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Kirby Smart


If I were predicting the Georgia-Alabama SEC Championship showdown with my heart rather than my head, I would certainly go with the Bulldogs to knock off the mighty, undefeated and top-ranked Crimson Tide come Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

But in all the years I’ve picked high school, college and professional football games, I’ve never selected a winner on the basis of simply who I wanted to win the game. Why put yourself on record — and for everyone to see in this business — if you’re not going to objectively study the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing teams and then go with the one who realistically has the best chance to win the game?

Of course, being a UGA graduate and having covered the Bulldogs for 53 years now, I’m fervently hoping the 11-1 Dawgs, a 13-point underdog to the 12-0 Tide, will shock the world early Saturday evening in Atlanta, win their second consecutive SEC title and lock up a berth in the College Football Playoff for a second straight year.

And can Kirby Smart’s third UGA edition take down the Tide Saturday and thus avenge last January’s excruciating overtime loss to ‘Bama in the national championship game at this same exact venue?

Absolutely, the Bulldogs can beat Alabama!

When Nick Saban said Sunday night on the SEC teleconference that Georgia is the best, most talented team the Crimson Tide have faced this season, he wasn’t just blowing coaching smoke. These Bulldogs, young as they are, have the athletes to match up with Alabama’s athletes. Folks, there’s gonna be a lot of 5-stars going against 5-stars inside Mercedes-Benz in this game.

I don’t think Alabama’s defense has faced a running duo like Georgia will confront them with on Saturday. D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield bring the same lightning and thunder punch to the Bulldog backfield that the record-breaking Nick Chubb and Sony Michel did in the previous three seasons. Give them just a little crease up front and they can go the distance on any given play. Jake Fromm will also be the most accurate passer and best field general the Tide has encountered this season and has a receiving corps that can stack up right there with Alabama’s talented wide receivers. And did I note that the Bulldogs’ offensive line could also be the best the Crimson Tide defensive unit has met this fall?

Defensively, since the insertion of big freshman  Jordan Davis as the starting nose tackle, Georgia’s defensive front has played much better against the run (ask Georgia Tech) and the Deandre Baker-led secondary has also improved greatly in the Bulldogs’ current five-game winning streak … following the upset loss to LSU Oct. 13 in Baton Rouge. And special teams … no question the Georgia kicking game has been superior to Alabama’s this season.

I said at the start of this column I objectively attempt to carefully scrutinize the strengths and weaknesses of both teams when trying to determine a winner. I just listed the Bulldogs’ positives above; now, let’s look at the Crimson Tide’s.

Each week in Bulldawg Illustrated, I do capsules of the players to watch for the upcoming game, for both teams. In this week’s SEC Championship game issue, the Alabama players I selected were: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, running back Najee Harris and offensive tackle Jonah Williams. I also went with one ‘Bama coach, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.

I’m going to be honest here. Outstanding as those players are, it was a very tough decision to select those five Alabama players — Tua being the exception of course —over a multitude of other Tide standouts. That’s because this team has all-star candidates at nearly every single position. Some of the players I didn’t choose for my players to watch this week are leading rusher Damien Harris, leading tackler and inside linebacker Dylan Moses, standout defensive end Isaiah Buggs who leads the team in sacks with 9.5 and has 12.5 tackles-for-loss, opposite defensive end Raekwon Davis who is also a force off the edge, hard-hitting inside linebacker Mack Wilson, ultra-talented tight end Irv Smith, strong safety Deionte Thompson who is the team’s second-leading tackler, wide receiver Henry Ruggs who is right behind team leader Jerry Jeudy in receptions and defensive back Saivion Smith, who leads the Crimson Tide in interceptions. Whew!

Of course, Tagovailoa, the guy who came off the bench and enabled the Tide to overtake the Bulldogs in the national title shootout, is the bonafide front-runner for this year’s Heisman Trophy. It’s hard to fathom he’s passed for 36 touchdowns this season while throwing only two interceptions. In several Alabama games, I’ve had the time to watch via television, I’ve seen the Tide receivers well covered in the end zone and yet Tua has delivered the ball with uncanny accuracy to spots where only his receivers can pull it in. Needless to say, the Georgia defense can’t let No. 13 do what he’s been doing all season long, that is, and expect to slow down a Tide attack that has averaged 49 points per game this season.

Saban has had great teams through the years, as documented by his winning one national crown at LSU and now five at ‘Bama (the six total tying the legendary Bear Bryant), but I don’t think he’s ever fielded a more explosive offense than the present one he has built around the magic of Tua Tagovailoa. Thus, the immense challenge awaiting Mel Tucker’s defensive unit Saturday in Mercedes-Benz.

At the same time, I don’t think this Alabama defense is anywhere close to being Saban’s best ever — not as good as some that Kirby Smart tutored when he was the defensive chief in Tuscaloosa — but it’s still pretty formidable, allowing just 13.8 points per game and  having shut out LSU on the road and Mississippi State at home this season. Thus also the challenge awaiting Georgia’s potent offense, which brings a 40.0 scoring average itself into the game.

It’s sorta incredible that no team, over the course of Alabama’s 12 games to date, has come within 20 points of the Crimson Tide. And the Bulldogs too … they have defeated every team by at least 17 points in their five-game streak after the setback in Baton Rouge.

So two prolific high-scoring offenses will take the field in a contest that surely rates the best conference championship match-up (No. 1 vs. No. 4) in the country this weekend. And two very good defenses will be attempting to slow that opposing offensive force.

After the excruciating SEC championship game loss to ‘Bama in 2012 and then the gut-wrenching setback to the Tide in the national championship game last season, this third meeting could well be the charm for these Georgia Bulldogs.

But, again, going by just the performances of the two teams this year, Alabama has to be the pick to win this football game and continue its stride toward still another national championship. But the Tide is going to be pushed to the hilt by the Bulldogs before escaping with a 28-21 victory. And hey, even if Georgia can’t pull off this upset, the Sugar Bowl ain’t a bad consolation prize!


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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.