Road to Atlanta: Georgia football run game on par with Alabama
This is the fourth in a series of stories that compares units on the Georgia and Alabama teams as last season’s College Football Playoff finalists prepare for a rematch on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
ATHENS — Georgia leads the SEC in rushing offense, ranking 16th in the nation with 240.7 yards per game on the ground on the heels of 300-yard-plus performances in wins over Kentucky and Auburn.
But the Bulldogs are merely a push when compared with Alabama’s run game, because the short-yardage and Red Zone run issues are in dire need of fixing for Georgia to have a chance at beating the Crimson Tide.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (9-1) play No. 1-ranked Alabama (10-0) at 4 p.m. on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta with a likely trip to the College Football Playoff.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart made it clear the Bulldogs are working on the short-yardage issue, but that has been somewhat complicated by the recent injuries up front. Smart indicated guards Cade Mays and Kendall Baker are questionable to return this week. Junior Ben Cleveland is back, he’s not yet 100 percent.
Still, Smart has said since the start of the season that part of the identity of his Georgia football teams will be an offense that can dictate with a power run game.
“When you get in the red area, you’ve got to bully-bully, say you’re running it down their throat,” Smart said. “We should be good that. Georgia should be good that that, you know what I mean?”
Except the Bulldogs have struggled in that area the past three games, converting just 4-of-16 times they have faced a third- or fourth-and-1 or play from the 1-yard line in games with Florida, Kentucky and Auburn.
Senior captain center Lamont Guillard said it’s something the team has worked on.
“It’s definitely driving me nuts,” Guillard. We’ve got to get better and execute better …. once we do that, we’ll be a great team. That’s just us needing to get more gritty and be that rough O-Line we need to be. We’ll fix it. We have a lot to work on, we’re not perfect, but we’re striving for that.”
Freshman quarterback Justin Fields has been the most consistent option in those third and fourth down or goal line situations requiring 1 yard or less, 3-for-3 converting.
Georgia ball carriers conversion rate in third- fourth and goal-line 1-yard situations:
James Cook 1-for-1
Brian Herrien 2-for-3
D’Andre Swift 4-for-7
Jake Fromm 3-for-6
Elijah Holyfield 2-for-7
This season’s version of Alabama has obviously been more successful passing the football than any other. The Tide’s staggering first half scoring advantage (347-58) has meant plenty of carries in the second halves of games to bleed the clock.
Alabama ranks tied for 28th in the nation in rushing with 215.8 yards per game, but it’s worth noting the Tide has faced the nation’s No. 2 and No. 20 ranked rushing defenses in Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
The highest ranked rush defense Georgia has faced is No. 30 LSU, and that was not a good day for the Bulldogs on the ground (season-low 30 carries, season-low 113 yards).
Senior Damien Harris is the steadiest and most reliable of the Tide backs between the tackles. Harris is generally sure-handed with good but not necessarily the home run speed Georgia’s Swift possesses.
Josh Jacobs, a 5-10, 216-pounder, is used in a variety of ways, including runs out of the Wildcat package and work at the goal. Like Harris, Jacobs can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Sophomore Najee Harris (6-2, 230) is a power back Georgia became acquainted with in last year’s College Football Playoff title game, as he rushed six times for a team-high 64 yards in the Tide’s 26-23 overtime win.
Junior Brian Robinson is another strong back a 6-1, 221-pound between the tackles runner.
Despite the lack of a true power back (hence, the short-yardage struggles) Georgia’s collection of backs — Swift, Holyfield, Herrien and Cook — have a sight edge.
Swift has proven when healthy to be the most explosive and game-changing back on either team, and the under-utilized Cook has also exhibited breakaway speed and open-field ability.
Alabama, however, evens it up with the running ability of their quarterbacks.
Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are both threats to rip off huge junks of yardage when opportunities are present.
Fromm’s mobility is typically limited to extending pass plays, and the Bulldogs to this point have appeared somewhat reluctant to turn Fields loose as a runner.
Here’s how Alabama and Georgia have fared against common opponents:
Georgia and Alabama rushing vs. LSU
Alabama 37 carries, 281 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns
Georgia 30 carries, 113 yards, 1 rushing touchdown
Georgia and Alabama rushing vs. Missouri
Alabama 45 carries, 184 yards, 1 rushing touchdown
Georgia 40 carries, 185 yards, 0 rushing touchdowns
Georgia and Alabama rushing vs. Tennessee
Alabama 42 carries, 218 yards, 4 rushing touchdowns
Georgia 50 carries, 251 yards, 5 rushing touchdowns
Georgia and Alabama personnel comparisons
Damien Harris 101 carries, 595 yards, 5.9 ypc, 7 TD
Najee Harris 87 carries, 588 yards, 6.8 ypc, 4 TD
Josh Jacobs 79 carries, 381 yards, 4.8 ypc, 9 TD
Brian Robinson Jr. 61 carries, 268 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD
Tua Tagovailoa 37 carries, 148 yards, 4.0 ypc, 3 TD
Jalen Hurts 28 carries, 136 yards, 4.9 ypc, 1 TD
D’Andre Swift 116 carries, 808 yards, 7.0 ypc, 8 TD
Elijah Holyfield 118 carries, 767 yards, 6.5 ypc, 5 TD
Brian Herrien 37 carries, 222 yards, 6.0 ypc, 2 TD
James Cook 31 carries, 169 yards, 5,5 ypc, 0 TD
Justin Fields 29 carries, 150 yards, 5.2 ypc, 3 TD
Jake Fromm 31 carries, -21 yards, -0.7 ypc, 0 TD