By Tim Gardner
All college football enthusiasts have been waiting all season for the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Division 1 Playoffs National Championship Game. It’s finally here as the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide play Monday night, January 8th for all the marbles– the National Championship (2017 season). Continue reading for a game preview and final score prediction.
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST)
Location: Atlanta, GA
Stadium: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
A pair of teams from the Southeastern Conference will battle it out for the National Title as the third-seeded Georgia Bulldogs play the fourth-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide in a clash of traditional football powers.
Both teams earned their berths in the National Championship game in impressive, but totally different fashions. Georgia won one of the most exciting games in college history, rallying from a 31-14 halftime deficit to beat second-seeded Oklahoma 54-48 in two overtimes in the Rose Bowl. And Alabama defeated top-seeded Clemson 24-6 in a completely dominant way and by a wider margin than many expected.
This could be an epic game, as it is loaded with pro prospects and storylines up and down both teams. Other than Wisconsin (13-1), Georgia and Alabama are the only two other Power Five teams remaining with just one loss.
Alabama is playing for its fifth national championship in the last nine years, while Georgia will try to win its first since the Herschel Walker-led Bulldogs of 1980.
With a win, Coach Nick Saban will take home his sixth national championship –fifth with the Crimson Tide– in his historic run. His six championships would tie his fellow-Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for most national championships won by a major college coach, although Bryant won all six of his at Alabama. One of Saban’s came at LSU.
Saban is an amazing 11-0 against his former assistants who have become head coaches. But it appears that this game against his former defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, a former Georgia player and its second-year head coach, may be his hardest to keep that perfect record intact.
But as much as any storyline, this game is unquestionably between college football’s two best teams.
Georgia finished the regular season 13-1, with its only loss at Auburn. But the Bulldogs avenged that loss by trouncing the Tigers in the SEC Championship game, 28-7. Georgia has fared well against ranked teams this season, going 4-1 which included a win and a loss to Auburn when the Tigers were among the nation’s Top 5 teams both times.
Alabama has a 12-1 record, including a 4-1 mark against ranked opponents. Its only loss was also at Auburn, which cost the Crimson Tide a chance to play for the SEC title.
Alabama features a stifling defense that ranks first nationally in total yards allowed per game (253.5), rush defense (only 2.7 yards surrendered per opponent’s carry) and points allowed per game (11.1). The Crimson Tide also ranks third-best nationally against the pass (160.6 ypg).
The Crimson Tide defense dazzled in the Sugar Bowl win, limiting Clemson to only 188 total yards.
Alabama nose guard Da’Ron Payne made an interception that set up a touchdown, which he ironically made on a pass from Hurts in the Sugar Bowl. But he was outstanding at taking on blockers in the interior all throughout that game. With standouts Raekwon Davis (64 tackles and 7.5 sacks), De’Shawn Hand and Isaiah Buggs (46 tackles) anchoring the defensive front, and Rashaan Evans (66 tackles and 11.5 for loss) and Mack Wilson (28 tackles) leading an exceptional linebacking corps, it’s obvious why the Crimson Tide is so great defensively.
Ronnie Harrison leads a good Alabama secondary with a team-best 70 tackles. He also has made three interceptions.
But Alabama will be without outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings for the game. Jennings made five tackles including three for a loss and one sack against Clemson. The Crimson Tide will also play without linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (40 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the 2017 season).
Alabama has been solid, if not spectacular, offensively this season. The Crimson Tide enters the game ranked 25th in the nation in total offense (454.7 yards per game), 87th in passing (198.9 ypg) and 10th in rushing (255.8 ypg).
Despite its 18 point win, Alabama had just 261 offensive yards against Clemson. But the Crimson Tide averages 38.9 points per game.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is good enough to keep the Crimson Tide’s offense rolling. He has hit 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,125 yards and 17 touchdowns, with just one interception. But he has hurt opponents as much, or more, with this running ability, rushing for 808 yards and eight touchdowns.
Hurts is like an extra running back at times, but the Crimson Tide’s combination of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough has been effective enough and can grind out a game clock and put their offense in manageable third down situations. Harris has 983 yards rushing and 11touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide does not have enough of a downfield passing game, and Hurts has struggled when the Alabama has had to rely on its passing game. But the Alabama offensive line doesn’t have much of a problem providing pass protection. It has allowed 24 sacks on the year, but many of those came from Hurts running around trying to make plays.
Alabama’s top receiver, Calvin Ridley, will be the target of most of its pass attempts. The junior receiver has 59 catches for 935 receiving yards this season. But Alabama has had little production from the rest of its receivers.
While Alabama deserves all the accolades it gets about its bruising defense, it hasn’t played a team with a cast of running backs even remotely possessing the talent and depth of Georgia.
