By Tim Gardner
No. 1 Alabama (13-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (13-1)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 10 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST)
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)
The 2021 major college football season concludes Monday night, January 10 with Georgia and Alabama meeting in an all-Southeast Conference (SEC) showdown to decide the national championship. It will be the second time these two teams will play each other this season. Alabama upset the then-undefeated Bulldogs 41-24 in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4, which lifted coach Nick Saban’s team to the No. 1 overall seed in the College Football Playoffs. Although Georgia stumbled in that game, coach Kirby Smart’s team was arguably the better team throughout the season. This game marks the third time since the BCS era that two SEC teams will meet for the title. Louisiana State (LSU)-Alabama played for the ’11 in the BCS title and Alabama and Georgia did so in ’17.
After a 10-3 victory over Clemson in the opener, Georgia won its next 11 games by at least 17 points. And just four opponents even got to double figures against the Bulldogs. That included wins against Arkansas (37-0), Kentucky (30-13), Florida (34-7) and Tennessee (41-17). However, the loss to Alabama in Atlanta, GA showed the vulnerabilities of Smart’s team. But the Bulldogs rebounded to convincingly beat Michigan 34-11 in the Orange Bowl (College Football Playoffs Semifinal) on Dec. 31.
Alabama lost 41-38 to Texas A&M on Oct. 9 to snap a 19-game win streak that dated back to the Citrus Bowl following the 2019 season. Then the Crimson Tide had 40 and 28-point wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee, respectively. But the Crimson Tide’s final three regular-season SEC wins were by a combined 15 points. That included a 24-22 four-overtime win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl thanks to a milestone drive by quarterback Bryce Young and the offense to force overtime.
That and Young’s performance in the SEC title game sealed him winning the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player. It also set up a game against No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl, which Alabama won 27-6 to advance to its sixth title game appearance in the last eight years of the College Football Playoffs. While Saban already has coached more teams (seven) to National Championships (six at Alabama and one at LSU), than any coach, he will pass fellow-Legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, for winning more National Titles as Alabama’s head coach with a win over Georgia.
But a Georgia victory will give the Bulldogs their sixth national championship and first since 1980 and Smart, who coached under Saban at Louisiana State (LSU), with the Miami Dolphins of the National Football league (NFL) and at Alabama, his first win over his mentor and his first national title as a head coach.
Inexplicably, Georgia enters the game as a 3-point favorite over Alabama despite the 17-point loss the Crimson Tide put on the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game. Granted, it’s hard to beat a good team twice in one season and for sure, twice in just over a month. But there’s no way Georgia should be favored considering the Crimson Tide’s margin of victory in the first game.
Both Alabama and Georgia have good running games. Georgia averages 5.3 yards per carry with Zamir White (772 yards) and James Cook (651) carrying most of the rushing load. Cook also is a valuable pass catcher out of the backfield (25 receptions). Alabama’s Brian Robinson has rushed for 1,268 yards during the 2021 season on 5.1 yards per carry. But neither team ran the ball well against each other in the SEC championship game thanks to each team’s staunch defensive front. They combined for 56 carries, but only for 224 yards. The Bulldogs especially need to get consistent production in their running game to avoid being in long-yardage situations when their offense is on the field.
Alabama offensive linemen (All-American) Evan Neal and Emil Ekyior were injured during that win over Cincinnati, but are likely to play versus Georgia. Their presence will be huge if they can go at, or near, full-strength. Alabama was successful at neutralizing Georgia’s front seven with a quick passing game in the SEC Final. And Georgia must be effective at run game push on first and second downs and likely a lot of early-down throws from Young.
Georgia’s ability to blow out Michigan was possible because quarterback Stetson Bennett played the best game of his career. The senior was 20-of-30 passing for 313 yards and three touchdowns and was particularly good in the first half — until an apparent mix-up of clock management on the final drive. But Bennett has a tendency to make a few bad throws and at the worst times-which he has to avoid against Alabama if Georgia is to win.
Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels seemed primed for a huge season as the Georgia starting quarterback, but after an early injury, Bennett passed him on the depth chart and never surrendered the position. Bennett completed 29-of-48 throws for 340 yards against Alabama in the SEC Championship, but he tossed two costly picks, including one that was returned for a touchdown. For the season, Bennett threw for 2,638 yards and 27 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and led the SEC in yards per attempt (10.1).
If Bennett makes good decisions, throws the ball well and plays off of Georgia’s running game, the Bulldogs have an excellent chance to beat Alabama. Georgia could use more quick passes or roll outs to get Bennett on the move, but the senior quarterback is also going to need help from the trenches.
Alabama’s defense enters the championship allowing 19.2 points a game, 4.7 yards per play and generating 3.7 sacks a contest (52 all year). The Crimson Tide is only allowing 82.1 rushing yards a game and just 2.5 yards per carry and is coming off a dominant performance in the Cotton Bowl, limiting Cincinnati to 74 rushing yards and generating six sacks. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is a key reason for Alabama’s stingy defense, as the unanimous All-American enters Monday’s game with 17.5 sacks and 33.5 Tackles For Loss (TFL). Also, Phidarian Mathis is another Crimson Tide All-American, and he anchors the staunch defensive line.
