What a great New Year’s Day of college football earlier this week. It was outstanding. From some very entertaining bowl games to the two semifinal games later that day, it made for very good television.
The game of the day was without a doubt the first CFB Playoff semifinal game between Georgia and Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl. In my opinion, it was the best game I have ever watched in my short lifetime. The Bulldogs defeated the Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma Sooners 54-48 in double overtime.
The Sugar Bowl balanced the excitement of the semis as Alabama simply dominated the Clemson Tigers. It was not even close. The Tide looked like their old selves. With the two victories, the stage is set for an all-SEC CFB Playoff National Championship in Atlanta this coming Monday.
Despite the childish whining by fans not in the South and some prominent members in the media, the best two teams are in the national championship period. (Don’t even start with the UCF argument. They would not stand a chance with any of the playoff teams.) It is going to be an interesting game with a bunch of storylines. Let’s get right into it.
National Championship Game: Alabama vs. Georgia
As I have said, this game has no shortage of storylines. Many people have waited in anticipation of seeing the latest coaching battle between the teacher (Nick Saban of Alabama) and the apprentice (Kirby Smart of UGA). The nation will finally get to see this. Saban is 11-0 against former assistants who have become head coaches, but this might be a different animal with Smart.
Saban and Smart have both had similar paths at Georgia and Alabama. Both coaches had disappointing seasons in their first year at the helm at their respective schools (7-6 for Saban and 8-5 for Smart). Both coaches bounced back with very successful seasons in their respective second years. Saban’s team went undefeated in the regular season before dropping their last two games to Florida in the SEC Championship and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
Smart’s second year has been extremely successful so far. The Bulldogs went 11-1 in the regular season and then went on to avenge their embarrassing road loss to Auburn in November by beating the Tigers 28-7 in a rematch in the SEC Championship. With UGA’s latest victory in the Rose Bowl, Smart has gone further than Saban in his second year by reaching the national championship game against his former boss.
Smart and Saban seem to also be very similar as coaches. Saban is known to be very detail oriented, a next-level recruiter and an outstanding developer of talent. Smart seems to be in the same mold.
Alabama and Georgia are also very similar teams from the detail-oriented system that both coaches employ to their similar styles of stifling defenses and powerful running games and more. Smart came into Athens trying to make the Bulldogs the Alabama of the SEC East, and it seems like he has been pretty successful at doing it so far.
If there is any team in the SEC that can challenge Alabama consistently, it is Georgia. The nation will likely see this matchup in the SEC Championship for many years to come. Everyone knew that Smart and Saban would be destined to clash many times, but no one thought the first meeting would be in the national championship.
The game, itself, will feature the two most powerful teams in the country. Alabama is the early favorite in the game according to Vegas. They looked like the soundest of the two teams in the semis, particularly on defense. However, to ignore that UGA had to play the best offense in college football in Oklahoma in their game would be short-sighted.
This game will not be even close to UGA’s first game of the playoff. Expect a tight yet equally thrilling game this time around. Alabama will be led by their powerful defense that is led by an intimidating defensive line headlined by Da’Ron Payne (who had an interception and a touchdown catch in the semifinal against Clemson) and Raekwon Davis, Rashaan Evans at linebacker and Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary among many others.
The Tide defense as a whole is ranked No. 3 overall in the country. More importantly, Alabama has the No. 1 rushing defense (measured in average rushing yards a game) in the nation. They only give up an average of 2.43 yards per attempt. That will prove extremely important in this game, as they will face the best rushing attack they have seen all year. (That will come up later.)
On the offensive side of the ball, the Crimson Tide football team is led by a strong running game led by Damien Harris (983 yards) and Bo Scarbrough (573 yards) behind a stout offensive line. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is the second leading rusher on the team with 808 yards but has also passed for 2,060 yards and accounted for 25 touchdowns both through the air and on the ground.
