ATHENS — There’s no such thing as a normal Georgia-Alabama football game, a point driven home by Wednesday night’s news the Alabama coach Nick Saban had tested positive for COVID-19.
The Saturday night heavyweight battle featuring the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs playing in Tuscaloosa against the No. 3 Crimson Tide (TV: 8 p.m., CBS) does not have direct championship implications as it has had each of the past two seasons.
But there will no doubt be a spotlight shining brightly on Bryant-Denny Stadium with Saban having to coach from the skybox, or perhaps even outside the stadium, on account of his recent diagnoses.
The attention will center around the play on the field, however, as the game is expected to be as closely contested as the two most recent meetings.
Alabama beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime of the 2017 College Football Playoff Championship, and again 35-28 in the SEC Championship Game.
Crimson Tide beat writer Mike Rodak of AL.com took time out with DawgNation to answer five pivotal questions about the Saturday night marquee matchup in Tuscaloosa:
1. Where is Alabama most susceptible on defense this season?
MR: It’s definitely the secondary, especially at safety. Alabama lost essentially four starters from last season in cornerback Trevon Diggs and safety Xavier McKinney – both second-round picks – as well as safety Jared Mayden and slot cornerback Shyheim Carter.
They still have Patrick Surtain, a likely early first-round pick next spring, as their top cornerback. But teams are simply throwing away from him and attacking the rest of the secondary. Josh Jobe has performed well at the other starting cornerback spot, and true freshman Malachi Moore has been up and down in the slot.
The true problem area is safety, where sophomore Jordan Battle has generally played well but the other spot has been an adventure. Daniel Wright has been pulled from the past two games after noticeable missed tackles, and his replacement, DeMarcco Hellams, seemed to blow a coverage against Texas A&M.
Because Battle was called for targeting in the second half of the Ole Miss game last week, he will miss the first half against Georgia. That was the last thing Alabama’s defense needed.
2. Assessing special teams, where are the Tide’s strengths and weaknesses?
MR: Special teams has not come into play much for Alabama yet. They have only punted five times in three games, and attempted only two field goals. This offense scores touchdowns and keeps its specialists off the field. Opponents have also tried to minimize chances for Jaylen Waddle, one of the best returners in the country last year, to field punts and kick returns.
But if Waddle does get the ball in his hands, he is electric, so the return game is certainly a strength. Classically, Alabama’s kicking game has been its weakness but sophomore Will Reichard has converted both of his field goals so far this season.
Overall, though, I think Alabama fans will still be nervous the next time he lines up for a big kick. The Tide’s punter, Sam Johnson, is also a true freshman walk-on, as is its kickoff specialist, Chase Allen. It’s a young group that I’m sure Nick Saban is waiting to see if he can trust.
3. How much Bryce Young could we see, and what would be the circumstance?
I would imagine very little. Young had a strong fall camp and is a five-star talent, but this is Mac Jones’ offense. Jones has been too good to take off the field in any meaningful situation, and any talk of Young replacing him as the starter at some point this season seems to have been extinguished.
Saban did tap Young for about the final quarter of the opener at Missouri with a 30-point lead and things did not go well, with Young fumbling the ball away on a sack. Saban said they sacrificed something on offense to put in Young, so I would not imagine he would do the same in a game like Georgia.
4. What is the most important element of the Tide offense, the piece they couldn’t do without?
That’s a good question because they have two first-round talents at wide receiver, an experienced offensive line that will put several players in the NFL and a probable Day 2 NFL draft pick at running back in Najee Harris.
But the piece right now that seems to be keeping the offense moving is Jones, who has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations for him so far this season. He leads the country with a 220.3 passing efficiency rating, which is about the same as what Alabama got from Tua Tagovailoa to start the past two seasons.
5. Where do you see Alabama having the biggest matchup advantage over Georgia?
How about Saban vs. Stetson Bennett? Saban struck a generally positive tone after Alabama’s 63-48 win over Ole Miss but you know giving up a program-worst 647 yards to Lane Kiffin must have left him with a sour taste into this week.
Saban has a chance to make a statement on a national stage Saturday night that his defense has not fallen off from its glory days, and who better to pick on than a quarterback like Bennett who is relatively new to the SEC scene?