I'm not telling you anything you don't already know but the last six BCS National Champions have come out of the SEC. Alabama and Georgia will meet in this years SEC Championship for the right to play Notre Dame to see if they can extend the SEC's streak to seven straight. Alabama comes into this game on a two game winning streak having just blown out their in-state rival Auburn. Georgia comes into the game on a six game winning streak also having just blown out their in-state rival (Georgia Tech).
Georgia has played two teams currently in the Top 25 and they've gone 1-1 in those games with a loss coming to South Carolina and a win against Florida. Alabama has played three teams currently in the Top 25 and they've gone 2-1 with wins over Michigan and LSU and a loss at home to Texas A&M. Alabama is currently a 7.5 point favorite in this game.
The SEC Championship Game has been around since 1992. In that time, Georgia has played in four games with a record of 2-2. Alabama has played in seven games and has a record of 3-4.
I thought that an interesting way to preview this game was to get the Alabama perspective (Jay), the Georgia perspective (me) and also an unbiased third party (Ross). So here goes....
I'm backing Alabama in this game, but it won't be the walkover that I've seen some predicting. I anticipate an intense, four-quarter contest similar to what Bama experienced in Baton Rouge earlier this month. On offense, Georgia's personnel is very similar to LSU's with their mix of tight ends and fullbacks in addition to explosive receivers. The Tigers were able to use their personnel groupings to manipulate Bama's defense into bad match-ups and created a lot of big plays in the passing game as a result. I will not be surprised if Georgia OC Mike Bobo throws some similar schemes at the Tide, and then I guess we'll see if Saban & Smart have come up with any answers for it. If the adjustments they've made (such as subbing in true freshman Geno Smith for Vinnie Sunseri at the Star position) don't work out, it could be a frustrating afternoon in the Georgia Dome for the Bama defense. Personally, if I was UGA, I'd just throw stick routes at the tight end all day. Bama hasn't been able to stop that all year.
All that said, it really all comes down to stopping the run for Alabama. The conventional wisdom is that Aaron Murray doesn't play well in "big games." And however you choose to define "big games," the metrics generally prove that out. Just looking at this season, he was a combined 22-55 passing with four interceptions and just one touchdown in his biggest games against South Carolina and Florida. So, yeah, I subscribe to the theory that Murray can't carry the Bulldogs to big wins. But I think you have to look a bit deeper than that. There's a recurring theme in UGA's big game flameouts, and it isn't just the poor play of Murray: In the vast majority of those games, the Bulldogs don't RUN the ball effectively. Again, look at this season. The dynamic duo of Gurley & Marshall were MIA against the Gamecocks. Even against Florida, though Gurley ended up with a solid stat line in the box score, most of his rushing yards came in the 1st quarter, and once the Gators got a handle on him, the game turned into a slog that UF possibly could have won if not for a phenomenal effort by the UGA defense.
On offense, Alabama just needs to play their game: be balanced, throw enough on early downs to keep the defense off balance, establish the run, then go downfield on play-action. There aren't many holes in Georgia's defense, but they've been susceptible to the run at times this year (both South Carolina and Kentucky rushed for over 200 yards on them, and Tennessee, of all teams, came close) and the back end can be had on play-action passes (Connor Shaw only needed to complete 6 passes to tally 160 yards, mostly on play-action). The trick to hitting those big plays will hinge on two key factors:
1. Jarvis Jones. Forget Te'o. In my opinion, Jones has been the most dominant defensive player in the game this season. He has been ridiculously productive for a guy who missed two games and then, essentially, lost two more due to playing option teams. Bama's tackles, Cyrus Kouandjio and DJ Fluker, have done a surprisingly good job handling some big name pass rushers down the homestretch, but I can't see them containing Jones all day. If Bama is forced into a pure dropback passing game, it's a big advantage to Georgia.
2. A true freshman playing his first collegiate game. Last week's season-ending injury to wide receiver Kenny Bell has kind of flown under the radar, but you can't undervalue the role he played in Bama's offense. He may have only had 17 catches on the season, but he averaged 25 yards per catch. He was an elite deep threat who could take the top off any defense, and he really helped open up the field for the outstanding freshman, Amari Cooper. But with the Tide's other deep threat, DeAndrew White, lost earlier in the season, Bama had no option but to press another speedy freshman, Chris Black, into action. Black suffered a shoulder injury during fall camp, and through he had fully recovered by midseason, he was expected to redshirt the year. Well, things have changed. Now, Bama is counting on Black to step into a key role in the second biggest game of the year. How the kid handles that will have a big impact on the game.
Ultimately, I think this game will be a referendum on Georgia's toughness. That's been the knock on Mark Richt's Dawgs for the past several years: they're not tough enough, physically or mentally, to win the big games. Well, there's no one better to test that than Nick Saban and Alabama. To win, they'll have to run the ball on one of the toughest run defenses in the country and stop the run against one of the most physical running games in the country. If they win, not only will they get that monkey off their back, but the national championship game should be a cakewalk. I think they have a great shot. But my gut tells me that, barring a Heisman-caliber performance, Alabama wins a squeaker.