The more interesting and impressive stat was that he only threw one interception all year. Say what you want about Hurt’s ability passing from the pocket, but the guy is quite the weapon.
Fortunately, Hurts has not had to win a game himself. The Tide have won behind their strong defense and running game. That might change in this game. This Georgia defense is not to be taken lightly.
The linebacking corps leads the Junkyard Dawg defense and is headlined by Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy on the outside. The defensive line is also one of the best in the country and is anchored by the 6-4, 309 pound Trent Thompson, who is the best of the many big, physical and athletic linemen the Bulldogs boast.
The “weak link” on the Dawgs’ defense is the secondary which has shown vulnerability at times this season. However, UGA still boasts the least passing yards per game allowed by any defense in college football.
Overall, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s stop unit comes in at No. 7 in total defense in college football. (The Bulldogs aren’t nearly as good stopping the run, although the metrics are skewed by their lone regular season loss to Auburn and by the fact that they played several run-oriented teams.)
The biggest storyline on the offensive side of the ball is easily the emergence of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm has not been asked to do a whole lot mainly by design in the Bulldogs’ run-first offense and because of his lack of experience. However, the youngster from Warner Robbins, Ga., has done an admirable job this season after he took over the job from the incumbent starter Jacob Eason after he was injured in their first game against Appalachian State.
Fromm has managed the offense well, been a great leader and made the throws he had too particularly in important situations. He has shown the poise and clutch factor that coaches want to see from their quarterback.
In my opinion, he has played his best football in the final three games of the season as he went 12-of-16 for 224 yards and two touchdowns with a 75.0 completion percentage in UGA’s regular season finale against Georgia Tech. He then threw for 183 yards on 16-for-22 passing and two scores with a 72.7 completion percentage in the SEC Championship against Auburn.
In the Rose Bowl, Fromm put together his best performance (again in my opinion) and helped the UGA offense keep pace with the high-scoring Oklahoma Sooners. He was on point in the game as he completed 20 of his 29 total passes (69 percent) for 210 yards and two touchdowns.
Fromm’s job is made easier by a rushing attack led by the best rushing duo in college football history in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb has rushed for 1,320 yards this year, and Michel added 1,129 yards (average of eight yards gained per carry). The two star running backs have also combined for 31 touchdowns on the ground. True freshman D’Andre Swift has also proved to be a weapon as he has rushed for 603 yards and is also fourth on the team in receiving yards. (Some even think Swift could be a Heisman candidate next year as well.)
Both squads have very good weapons at receiver including guys like Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy of Alabama and Javon Wims and Terry Godwin of UGA. (I am not even mentioning the capable tight ends.) Both teams are pretty even as a whole.
However, on special teams, Georgia should get the overall nod. The only thing separating these teams is probably at kicker – an area that Alabama has struggled with all year. Andy Pappanastos of Alabama has looked very shaky at times this season, but Rodrigo Blankenship of UGA has been excellent this year and currently holds the longest field goal in the history of the Rose Bowl (55).
To sum it all up, Alabama-Georgia should make for one outstanding championship game. This game has all the storylines one could ask for: the Evil Scientist (or coach in this instance) versus his capable understudy, two outstanding defenses versus two excellent rushing attacks, two teams from the same conference facing off for the national title for the first time in the playoff era and more.
I am not going to pick this game. I have learned that I cannot pick bowl games. (Thank God, I don’t bet.) I will say I could see either of these teams winning. I see both teams matching up pretty fairly even in the trenches. If one team proves they can get the upper hand on the line of scrimmage, the game is over. However, I think this matchup will ultimately come down to the performance of the two quarterbacks and who will make a play. (Turnovers and special teams’ play are always a factor as well.) It is pretty simple in my opinion.
Either way, it should be a very exciting game, and I couldn’t be more excited to see a champion be crowned on Monday night in the metropolitan capital of college football – Atlanta.
*Featured Image via @BigPooh_91 on Twitter