat. Georgia has been exceptionally bad in the red zone this year, and the use of ‘exceptionally’ is not hyperbole.
If Georgia proves more capable of scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations than they did against Kentucky, Florida or LSU, then we likely have a good game on our hands. If not, well, the question asked at the top will linger for another month, as we wait for the College Football Playoff.
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time
How To Watch: CBS or CBSSports.com
Line: Alabama -13