For the better part of 30 years, people jokingly referred to the Big Ten as the Big 2 Little 8. Now, it appears college football is the Big 2 Little 128. Alabama and Georgia have so clearly distinguished themselves as the head of the class; it’s only fitting they meet again for the title.
The Crimson Tide dispatched Cincinnati Friday in workmanlike fashion. Rather than ride the arm of Heisman-winner Bryce Young against an elite secondary, Nick Saban was content with doing what he hadn’t all year: run the football. Alabama opened the game with 10 consecutive runs before Young found Slade Bolden for an eight-yard touchdown. The route wasn’t on, as it took Bama most the evening to separate itself, but it looked incredibly comfortable doing so. Excluding the 59-3 romp of New Mexico State, Young’s 28 pass attempts were his fewest since beating Mississippi State two and a half months ago.
Whereas the Tide were content to run it, the Georgia Bulldogs were content doing whatever the hell they wanted. It was a return to form for the team that held the top spot for nearly the entire year and as dominant a performance as it’s had, which is saying a lot. Stetson Bennett finally notched a win as a major college quarterback when attempting 30 or more passes, going 20 of 30 for 313 yards. Michigan was outmatched, outgunned, and overwhelmed for four quarters, primarily because its style of play played right into the hands of Kirby Smart’s club. Take the semifinals with a grain of salt; neither are a precursor for Monday night.
You might also be shocked to know Georgia will boast the personnel advantage Monday night on both sides of the ball based on performance. Such a revelation made me do a double-take. But it just goes to show you what a difference having the best player in college football makes. Bryce Young is the equalizer – think Denzel Washington – and the Dawgs will be forced to find the answers they couldn’t just a month prior.
Bennett’s two interceptions against Alabama turned what would have been a competitive game into a runaway. I’m sure protecting the football will be a point of emphasis, but it won’t be the difference maker. The fact is Bennett will have to be that for Georgia. Eleven different Bulldogs caught passes in the SEC Championship Game, led by freshman phenom Brock Bowers’ 10 catches for 139 yards. The second-leading receiver, however, was tailback James Cook, four catches for just 28 yards. In order to win this game, Bennett and the Georgia staff have to do a better job of stretching the defense and taking shots downfield. Against a depleted Alabama secondary, it may be more feasible now than ever.
The injury situation for Bama is a significant one. Not only is it missing two corners, but also star receiver John Metchie. The Tide had six receivers average at least 10.5 yards per catch in Atlanta. It’s a next-man-up mentality at Bama and Lord knows it has the talent to do it. Nevertheless, the injury to Metchie at least means Young has one less proven target. That might not mean the difference between winning and losing, but it certainly has potential to help Georgia’s cause.
A month ago, Alabama converted 50 percent of its third downs (7-14), whereas Georgia was just 3 of 12. Conventional wisdom says you should work hard to get into third and manageable, but that would be a mistake for Georgia. Its average third-down distance in that game was 6.6 yards, not great but not terrible. The key isn’t to avoid third and long, but to avoid third down altogether. Georgia scored three touchdowns the last time these two met; all three drives featured zero third downs. The average of those three drives was just seven plays, 82 yards (11.8 yards per play), and took only 2:25 of game clock. Contrast that to the other 232 yards the Bulldogs gained that night, in which they averaged just four yards per play.
The quickest of those three touchdown drives took just 1:22 and was helped along by 40 yards of Alabama penalties (defensive holding and two pass interferences), but that’s got to be part of the gameplan this time around. Bama’s secondary is thinner than ever at the moment and it will be on Bennett to test it. Like Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, the Dawgs don’t care how they move the ball through the air, but if, and a shorthanded secondary seems an awful good place to try to find some free penalty yardage. These two teams are coming off semifinals where each dictated the style and pace. Something’s got to give in Indianapolis. Georgia can’t force Alabama to run the football, but what it might be able to do is more or less match them with some timely downfield throws. Georgia had some big-play success against Alabama; it just needs more of it, and it has to be comfortable with being a quick strike team.
Obviously, it wasn’t just the self-inflicted wounds that spelled Georgia’s doom the last time. The fact is Young went off, just as a player of his caliber is likely to. One key adjustment, which admittedly is easier said than done, is to keep Young in the pocket. Young was the rushing attack for Bama last time on just three carries for 40 yards, not to mention the improvised option pitch to Brian Robinson for 13 yards. It’s a perfect example of quality over quantity. If Young is allowed to scramble and improvise, it’s going to be a long night. As hard as it is to prevent an athlete like Young from doing that, Georgia’s best option is to force the Heisman winner to create within the pocket. He’s certainly shown the capability to do just that, but if you’re Georgia, you have to pick your poison, and this would at least force Bama into being truly one-dimensional.