Tony Barnhart, one of the most respected and well-known writers and analysts in college football and an old friend offers his insights into the National Championship battle between the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide.
COMING OFF THE BIGGEST WIN SINCE NOTRE DAME ON 1/1/81, HOW TOUGH IS THIS TURNAROUND AND BOUNCE-BACK?
“Extremely difficult. Not only did Georgia have to ﬂy all the way across the country after Monday night’s game, the Bulldogs had a much more physically and emotionally draining game than did Alabama, which basically coasted in the second half against Clemson. This is easily the shortest turnaround period (seven days) between the semifinals and the championship since the College Football Playoﬀ began in 2014. That is a factor that Kirby Smart has to take into account in his preparation. And it doesn’t hurt that he has been through this turnaround twice at Alabama.”
HOW DO YOU RATE THE ROSE BOWL AS FAR AS ALL TIMERS IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL LORE?
I have long said that the best college football game I ever saw in person was the BCS championship between No. 1 USC and No. 2 Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl. USC had two Heisman Trophy winners (Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush) and a bunch of other pros. But Texas had Vince Young and he scored with 19 seconds left to give the Longhorns a 41-38 victory. Twelve years later on the same field, I saw a game that matched it in terms of sheer drama. Oklahoma had the Heisman Trophy winner (Baker Mayfield) and an offense that looked unstoppable. But Georgia was relentless. For Georgia to overcome a 31-14 deficit and to find a way to win after falling behind again 38-31 after Oklahoma’s scoop and score was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen the Bulldogs do in a long, long time.
WHAT DOES GEORGIA NEED TO DO TO BEAT BAMA?
“One of Nick Saban’s core principles comes from Bill Belichick: Take away what the opponent does best and make him beat you with his left hand. So Saban will set up his defense to keep Nick Chubb and Sony Michel from running free like they did against Oklahoma. Alabama held Clemson to only 154 total yards (90 passing, 64 rushing). What it all means is that Jake Fromm is going to have to complete some passes, especially on first down, to keep Alabama from stacking the box. The teams that have beaten Alabama, especially in the past five years, have gotten exceptional play at quarterback and have gotten some big plays out of the passing game. One other thing: The Georgia defense must force two turnovers or more. You must be patient when playing Alabama.”
TALK ABOUT BAMA, FOR THE SECOND TIME IN SEVEN YEARS, MISSING OUT ON THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME, BUT PLAYING FOR THE NATIONAL TITLE.
“Both opportunities are a tribute to what Nick Saban has built at Alabama but they came in completely different circumstances. In 2011 it was abundantly clear after they played a 9-6 overtime classic during the regular season, that LSU and Alabama were the best two teams in the country. It was the BCS era and only two teams were eligible to advance. The human voters in the two polls that made up the BCS standings agreed. This season, with four teams eligible for the College Football Playoff, Alabama took advantage of the fact that there was not a clear-cut No. 4 team after the selection committee put Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia into the field. Ohio State (11-2), the Big Ten champion, would have gotten that slot if not for an unforgivable 55-24 loss against a very average Iowa team. The selection committee ultimately decided that Alabama (11-1), whose only loss was on the road to Auburn, was more deserving of the final spot in the playoffs. The debate will continue on whether or not conference champs only should be invited. Obviously, the SEC is against that idea and Commissioner Greg Sankey carries a lot of weight in that room.”
DID YOU EXPECT FOR KIRBY SMART’S TURNAROUND TO COME SO QUICKLY?
“No. I’ve always believed that first-year head coaches don’t know what they don’t know. It is one of the steepest learning curves in all of sport. I thought Georgia would be good this season when the four seniors — Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, and Davin Bellamy — all said they’re coming back. But I still had concerns about the offensive line and whether or not someone would step up as a big-play wide receiver. But (OL coach) Sam Pittman did an incredible job in his second year and turned the offensive line from a liability into an asset. Javon Wims and Terry Godwin have given Georgia the big play element in the passing game. And, of course, Roquan Smith became one of the best linebackers in Georgia history.”
WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THE GEORGIA PROGRAM RIGHT NOW?
“Georgia is in a very good place, regardless of the outcome of the national championship game with Alabama. You can’t put a value on the positive exposure that the Bulldogs got with their 20-19 win at Notre Dame back on Sept. 9. That put Georgia and Kirby Smart on the radar of the national media. And from that point on Georgia pretty much controlled every game except for the Nov. 11 loss to Auburn. For Georgia to avenge that loss in the SEC championship game and to follow it up with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in December simply continued the positive momentum all the way to the Rose Bowl. In short, this season has re-established Georgia as a national program.”
WHO WINS AND WHAT’S THE SCORE?
“Alabama will be a slight favorite with the boys in Vegas. But I am a big believer in magical seasons. Georgia is going through one of those now. It may be a punt return, a blocked kick, a defensive touchdown or a miracle pass and catch. I just think that somehow, someway, Georgia is going to find a way to win this game. It’s the classic Teacher vs. Pupil matchup. This time—with everything on the line—the pupil wins 24-21.”
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