Alabama vs. Clemson Part Three went to the Crimson Tide. This year’s matchup, however, was not for the College Football Playoff National Championship. Instead, the Crimson Tide will spend the next few days preparing for the Georgia Bulldogs, who knocked off the Oklahoma Sooners in the Rose Bowl. Georgia’s win in that instant classic means that we will have an all-SEC National Championship Game featuring two teams that are very familiar with each other. Opening lines showed the Crimson Tide as a 4.5-point favorite with a total of 45.5 at BetOnline Sportsbook. Some shops in the market opened four and have moved to 4.5. The total opened at 47.5, but has been bet down with early sharp action.
In the court of public perception, it will be interesting to see where this line goes. Georgia’s thrilling win over Oklahoma showcased all of the Bulldogs’ top assets, including linebacker Roquan Smith, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and the composure of freshman Jake Fromm. Alabama’s bland and boring win over Clemson didn’t move the needle much, as the Crimson Tide managed 261 yards to Clemson’s 188. Alabama’s longest scoring drive was 47 yards. But, it was a good litmus test for the Alabama defense, which was banged up and weakened late in the regular season. Any questions about that unit should have been answered.
It was a wire-to-wire job for Alabama against Clemson. The Tide took a lead with 5:23 left in the first quarter and never looked back. They never felt like they were losing control in the game. Clemson’s defensive line created a lot of problems for Alabama. The Tide ran 66 offensive plays and managed only 261 yards. Jalen Hurts was only sacked twice, but the penetration up front from Clemson kept Alabama from being able to run inside the tackles. The Tide only managed 3.4 yards per carry. Hurts only had five yards per pass attempt. This was not a game for big plays. In all honesty, Alabama’s offense has not shown well against top competition. The Tide ran up 41 on Fresno, 41 on Colorado State, 59 on Vanderbilt, 66 on Ole Miss, 41 on Arkansas, 45 on Tennessee, and 56 on Mercer, but Alabama only scored 24 on Florida State, 27 on Texas A&M, 24 on LSU, 31 on Mississippi State, and 14 on Auburn before this lackluster showing against Clemson. This isn’t the best Alabama offense that we have seen, despite a myriad of skill players with upside like Calvin Ridley, Bo Scarbrough, and Damien Harris. Alabama averaged 6.7 yards per play, but really ran it up on some bad teams. Georgia is not a bad team by any means.
The best asset of this Alabama team has been its ability to limit turnovers and, by extension, wear down the opposition. Alabama only lost nine turnovers this season and Jalen Hurts only threw one interception. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough take care of the football. Forcing Georgia to go the length of the field can only help Alabama in this game.
The Alabama defense suffered another setback in the win over Clemson. Shaun Dion Hamilton was in sweatpants as a captain for the kickoff and Anfernee Jennings left the game to have an MRI on his sprained knee. The linebackers are the most important element of any matchup against Georgia because of the Bulldogs’ ability to move the line of scrimmage around with speed outside the tackles and counter plays inside the box. Minkah Fitzpatrick looked plenty healthy in the win over Clemson and the Tide defense had an excellent gameplan from defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt, who was hired by Tennessee to be the head coach, didn’t seem distracted at all in his preparations for Clemson. Kelly Bryant was just 18-of-36 for 124 yards with two picks and the Tigers had 1.9 yards per carry. Bryant was sacked five times. Will Alabama be able to have the same success against Georgia’s running game and play-action passing game? That may end up being the defining factor in the National Championship Game.
The Georgia offense was easily the most impressive part of the two semifinal games. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had an excellent gameplan and forced the Sooners to defend sideline to sideline. As a result, the linebackers and safeties were spread out and the Bulldogs took full advantage by running for 9.3 yards per carry. Sony Michel had 181 yards and three scores on just 11 carries and Nick Chubb had 145 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Jake Fromm was an efficient 20-of-29 for 210 yards with a couple of touchdowns. He never put the ball in immediate danger and the play-action passing game was quite proficient with the chunk plays in the running game. Georgia won’t dominate at the line of scrimmage against Alabama like the big boys up front did against Oklahoma. On the other hand, the speed of Chubb and Michel on the outsides can exploit Alabama’s linebacker depth. The biggest issue that Clemson had against Alabama is that Kelly Bryant isn’t as progressed as a passer as Deshaun Watson was and didn’t have as much of a play-action game as Georgia and Fromm will have.
Defensively, it is really hard to evaluate Georgia’s performance. Oklahoma’s tempo was a problem and the Sooners had the most potent offense in the country with 8.4 yards per play. Georgia really had problems in the first half with Oklahoma’s playbook and pace. In the first half, the Bulldogs allowed 375 yards on just 41 plays. Clearly 9.15 yards per play against wasn’t going to get it done for Georgia, but credit Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker for figuring it out. They played more aggressively with the blitz and the defensive line started to make some headway and get in the backfield. In the second half, Oklahoma only managed 152 yards on 33 plays. Brian Daboll is nowhere near as imaginative as Lincoln Riley. Riley had four weeks to put together a gameplan to throw Georgia off and it worked for a half. The second half was a much different story as a result of the adjustments made by Georgia and also some strange play calling.
We certainly don’t want to overreact to what we’ve just seen. Some will downplay the Georgia defense because the Bulldogs allowed 48 points and 531 yards. This was a top defense throughout the season, both in the advanced metrics like S&P and also the more traditional metrics like yards per play allowed. Oklahoma is a dramatically different animal than Alabama. Even with extra prep time, simulating that tempo in practice is hard and no teams have a Baker Mayfield on the scout team. What should matter more in this context is that Georgia adjusted, won the line of scrimmage, and had the speed to stick with Oklahoma’s athletes.
Another consideration for this one is the familiarity between the two teams. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator prior to taking the gig in Athens. Nick Saban is plenty familiar with how Smart operates on defense and Smart is plenty familiar with what Saban likes to do with his team. Smart’s second-half adjustment to play some more Cover-1 with more aggressive blitzing was straight out of the Saban playbook when it comes to simplifying things for a struggling defense. In 11 meetings against former assistants, Saban’s team is 11-0 and has outscored the opposition 427-111. Georgia does have the shorter trip from Athens to Atlanta, but we know that Alabama fans will travel en masse. Tickets on the secondary market are selling like Chipotle burritos, so it should be an incredible atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Free College Football Pick: Georgia Bulldogs +4.5
Given the early lines, with what projects to be a tight, low-scoring affair, I’d be looking to back the Bulldogs. The concern here with Georgia is that the way to beat Alabama is to throw the ball around the yard on them, a la Clemson in the first two meetings. Georgia doesn’t have that luxury, but Chaney has a two-back system that could confuse the defense with some misdirection or passes out into open space. Alabama’s offense just hasn’t impressed me against teams with a pulse and some semblance of a defense. Despite Georgia’s problems against Oklahoma, I’m not worried about this defense being ready for a more traditional look with a less creative play caller. I’d also lean slightly towards the under, with two teams that take care of the football and a Georgia team that is outstanding on special teams capable of winning the field position battle.