ATHENS – It’s not Mt. Everest, people. This is not swimming the English Channel. Insert whatever daunting challenge that man faces here and Georgia beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game doesn’t compare, even metaphorically.
This is simply the two best teams in the best conference in college football battling for supremacy, and Georgia very much belongs in the debate. Yes, for the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (11-1), there’s more riding on the outcome simply from the standpoint they need the winner’s stamp to gain passage into the College Football Playoffs for a second straight year. No. 1 Alabama (12-0) is in regardless of what happens. Unless that is, Georgia somehow blows them through the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Nobody expects that to happen. In fact, the expectation is exactly the opposite. Everybody expects the Crimson Tide to handle Georgia just like they’ve handled all their opponents this season. You know, winning by the average margin of 35.25 points per game.
That’s the narrative, that the Bulldogs don’t stand a chance, that they’ll be lucky to even keep it close. Bama’s too good, Tua’s too great, Saban’s too brilliant, and so on.
Don’t believe them. This is a very winnable game for the Bulldogs. And I’m going to tell you why.
- Alabama has played two teams that were halfway decent at running the football, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. It’s no coincidence that those are the teams that played the Tide the closest this season, and neither runs the football at nearly the level that the Bulldogs do. Georgia leads the SEC at 259.83 yards per game and 6.26 yards per rush. It bears mentioning that The Citadel runs the football well, too, and that contributed to the FCS team being tied with the Tide at the half two weeks ago.
- Many analysts point to the Bulldogs no longer having Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to run the football like they did last year, when they gave Bama and everybody else fits. But Georgia is actually running the ball at an almost identical clip to last year: 2017 — 550 carries, 3,188 yards (5.8 ypc), 35 TDs; 2018 — 498 carries, 3,118 yards, (6.3 ypc), 29 TDs.
- The difference in Georgia is the Bulldogs can throw it, too. Do you know how many teams in America have a better average passing rating than UGA’s 177.0? Two, and they’re Alabama (205.0) and Oklahoma (201.0). And that’s for the full season. In the last three games Georgia’s is 214.1, which is markedly better than both in that span. Yes, the Bulldogs have benefited from some poor competition, but there’s no denying that Jake Fromm is Tua Tagovailoa hot.
- Speaking of Tagovailoa and Bama’s offense, there’s no question that there is no better unit in the SEC and maybe all of college football. Only Ole Miss passes the ball more than the Tide, which averages 332.1 yards a game. But it could be argued that Georgia will be the best secondary that Tagovailoa and his band of receivers have faced all season. No, the Bulldogs aren’t the in-your-face, man-to-man all day type of DBs that LSU and Mississippi State employ. But they’re the type that keeps the opposing offense in front of them all day. Guess what team leads the nation in fewest plays allowed of 20 or more yards this season? That’s right, it’s Georgia, with 25. The next closest in the SEC is Mississippi State, with 36.
- We all know the Bulldogs have the edge pretty much every week with place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship on the roster, and that’s true here. But there’s another interesting stat that bodes well for Georgia. It’s called special teams efficiency. It takes into account all phases of special teams and the kicking game and quantifies a team’s overall efficiency in that area. Georgia’s is a 56.3; Alabama’s is 47.0. And that’s after the Dogs had a subpar showing against Georgia Tech this past Saturday.
Here’s another factoid you might find even more intriguing. There is evidence that Alabama might’ve fattened up a little on a weakened Western Division this year. The same knock that has been on the East for the better part of a decade holds true for the West this season. With Missouri’s win over Arkansas this past weekend, the SEC East improved to 9-5 against their Western counterparts.
In fact, according to the Massey Ratings, which take into account all head-to-head results, strength-of-schedule and margins of victory of all teams across the country, the SEC East is the top division in all of college football this year. Florida and Missouri are 10th and 11th in the nation in Massey’s overall ratings, for example. So Georgia went 6-0 against the toughest division in college football, and it won those games by an average of 21 points while usually sitting its starters for the final quarter.
That’s why Georgia is No. 3 in the nation in the Massey rankings, and just .02 of a point behind No. 2 Clemson and .22 behind No. 1 Alabama.
It’s just stats, I know. But the point of this exercise is to prove this is not the lopsided matchup that national pundits are going to be telling you that it is. This is, in fact, a very good matchup, not unlike the one we witnessed just 11 months ago in The Benz. You may recall, Georgia led that one by 13 in the third quarter and the margin should’ve gone up from there because Tyler Simmons was onsides (get used to it; I’ll be mentioning that often this week).
But if the statistical data is not enough for you, there is also a lot of intangible evidence that indicates the Bulldogs might be a bigger threat than thought. Certainly, the Tide’s margins of victory are impressive, but they’re doing something that Georgia is not. They’re still throwing the ball around late in games against vanquished opponents. I’m not saying they’re running up the scores. I’m just saying that they have a much better back-up quarterback at this point and better overall offensive depth and that they continue to throw the ball well into the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs haven’t done that. In fact, it could be argued that they’ve taken their foot off the accelerator very early very often this year. And exorbitant depth doesn’t matter in a game of this magnitude. There shouldn’t be a need to empty benches. This is going to be about the top 44 players on either side, and Georgia’s players — products of nationally-ranked recruiting classes ranked 6, 3, 1 respectively — stand even with Alabama’s on every count with the possible exception of defensive front seven.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are a young team that shows evidence of peaking about now. They are trending decidedly upward ever since that debacle at LSU in mid-October. What happened to Georgia then and in the weeks since is something I’ll be writing about later this week. Suffice it to say, it got fixed.
And, as you might expect, the Bulldogs are supremely motivated. They haven’t forgotten that 26-23 overtime final from 322 days ago. Sure, there’s been changes on both rosters, but that’s not exactly ancient history. And, as they’ll finally admit this week, that result is what has driven Georgia ever since.
“Inches. Inches are everywhere, man,” senior Jonathan Ledbetter said as to why the outcome could be different this time. “Whoever gets the most inches at the beginning of the week, throughout the week, in the game, whoever executes the most is going to come out on top.”
There’s also this: Mercedes-Benz Stadium is in Atlanta, and that remains a Georgia stronghold. No matter how voracious the Tide faithful is about getting inside for Saturday’s game, they’re not going to be able to tilt the spectator advantage in their favor. The venue is going to be decidedly neutral, if not tilted the Bulldogs’ way.
Again, I’m always impressed with Las Vegas and those full-time professionals who handicap sporting contests. They tend to be right way more than they’re wrong. They’ve set the line on this game with Alabama at minus-13.5 points, and certainly nobody anywhere will be surprised if the Tide wins by two touchdowns.
I’m just saying there’s no reason for Georgia or its fervent fan base to go into this contest thinking the Bulldogs have no chance. Again, they’re arriving at this place and time ahead of schedule, just like they did in the national championship game last year. They’re underdogs, for sure, but there is just as much for Alabama to fear on the Georgia sideline as the other way around.
It’ll be tough and, as coach Kirby Smart said, the Bulldogs will have to play their best game of the year to win. But Georgia isn’t trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis (Wiki says that is one of the world’s most difficult math problems).
It’s just football, and the Bulldogs can play a little, too.