The die is cast. The rematch between Georgia and Alabama in the National Championship is coming. Alabama is currently on a 7-game win streak against Georgia after last defeating them in the SEC Championship 41-24. Though Georgia was undefeated throughout the season, Alabama made defeating them look easy.
Georgia has been building a strong program. They have surpassed many hurdles, but the last one is defeating Alabama. To reach the pinnacle of the mountain, Georgia must overcome the best team in college football, coached by one of the best coaches in college football history, Nick Saban.
Looking back at the SEC Championship, I believe there are 3 keys to victory for Georgia to defeat Alabama. If these 3 things had been different, I think the outcome of the game could have changed in Georgia’s favor.
In Defense of Stetson Bennett
First and foremost, I must defend Stetson Bennett. The loss was not his fault. Much of the blame has fallen onto his shoulders because he has the ball every single play. Stetson, as quarterback is the “frontman” of the team. I understand that Bennett is no Tom Brady, few are similar. It is also hard to compare him to Bryce Young who is a Heisman winner because of Young’s extremely high talent level. Stetson made a single bad throw all game – the interception that resulted in the pick-six in the fourth quarter. The interception in the 3rd quarter was a miscommunication with Brock Bowers. If you don’t believe me, go watch it again.
Stetson has the same issue that Georgia as a program also has, their measuring stick is Alabama. Rival fans and pundits have a habit of trashing Georgia on the basis that they are not as good as Alabama. This doesn’t happen with other teams, since most of them are not even in the same ballpark as Georgia and Alabama. It is easy to talk trash when a successful season is a 7-6 record for these rival fans. Even Georgia fans fall into this trap because if you watch sports news, you hear these talking points and criticisms constantly repeated. These pundits hit these talking points that stir controversy and cause debate in order to keep people watching. It’s their job. Just because they say things over and over doesn’t make it true, it just fills their time slots with content.
“Georgia can’t beat Bama without a quarterback” is a quote you hear over and over. Georgia has a quarterback! Not only that, but Georgia also has multiple 4- or 5-star quarterbacks on the sidelines behind Stetson, but nothing in Stetson’s performance justifies benching him. I am sure JT Daniels would do a great job as the starting quarterback, but there would not be enough of a positive impact to replace Stetson.
Texas A&M beat Alabama with Zach Calzada. Does this “need a quarterback to beat Alabama rule” only apply to Georgia? Stetson Bennett is a better quarterback than Calzada. It seems to me that the idea of a “super-elite” quarterback requirement is overblown. I am sure it helps, but I would say that Stetson is in the upper-middle tier of quarterbacks and that must count for something.
Key 1: Stop Explosive Plays Downfield
Georgia has averaged 30% with its Defensive Success Rate Allowed. Georgia leads the nation in this category. Georgia on average only allows 30% successful plays per game. Alabama on the other hand averaged 37% with their Defensive Success Rate Allowed. During the SEC Championship, Georgia’s Defensive Success Rate was 48%, and Alabama’s was 47%. Both teams were well over their season averages, yet they were practically the same. You may ask how is it that Alabama beat Georgia so handily, yet the success rates were practically identical? The answer is that Georgia allowed Alabama to get more explosive plays downfield.
Explosive plays allowed by Georgia were 99% of the reason that the SEC Championship ended the way it did. An ‘Explosive Play” is generally considered any rush over 10 yards or any pass over 15 yards. A team can prevent their opponent from getting large gains 90% of the time, but if the other 10% involve them giving up huge plays it makes no difference. Georgia may have prevented big rushes from Alabama, but Georgia was unable to prevent deep throws by Bryce Young. Jameson Williams dominated with 7 receptions for 184 yards, averaging 26.3 yards per reception, with 2 touchdowns. One of these touchdowns was a result of a 59-yard gain. Again, Georgia can play near perfect, but if they give up a 59-yard touchdown it really doesn’t matter how well they played on the prior plays of the drive. Georgia doesn’t have to stop the pass completely, but they certainly can’t give up 59-yard touchdowns and expect to win the game.