Georgia has an ultra-efficient passing attack behind sensational freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, the fabulous running backs, a stingy defense, good special teams and an excellent offensive line.
This might just be the best team in college football. The question is whether or not that’s enough to overcome an Alabama defense that usually finds something to exploit against every opponent.
The Bulldogs rank 31st in the nation in total offense (440.3 yards per game), 110th in passing (172.9 ypg), 8th in rushing (267.4 ypg) and 17th in scoring with 36.3 points averaged per game.
Georgia ran wild through the porous Oklahoma secondary, averaging over nine yards per carry with Sony Michel tearing off an amazing 16.5 yards per pop and three touchdowns, and Nick Chubb running for 145 yards and two touchdowns. In the second overtime Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter blocked an Oklahoma field goal. Then the Bulldogs got a 27 yard touchdown run from Michel on a direct snap to win the game. Michel finished with 181 yards rushing and has rushed for 1,129 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Chubb has rushed for 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns.
In the first half against Oklahoma, the Bulldogs did more reading and reacting on defense, allowing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Rodney Anderson do what they do best, then hoping to making tackles to limit the damage. But in the last half and double over-time periods, Georgia became the aggressor and kept the pressure coming, especially not letting Mayfield have as much time to scramble and pass, while finishing with five sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Georgia was dealing with a-near unstoppable force of an Oklahoma offense that came out roaring with its early tempo. However, all season this Georgia defense has been among the best in the country, allowing over 300 yards of total offense just three times – Oklahoma, the loss to Auburn and Missouri.
In a lot of ways, as good as Mayfield was in the Rose Bowl, Fromm was better, completing 20-of-29 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. And unlike Mayfield who threw an interception, Fromm did not. Fromm is the first freshman quarterback to ever lead his team to a Rose Bowl victory.
For the season, Fromm has now hit 63.7 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards with 23 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Georgia’s top receiver, Javon Wims, made six catches for 73 yards in the Rose Bowl and has now amassed 44 receptions for 704 receiving yards this season.
Defensively, Georgia ranks sixth-best nationally in total yards allowed (289.5 ypg), 8th best against the pass (167.6 ypg) and 20th versus the run (121.9 ypg), while allowing just 15.7 ppg, 5th best in the nation.
Georgia’s over-all defensive speed may be its biggest advantage over Alabama.
Georgia has the nation’s top defensive player, junior linebacker Roquan Smith, the Butkus Award recipient, who has 124 tackles this season, including 11.5 for loss. He, Carter (58 tackles) and their fellow-linebacker Davin Bellamy will be among the main Bulldog defenders Alabama’s offensive line must keep from getting pressure on Hurts.
The Georgia secondary is solid and consists of standouts J.R. Reed (76 tackles), Dominick Sanders (37 tackles and four interceptions) and Deandre Baker (41 tackles).
Up front, Georgia’s defense is led by John Atkins and Tyler Clark, who both have 36 tackles, and Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter with 35 each.
Georgia only has one significant absence for this one as linebacker Natrez Patrick will not suit up. Patrick did not play in the Rose Bowl. He has made 35 tackles this season.
Both teams have good special teams, although the Bulldogs have a slight edge in the kicking game. Rodrigo Blakenship is 61-of-61 on extra points and has made 17-of-20 field goal attempts for Georgia with his longest of the season being 55 yards in the Rose Bowl. Alabama’s Andy Pappanaslus has kicked 54-of-54 extra points and 17-of-20 field goal attempts, with his longest being 46 yards.
This will be an old-fashioned slobber-knocker game. The best way to win a game is not to lose it. And the team that makes the fewest mistakes, leads the time of possession and can run the ball more effectively and better consistently will win. The best match-up should be which team wins the line of scrimmage—particularly Georgia’s offensive line versus Alabama’s defensive front. Fromm must extend plays to handle Alabama’s enormous pass rush and hit some play-action and long downfield passes. And the Bulldogs must keep Hurts in the pocket and not let him stretch the field and make plays while also keeping Ridley in check. Alabama must not let Chubb, Michel and company have big games. If The Bulldogs have 200-plus yards rushing, it may be a long night for Alabama.
I write this column without any Bulldog bias… well maybe just a little. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a rabid Georgia fan and those who meet me for the first time quickly realizes it. But I’ve felt since the middle of this season that Georgia was destined to win the National Championship. If it happens, everyone with whom I come in contact over the next year will find me quite obnoxious if they’re not also a Georgia fan. The Bulldogs are just a fraction better over-all than Alabama. Although the best team does not always win, Georgia will make the necessary plays, avoid making too many miscues and find a way to prevail. How ‘bout those National Champion Bulldogs?
Prediction-Georgia 27, Alabama 20