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Photo courtesy Alabama, RollTide.com
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa hasn't thrown an interception since the College Football Playoff championship game against Georgia.

Georgia, talented secondary and speedy receivers, best SEC East matchup for Alabama

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Somewhere, some time on Saturday, Georgia football coach Kirby Smart was watching the Alabama-Tennessee game.

Football is a relationship business, and coaches keep up with one another and the players they recruited.

It’s why Florida coach Dan Mullen said he’d watch LSU play his former program at Mississippi State on Saturday.

RELATED: Georgia football busy prepping for Gators on bye week

Maybe it was just a series, or perhaps a quarter — at a minimum, highlights — but Smart surely watched (studied?) the head coach and program he was hired to beat at some point Saturday.

Saban is king

Nick Saban moved to 15-0 against his former assistants with the 58-21 win at Tennessee, Neyland Stadium checkered with 97,087 crimson and orange clad fans, some 5,000 short of a sellout.

Alabama looked every bit the part of the No. 1 team in college football.

But Smart and Georgia ultimately overtaking Saban and Alabama remains a realistic notion that goes beyond the Bulldogs’ No. 1 signing class in 2018.

Georgia was the best team in college football last year, they just didn’t win the title game.

The Bulldogs were the SEC champions, coming through the front door to qualify for the College Football Playoff.

Georgia showed its mettle by overcoming last season’s hottest quarterback, some 2,000 miles from Athens in the Rose Bowl, at that.

The Bulldogs fell one play short of topping the Tide — one second-and-26 broken assignment in the secondary —  before suffering a heartbreaking 26-23 overtime defeat.

Tua Tagovailoa, the freshman QB who came off the bench at halftime and overcame a 13-0 deficit to beat Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has not looked back.

Heisman Trophy Tua

Tagovailoa is a lock to win the Heisman Trophy if he stays healthy, and he looked more dangerous than ever piloting the Tide’s high-powered offense against the overmatched Vols.

Alabama raced out to a 28-0 lead less than 12 minutes into the first quarter, and the game was over, the rest of the afternoon a matter of details.

Tagovailoa, wearing a knee brace that limited his mobility, was 19-of-29 passing for 306 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions before exiting the game in the third quarter with Alabama up 51-14.

The Tide reporters who cover the team swear it was Tagovailoa’s worst performance of the season.

Georgia’s No. 8-ranked Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 SEC) were idle after a busy week cleaning up deficiencies, the focus on next Saturday’s showdown with Florida.

Smart said earlier in the week he wasn’t sure exactly how he’d use Saturday off, but watching games was part of the plan.

“I haven’t talked to my wife to see what I’ve got permission to do, whatever she says, I’ll do,” Smart said. “Saturday I will be watching some games and probably watching some tape as well.”

The Bulldogs can’t be ready enough for the SEC East Division co-leading No. 11-ranked Gators (6-1, 4-1).

Smart has raised Georgia’s standards so high that anything less than an SEC Championship Game appearance is a disappointment, even after losing eight starters on defense and the school’s No. 2 and No. 3 all-time leading rushers.

Alabama is a sure bet to be there waiting in the SEC Championship Game for the East Division winner.

Georgia matches up best

The Bulldogs appear to match up better with the Tide than anyone else in the division, from a personnel and scheme standpoint.

As accurate as Tagovailoa appears, the keys to Alabama’s fast-strike offense are the Tide’s fleet-footed receivers.

Georgia arguably has the most talented, deepest and best-coached secondary in the SEC, and Tagovailoa could be forced to press without his receivers streaking open.

That has yet to happen this season, but it’s worth noting Alabama’s schedule has included just one Top 25 team to this point, Texas A&M.

Georgia’s speedy, big-play receivers are another reason to believe the Bulldogs might give the SEC East it’s best chance at beating the Tide.

Tennessee hit chunk plays in the pass game against Alabama on Saturday for gains of 40, 30, 27, 26 and 20 yards.

The Tide’s defense has just three starters back from the crew that started against Georgia in last season’s national title game.

More numbers to ponder:  Tennessee had 143 yards passing and 209 total yards on the Bulldogs’ defense in Georgia’s 38-12 win over the Vols on Sept. 29.

Tennessee had 227 yards passing and 258 total yards against Alabama, averaging 4.7 yards per play on the Tide compared with 4.5 yards per play against Georgia.

It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but as of Oct. 20 the Vols are only the second and most recent common opponent this season.

Alabama would and should be a double-digit favorite over the Bulldogs if the game were to be played tomorrow, but of course it’s not, so there’s plenty of time for both teams to get better or worse.

There’s certainly no guarantee the match up will happen.

The Bulldogs still have to go through Florida and Kentucky in their next two games just to get another shot at Tagovailoa.

Smart might have had that same thought at some point on Saturday, along with his own ideas of what he’ll do the next time he faces Saban.

 

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