Alabama’s receivers Metchie, Bolden, Billingsley, Holden, and Latu each averaged over 10 yards on their receptions. Metchie had 6 receptions for 97 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per reception, with 1 touchdown. Alabama had open men in the center and open men in the flats. The Tide did a great job of confusing Georgia’s defense, leaving a man open, and Bryce Young excelled at getting the ball to them. Alabama took chances downfield, and it paid off. To stop this, Georgia’s defensive backs must remain focused and execute properly. Alabama’s receivers have speed. If they get behind the safeties, their highly accurate Heisman winning quarterback will put the ball directly in their hands. Georgia’s defensive backs must keep Alabama’s receivers in front of them to win this game. They must play the game on their front foot, not their back.
Key 2: Contain, Contain, Contain!
The second most important task that Georgia must complete in order to win, is to contain Bryce Young. Prior to the SEC Championship, Georgia’s defensive line was expected to bully Alabama’s offensive line. Alabama’s offensive line was able to absorb Georgia’s pressure in such a way that they were able to give Bryce a lot of space. This is a result of good coaching and having a good strategy. Alabama knew that putting their offensive line heads up against Georgia’s front-7 would be folly, so they allowed more penetration, but focused on keeping an escape route from a collapsing pocket for Bryce Young to scramble if needed. Once the big men of Georgia’s front-7 lost their momentum, it was near impossible for them to match Young’s speed and agility. As a result, Bryce Young had too much time with the ball, was able to scramble to pick up yards, and could wait for an open man downfield.
Georgia came close to sacking Young a few times. Georgia also came close to forcing an interception through their pressure in the 3rd quarter. Georgia was unable to get a single sack against Alabama, which sounds outrageous, but Georgia only averages 3.2 sacks per game. Georgia’s sack average is excellent compared to most teams in the league. Though sacking the quarterback certainly helps a team win, it usually is not the deciding factor in a game. A team can get zero sacks and still win. Georgia must focus less on trying to sack Bryce Young and instead must focus more on limiting his maneuverability in the backfield. The goal for Georgia must be to prevent Bryce Young from making plays with his legs at inopportune times, especially on third and fourth downs.
Key 3: Win the Turnover Battle
After a game is over, you can look at the statistics and you will nearly always notice that the team that won also won the turnover battle. Bennett threw 2 interceptions. The second of which was a pick-six that near decimated Georgia’s chances to get back in the game. Saying that Stetson should avoid throwing interceptions is an easy thing to say. He should avoid them, but Georgia’s defense should not have given up so many explosive plays which put him in the position to have to take a lot of risks for Georgia to have a chance to win the game. It is easy to blame Stetson, but as mentioned prior, Stetson is not Tom Brady. Tom Brady can have a late-game winning drive under pressure, but Stetson needs a cushion and Georgia’s defense did not do him any favors. As a result, the chance of throwing interceptions became more likely. To prevent Stetson from potentially throwing interceptions, he needs to be calm and collected. He must not feel like the game is entirely on his shoulders.
Georgia almost recovered a fumble near the end of the 2nd quarter. Devonte Wyatt did a great job knocking the ball from Bryce Young’s hands. The Georgia defender who had the best chance to recover the fumble was Nolan Smith, but he made a huge error. Instead of jumping on the ball, he tried to scoop it up with his hands. My high school football coach would have had me running sprints at the beginning of practice Monday. If the ball is loose on the ground, jump on it immediately. This was a potentially game-changing play.
Imagine what could have been if Nolan Smith had followed basic football principles, jumped on, and recovered that ball. It could have changed the entire game. It could have at least been 17-17, or Georgia’s offense could have made it 20-17 prior to halftime. It would have been possible if the ball was recovered by Georgia. It could have taken some pressure off Stetson. It could have reinvigorated the confidence of Georgia’s defense. Should of, would of, could of, it is unclear if getting that fumble would have changed the fortunes of the Dawgs, but that was a big mistake by Nolan Smith.
After I re-watched the SEC Championship and dug deeper into the metrics, I become more confident Georgia can win. I am not going to assert certainty, but I believe Georgia played a great game. Georgia has a real shot to win this rematch if they accomplish these three keys to victory. Georgia’s defense allowed too many big passing plays downfield, Bryce Young had too much space, and Georgia lost the turnover battle. At the very least, Georgia must stop the big plays. In the SEC Championship, Alabama had a slight edge. In this rematch, there is no guarantee Alabama will still have the edge.
Let’s Go Dawgs!