In less than six hours, the Universities of Alabama and Georgia will face each other in an all-Southeastern Conference national title game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium — a showdown that will house Texas stars like Channelview’s Jalen Hurts, Sache’s Jared Mayden, Waco La Vega’s Kedrick James, and West Orange-Stark’s Deionte Thompson.
The game will also present Alabama a chance to claim its 17th National Championship since 1925 and second in the College Football Playoff Era. Georgia will seek its fifth and first since 1980 — a three decade span.
In the way of a seemingly overwhelming tide, though, stands true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm and rejuvenated running back Nick Chubb and a Bulldog team that snuffed the playoff life out of Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, college football’s No. 1 team in terms of total offense.
Marcus: All things point at Bama’s offense, specifically how Jalen Hurts performs is important in this one. Georgia’s defense is for real, but having to counter a dual-threat like Hurts fuels what Alabama’s running game — behind Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough — can do to opposing defenses.
Harris and Scarbrough’s (1,556 combined rush yards) numbers are down since 2016 when Hurts’ arm played more of a factor in wins and losses. The Crimson Tide’s sophomore sensation and last season’s SEC Player of the Year threw for only 120 yards during Alabama’s 24-7 win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
As a result, Harris (19 rush, 77 yards) and Scarbrough (12 rush, 24 yards) gained little more than 100 yards collectively. If Georgia is to pull an upset with a first-year quarterback, it must force Bama away from explosive receivers like Calvin Ridley and into one-dimensionality.
Tony: The offense revolves their own two-headed running back combination in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (2,449 yards, 31 touchdowns combined). They will no doubt be the focal point of the Bulldog offense but I think their success will be largely hinged on their freshman quarterback of their own.
Jake Fromm came into his own on the biggest stage (to this point) of his young career, throwing for 210 yards and two touchdowns to engineer the Bulldogs’ comeback in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma. Even when the Sooners jumped out to a big early lead, Fromm’s poise helped keep Georgia in the game and eventually come away with the win in double-overtime.
I also like what receivers Javon Wims and Terry Godwin bring to the table and they each bring a different skill set to the table. At 6-foot-4, Wims presents a tall target that can come up with the big catches and has started to emerge late in the season.
Meanwhile, Godwin has also emerged with 10 catches in the last two games. Standing 5-foot-11, the junior can move around the field and be a problem for Alabama’s secondary.
As strong as Alabama’s defense has been this season, they can be beaten on the ground and are susceptible to big plays through the air. If Fromm can find success taking shots down the field, I like the Bulldogs chances.
Marcus: Where offense can be a weakness at times, the Crimson Tide’s defense has been stifling — holding teams to 3.92 yards per play (minimum 700 plays) per recent NCAA statistics. It’s there they will have to “out smart” the Bulldogs’ new head coach, its freshman gunslinger and stable of explosive backs.
Alabama is the No. 1 defense in college football in terms of that statistic, despite losing it’s defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, to Georgia a year earlier and only three teams gave the Crimson Tide trouble on the ground this year.
LSU gained 151 rushing yards in Week 9, Mississippi State had 172 total in Week 10 and Auburn had 168 in Week 12. Those three programs limited negative runs (22 percent) and had a higher rate of 5-plus yard carries (34 percent) than Alabama usually allows. Clemson found itself in third-and-7 or worse situations 11 times during the 2017 Sugar Bowl — almost double the Tigers’ season per-game average.
The hook, though, is that Smart may know Bama’s holes inside and out as well as ways to exploit those weaknesses. He’ll also bank on significant effects of the losses of Marlon Humphrey (Baltimore), Jonathan Allen (Washington), Reuben Foster (San Francisco), and Eddie Jackson (Chicago) to the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Alabama defense will not only need to force turnovers to create short fields for Hurts and the offense, it will need to outfox Smart with delayed blitzes, stunts and disguised cover-2 packages — as well as anything the 42-year-old former pupil of Nick Saban hadn’t seen or created in his eight years in Tuscaloosa.
Tony: Before Kirby Smart became the head coach at Georgia, he was under the tutelage of Alabama head coach Nick Saban as his defensive coordinator. Simply put, he knows how to get it done on that side of the football.
Georgia has one of the best defenses in the country, giving up just 4.7 yards per play (No. 8 in FBS) and its highlighted by one of the top linebackers in junior Roquan Smith. Smith, who is most likely heading to the NFL after this game, leads the Bulldogs with 124 tackles on the year and came up huge in the second half and overtime against Oklahoma.
The 48 points that Georgia gave up last week could be attributed to the fact that they were simply going up against the Heisman Trophy winner in Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma’s offense was explosive and I don’t see Alabama’s offense matching that kind of high-flying attack.
Another note, Alabama is also without starting guard Lester Cotton due to injury and it could give front seven standouts like Smith, J.R. Reed and Lorenzo Carter an opportunity to create havoc in the Crimson Tide backfield.
Marcus: Freshman wide receivers Trevon Diggs and Henry Ruggs III aren’t just impact player in the return game, their dangerous. The duo may also be the most dangerous offensive weapons Alabama has that don’t throw footballs.
Though Ruggs hasn’t broken any return — kick or punt — for touchdowns he’s gained 239 yards and earned 18.4 yards per return. Diggs, a top defensive back recruit out of Maryland, has 116 yards and a 8.9 punt return average.
Special teams’ defense started Alabama’s run to the national title against Florida State, where it contributed to 8.0 points to the Crimson Tide’s margin of victory and had a blocked field goal and punt, as well as a fumble recovery on a kickoff.
Fourteen weeks later, it will have to do the same against a dangerous and run-heavy Bulldog team lead by a former Tide assistant looking to bring the state of Georgia a national title for the first time in the new century.
Tony: Georgia has some pretty strong specialists of their own that could help swing the momentum of the game given how close its projected to be.
If there is one under-the-radar name to keep an eye for the Bulldogs, it’s kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. He’s made some big big field goals this season for Georgia, including a 50-plus yarder right before halftime against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. He has a strong leg and a strong name to boot and I trust his leg a bit more than Pappanastos of Alabama.
Also, punter Cameron Nizialek has been pretty reliable in his own right. The graduate transfer from Columbia has a strong leg of his own and at just under 45 yards a kick, can help flip the field for the Bulldogs. In a game that’s expected to be low-scoring and a defensive battle, special teams could be all the difference in this game.
Marcus’ Pick: Alabama 17, Georgia 14
Tony’s Pick: Georgia 24, Alabama 20
Marcus Matthews-Marion and Tony Venegas are the managing and assistant editors of TexasHSFootball, covering prep football throughout the Lone Star State. Follow them on Twitter, @TheMJMatthews and @advenegas, and read more of their content here.