But Georgia’s offensive line has been a standout group for almost the entire season, although the Bulldogs surrendered three sacks and seven tackles for a loss in the SEC Championship. If Georgia’s offensive front holds up and Bennett has time to throw, there are plays for success available against Alabama’s secondary. Jalyn Armour-Davis suffered an injury in the win over Cincinnati. If he is limited, or unable to play, the Crimson Tide will have to rely more on freshman Quincy McKinstry and Khyree Jackson to help All-American Jordan Battle against a receiving corps that’s very deep and healthier than it was at the end of the regular season. Georgia’s George Pickens was primed to rank as one of the top receivers in the SEC this year, but an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury in spring practice sidelined him until late November. Pickens should be closer to form in this outing, with fellow-weapons like Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey primed to test the Alabama secondary. Tight end Brock Bowers (52 catches for 846 yards and 12 TDs) is Bennett’s favorite target and he is an extremely tough matchup for Alabama’s secondary. Bowers was named to some All-America teams, and could be college’s football’s best tight end.
A Georgia defense that had allowed opponents to throw for more than 200 yards in only three games during the regular season had its worst effort in the SEC Championship. It was torched by Young for 421 yards on 44 pass attempts. Those yards also came on only 26 completions as Georgia’s secondary had some uncharacteristic coverage and tackling failures. Young also rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown and consistently avoided rushers in the backfield to prevent negative plays and not get sacked.
But Georgia’s defense has been college football’s best much of the season and likely will play much better against Alabama’s offense in this game. Anchored by the Outland Trophy winner for college football’s best lineman, Jordan Davis, and his fellow-All-American, linebacker Nakobe Dean, Georgia is giving up only 82.1 rushing yards per contest and 2.7 yards a carry. Alabama also will have to account for standouts up front like Jalen Carter and All-American Devonte Wyatt, with Channing Tindall, Quay Walker and Robert Beal helping Dean patrol the middle of the defense. This unit has registered 45 sacks, 92 tackles for a loss, and ranks first in the nation in the red zone. No opponent has managed a rush over 40 yards this season. It will be crucial for Georgia’s linemen and linebackers to take the heat off a secondary that will have issues defending Young if it has to cover for too long.
Alabama’s John Metchie III, who like it’s top receiver and All-American, Jamison Williams, had more than 1,000 yards receiving in ’21, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the SEC title game. But slot receiver Slade Bolden played a key role in the last game versus Georgia and scored the game’s first touchdown. Tight ends Jahleel Billingsley and Cameron Latu will be threats over the middle as well as in the flats. Ja’Corey Brooks will the player relied on to help take pressure off Williams on the outside-especially if Georgia’s secondary, led by All-American safety Lewis Cline, plays better and neutralizes his production. Another key for the Bulldogs is how well they limit Alabama’s receivers to yards after receptions. A month ago, Crimson Tide receivers consistently gained several extra yards after made receptions
Arguably, there’s more talent from top to bottom on Georgia’s roster than Alabama’s. It will be interesting to see if Saban decides to stick with the game plan that won the SEC championship or go with a more even mix of running and passing play calling to help counter Metchie III not playing. Georgia has jumped out to a lead in all four of its matchups against Alabama under Smart, including three by double digits. This time, the Bulldogs need to close the game strongly–something they have not in the last several meetings against Alabama.
A similar repeat of the first game this season seems unlikely. If it does play out in such a manner, Alabama certainly wins. Georgia should make effective adjustments and be much better prepared about how to defend Young and the Alabama offense. In the SEC Championship, Georgia’s defense played a contain rush trying to keep Young from escaping the pocket and running the ball. Young had a few big runs, but his passing was the decisive factor in Alabama’s win. In this game, Georgia needs to keep pressure on Young with consistent blitzes and by playing one defender free, one defender underneath and one free safety deep to cover for the deep ball in case one of the defenders playing man defense loses his coverage. Also, the Bulldogs need to play a defender underneath with two deep safeties in case one of their defenders playing man defense underneath loses who he is supposed to stop in coverage. With one free safety, that puts six defenders in the box which is better against the run. But with two safeties, there’s only four defenders in the box, which should work much better against Alabama’s passing attack.
And getting the ball to various playmakers will be a major factor for both teams, especially Georgia. Against Michigan, Georgia had four different players with at least 50 yards of offense and four different receivers scored a touchdown. Against Alabama in the SEC Championship, Bowers (139 yards, 10 receptions, one touchdown), was the only Bulldog offensive player to total more than 50 yards. The Bulldogs need to share the ball and dictate the game’s flow — and avoid needing to keep pace with Young.
Prediction: Two quotes I especially remember that my long-time and dear friend, legendary and former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley has said are: “More games are lost than won” and “You have to learn how to not beat yourself, before you learn how to beat your opponent.” Both will be prophetic for this game. The team that makes the fewest mistakes should prevail. Those who know me know I’m a rabid Georgia enthusiast. But while my head tells me Alabama should win, my heart says Georgia will notch the victory. Sometimes you have to go with your heart. How ‘Bout Them Dawgs-2021 National Champions! Georgia 31, Alabama 24.