Alabama 24, Georgia 20
I think Jay covered a lot of ground in his Alabama perspective and don't really disagree with anything that he said. What he didn't really hit on was that the key for Georgia winning this game is going to be the play of Georgia's offensive line. He did mention the RBs and their lack of productivity in big games but what he didn't mention was that there weren't any holes for them to run through in order to gain those needed yards in the early season loss to South Carolina. Aaron Murray gets a lot of flack, and some of it is deserved although he is still a top level college QB, but it's tough to throw the football when you don't have time and have Jadeveon Clowney bearing down on you. Alabama doesn't have a single player (no one does) that can create havoc like Clowney but they do have an excellent defense that is well coached and understands it's roles as well as the team concept and how each player fits into that.
Georgia's offensive line has progressed as the season has moved forward and they really look they have started to gel as they are playing their best football of the season right now. The big question is if they are looking better because the competition has decreased or if they've truly turned a corner. In order for Georgia to win this game the OL will need to protect Murray enough for him to feel relatively comfortable in the pocket and give him time to hit his receivers without having to force throws or zero in on one particular target (unless the defense just plays lights out). The OL will also need to do a good enough job run blocking to at least make Alabama respect the run and give Murray some time to do a little bit of play-action when needed. It's a tough job for the OL and while this is a very good Alabama defense, it's not the same elite defense that they had last year. Johnny Manziel was able to go 24/31 for 253 yards and Zach Mettenberger was able to go 24/35 for 298. The Alabama secondary is definitely vulnerable, at least compared to the rest of the defense, and if given the time Murray can have a good enough game to lead Georgia to a victory.
Another big key for Georgia is getting off to a good start. While they have had to battle at times this year and have come from behind, they have also been snow plowed by a South Carolina team that out executed them in the first half and Georgia never got back into that game. That game was a huge disappointment for the Georgia coaches, players and the fans and if anything I think it will help them in this game. That ride back to Athens was the darkest time of the season and that along with Shawn Williams calling out the dawgs a couple of weeks later has this team playing the best football that they have in years and really playing together.
Last year, Georgia dominated the first half of the SECCG against LSU but dropped two TD passes and then allowed the Tigers to get back into the game on Special Teams. Georgia has proved they can play in big atmosphere's like that game and this year against Florida but they haven't proven they can be consistent like Alabama, under Nick Saban, has. This really is a benchmark game for Georgia. Georgia has gone as far as you can go with Mark Richt without winning a National Championship. This is the best shot Georgia has had at getting to that elusive game in many years. This is the game for Georgia to put their stamp back on the college football world and to change their image of being a team that can't win the big one. This game is going to be a blood, sweat and tears battle in the Georgia Dome. Georgia has shown a ton of intensity and focus since the mid-way point of the season and I think they get over the hump and exorcize their demons by beating the Crimson Tide on Saturday in a very close game that could go either way.
Georgia 21 Alabama 17
Both of these teams benefited from some fortuitous scheduling in SEC play. Bama got to play in a weaker-than-expected SEC West (hello, imploding Auburn and Arkansas) and avoided playing Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina from the East. (Hell, they even got to duck Vanderbilt!) Their SEC season boiled down to back-to-back games with LSU and Texas A&M; they used a spirited comeback to win the first one, but came up short in the second game. Meanwhile, Georgia missed all three of the top teams in the SEC West -- no Bama, no LSU, no Texas A&M. Their season also came down to two games against divisional opponents: South Carolina and Florida. They got waxed by South Carolina early in the season, but rebounded to win the rest of their games, including a bowling shoe-ugly clash with Florida.
Bama's defense struggled with teams that could effectively balance the run and the pass -- LSU's balanced attack nearly let them pull off a win over the Tide, and A&M actually was able to ride Johnny Manziel's multi-faceted offensive assault to victory. Georgia has a potent two-headed running attack in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who rushed for a combined 1858 yards and 22 TDs on 283 carries (a scintillating 6.6 yards per carry average). But "Gurshall" is only going to be able to hurt Bama if Georgia QB Aaron Murray can hold his own against Bama's defense. Murray had good stats for the season (67% completion, 3201 yards, 32 TD, 7 INT), but he struggled badly against the two best defenses he faced: against South Carolina and Florida, Murray was 23/55, 259 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT. Murray's going to need to be better than that -- much better -- for the Dawgs to beat Bama.
In Georgia's lone loss, South Carolina dominated them on the ground (230 yards on 51 carries) and used an opening offensive blitzkrieg -- three touchdowns in the first ten minutes of the game -- to bury Georgia. So the Georgia defense can't let A.J. McCarron and the rest of the Tide offense get off to a hot start. If they can keep it close, they could have a shot to win it in the fourth quarter. But I just can't past Murray's struggles in big games; it's hard to see that trend breaking against Alabama. I think Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense does their best to keep the game close, but a costly Murray turnover in the fourth quarter leads to a game-icing TD drive by McCarron and Georgia comes up short again in the SEC Championship.
Alabama 24 Georgia 14