ATLANTA – There was nothing new to come out of the head coaches’ final press conferences leading up to Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Both Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban said how proud they were of their Bulldogs and Crimson Tide making it to the title game and of course dished out the usual compliments to their opponent … as they’ve done every day for the past week.
The top-ranked and unbeaten Tide, of course, enters the 4 p.m. kickoff at 12-0, having conquered every opponent this fall by more than 20 points, and the Bulldogs come in again as champions of the East Division and boasting an 11-1 regular season mark for a second consecutive season.
Smart was first asked about the playing status of sophomore linebacker Monty Rice, sophomore offensive lineman Ben Cleveland and freshman O-lineman Cade Mays, all of whom have been sidelined by various injuries the past few games.
“Very similar as it’s been in the previous weeks,” said Smart. “Ben has practiced better than he has in previous weeks and it will still be a game-time decision. Cade got to practice a limited bit yesterday and then Monty practiced a little this week as well.”
Smart said the Alabama offense isn’t just Tua Tagovailoa, good as he’s been this season with 36 touchdown passes and just two interceptions thrown. “Their ability to run the ball is big,” said Smart. “They’re a very explosive football team. You can take the motto they’re a pass-first team but they certainly can run the ball. That’s why you see so many lopsided scores. They score a lot of points and are really hard to stop. We’ll have to do a good job against the run, we’ll have to affect the quarterback and will have to play a lot of one-on-one outside with their receivers. That’s the challenge when you play a real good football team.”
Smart was asked about the outstanding performance of sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift, who has reeled off four 100-yard rushing performances in Georgia’s last five games.
D’Andre’s a very explosive player so when he’s at full health, it certainly makes him more explosive,” Smart said. “I think we’ve seen a good bit of his ability when he gets in space. He can create things out of the backfield and is just a talented back. He’ll be playing against a good, quality defense as well and we’ve got to get him going.”
Smart reiterated how important good special teams play will be in this football game.
“I’ve always said the closer two teams are, the more special teams has a bearing,” he said. “I certainly think special teams are going to be critical in every game. We spend a lot of time and energy and we put a lot of our better players on special teams. And you look across the board, in those plays you’ll see elite talent matched up against elite talent. There’s really a lot of good match-ups. It’s a game within a game and a lot of people don’t notice but we think our special teams are ready to go. We really work hard on them and I’m excited to give our guys an opportunity to go out and play. We’ve got a really great challenge. Their punt returner is incredible and their kickoff returner is incredible. They have really good returners and people blocking for them.”
The Bulldogs followed the Crimson Tide on the Mercedes-Benz playing field Friday afternoon but it was just a walk-through practice in sweat clothes for both teams.
“Really, today’s walk-through is more about cleaning up things for us,” said Smart. “It’s exposure to a venue – like you mentioned we’ve had two games in here – so our guys should be comfortable as far as playing in here and I think the atmosphere that’s created is one of the most incredible atmospheres in all of college football.”
Someone asked Smart if Fromm will have any extra motivation going against Tagovailoa and maybe feel a little extra pressure to make sure his offense can keep pace.
“I don’t know if he does or not,” said Smart. “I really haven’t talked to him about that and never brought it up because he’s not focused on the other quarterback but he’s focused on their defense.”
Saban, also, fielded the standard questions he’s been asked the week long as he once again said he was proud of his team’s performance thus far and the improvement the Tide has made in accomplishing the perfect 12-0 season and creating the opportunity to win the SEC title and another national championship.
He said, despite Tagovailoa’s tremendous success throwing the football this season, he’s also been proud of the play of his three running backs … Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, who admittedly have been overshadowed somewhat by Tua’s record-breaking year.
“Well, we feel like having the opportunity to create balance on offense is really a key for us,” said Saban. “We have made a lot of explosive plays in the passing game but we feel like in a game like this, especially being able to control the line of scrimmage and allowing some of the running backs that we have to contribute in a positive way is going to be a real key to our success because for us, having balance on offense is always when we play the best.”
The Alabama mentor, who has six national championships under his coaching belt and needs just one more to surpass the legendary Bear Bryant in the NCAA record book, again praised the play and leadership of Bulldog sophomore quarterback Fromm as well as Georgia running backs Swift and Elijah Holyfield.
And Saban also pointed to the play of a Bulldog defensive unit that improved drastically from the LSU loss going forward.
“Georgia’s defense really runs to the ball well,” said Saban, “and has really good speed. So it’s a complete team that we’re facing.”
Saban was asked if Georgia at least getting to face Tagovailoa in the second half of last year’s national championship game, when the then freshman quarterback led the Crimson Tide to a stirring comeback and overtime win over the Bulldogs, could be a benefit when the UGA defense lines up against Tagovailoa again on Saturday.
“In that game, I’m sure we learned a little bit about them in the second half and I’m also sure they learned a little bit about us,” replied Saban. “But that game doesn’t have any effect at all on this game.”
Saban also was most complimentary of Georgia junior kick returner, Mecole Hardman.
“Mecole Hardman is as fine a kick returner as I’ve seen in the country this year,” he said. “He’s very explosive, very fast and when he sees a crease, he just accelerates through it.”
So, a lot of nice compliments thrown out by both Smart and Saban about the team they’ll be facing in the SEC Championship tilt come Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But now, all the talk and pre-game hoopla has come to an end. All that will matter Saturday night is blocking, tackling and which team – the Bulldogs or the Crimson Tide – executes the best. That team will reign as 2018 SEC champs and also will be headed for the four-team College Football Playoff!