First take: 3 keys Georgia vs. Alabama SEC Championship Game matchups

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) helped UGA out to a 24-20 halftime lead at Alabama last season, but the Tide shut the Bulldogs out in the second half and won 41-24. (Photo by Skylar Lien)
Skylar Lien

AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Saban is known best for his fiery sideline disposition, but the seven-time national championship coach has a few other tricks in his bag.

Alabama (11-1) will likely need them when it plays No. 1-ranked Georgia in the SEC Championship Game at 4 p.m. next Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The Bulldogs capped their first 12-0 season since 1980 with an impressive win over Georgia Tech, dominating the action in a 45-0 victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has the better team and confidently hyped up the setting at the SEC title game on Saturday, making no secret of the fact UGA has had this game targeted.

“We know it’s a big one coming up,” Smart said. “Everyone’s kind of hard it circled and seen it out there.”

Saban’s mood was decidedly different on Saturday night after holding his breath for the better part of his team’s 24-22 four-OT win at Auburn.

RELATED: Tide rolls into SEC Championship Game off emotional win

The Tigers had won 118 straight games when leading by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, and there was no reason to believe Auburn would fall until the final minutes.

It was the first overtime Iron Bowl in history, and it was one Saban said he would remember after watching his offense come off the mat from 10-0 down in the fourth quarter following his halftime speech.

Saban, sensing the pressure his relatively young Alabama football team is placing on themselves, lightened the mood.

“I told them to have fun at halftime,” Saban said. “Quit worrying about the result, and let’s just go have fun.”

It’s not hard to imagine Alabama bringing the same “house money” mindset into the SEC Championship Game.

Georgia, meanwhile, has sensed the urgency throughout the season with Smart demanding improvement each week.

The psychological matchup will be one thing to watch, and here are three others after watching the Tide rally at Auburn.

Quick release

There’s a reason Smart was wanting Stetson Bennett to work on getting rid of the ball quicker entering into the Georgia Tech game — that reason is SEC Player of the Year candidate Will Anderson and the Alabama pass rush.

Bennett showed the traits Smart was looking for in the win over the Yellow Jackets on Saturday, 14-of-20 passing for 255 yards with 4 touchdowns while getting sacked just once.

RELATED: Kirby wants quicker decisions from Stetson Bennett

But Anderson was on his game, too, with three of his seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage against Auburn on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide had other defenders in the backfield, too. Auburn QB TJ Finley was sacked 6 times, and it’s a safe bet Georgia offensive line coach Matt Luke will be spending plenty of time reviewing the cut-ups with his linemen.

Playcalling

Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken will have a busy week preparing for Alabama. The Bulldogs will need an aggressive first-down mindset to stay ahead of the chains.

The Tide ranked No. 5 in the nation in run defense entering Saturday’s action and is sure to move up after holding the Tigers to 22 yards rushing on 40 carries, including a key third-and-1 stop in the fourth quarter.

Georgia, it’s worth noting, held Auburn to 46 yards rushing on 29 carries.

The Bulldogs have a better offensive line than the Tigers, but they haven’t faced a defensive front on par with Alabama’s since the season-opening 10-3 win over Clemson.

Smart is all-in on the play-action game, so it will be up to Monken to keep the Tide guessing next Saturday.

Scramble game

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young lived up to the hype, overcoming a slow start with a fantastic finish under pressure at Auburn.

Young’s mind-blowing mobility had to be maddening for the Tigers’ defenders, who often appeared to have him hemmed in, only to see the second-year QB scramble away and make plays.

The Georgia defensive front has shown great discipline with its pass rush, however, and hasn’t allowed many quarterbacks to escape outside of an occasional QB draw.

As much as Young’s mobility could cause a problem, slippery Alabama receivers like Jameson Williams and John Metchie will also provide a challenge.

The Bulldogs have been careful not to allow big plays, but Williams and Metchie will find space underneath, and the pressure will be on Georgia to tackle well in the open field on the occasions they can’t get to Young.

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