Take 2: Georgia should have the edge this time

There’s a feeling of familiarity as Georgia and Alabama prepare to square off in the College Football Playoff title game on Monday night. The schools played nearly a month ago in Atlanta, with Alabama entering that game a six-point underdog and leaving SEC champions after a 41-24 victory.

The Alabama thumping didn’t deter oddsmakers, who still have installed UGA as the favorite. Now it’s only a field goal.

Can Georgia flip the script and end four decades of heartache for the school’s first national title since 1980? Can Georgia head coach Kirby Smart break his 0-4 hex against his former boss, Alabama’s Nick Saban? We drilled down and spoke to more than a half-dozen coaches familiar with the teams. A majority said Georgia could pull out a win.

Here’s why coaches generally liked Georgia and what the Bulldogs will have to do differently to get the ending right.

Dec 4, 2021; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) attempts a pass against Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Robert Beal Jr. (33) during the second quarter of the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young lit up Georgia in the SEC championship game with 421 passing yards and three touchdowns. (Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports)

Who has more talent? 

It’s the prevailing view in the sport that these are, by far, the most talented teams. There’s also a near consensus that there’s a gap between these two programs and whoever is considered No. 3. 

“The best two rosters in college football, going away,” one veteran coach said.

So who has the raw talent edge here? One coach summed it up this way: The three most talented players on the field will be on Alabama – defensive end Will Anderson, quarterback Bryce Young and wide receiver Jameson Williams.

Young and Williams played the role of lead saboteurs in the SEC title game, with Young issuing one of the great individual performances in recent college football history with 421 passing yards. He threw two touchdowns to Williams, the speedy transfer from Ohio State, who finished with seven catches for 184 yards.

But the talent from there edges to Georgia. Coaches say the Bulldogs have more talent overall on defense, a better offensive line, more overall talent and depth on the defensive line, and a distinct advantage at tailback in talent and depth. “If you talk about the best team, Georgia has the best team,” one coach said.

The reality that keeps coming up around the SEC is that in terms of talent, this Alabama team is a shadow of 2020 Alabama and not nearly what they’ve been in recent seasons. “They’re nowhere near talent-wise what they were the year before,” said a veteran SEC assistant. “As far as skill people outside [and] on the size and stoutness at the offensive line.”

What went wrong last time for Georgia? 

It’s a simple answer: Young played exceptionally well. In part because he’s the Heisman Trophy winner. And in part because Georgia did little to make him uncomfortable.

Part of Alabama’s success, according to a coach, came from pre-snap reads. The coach credited Alabama’s ability to determine whether Georgia would be in zone by the pre-snap movement – or lack of movement – by the nickel corner. That appeared to tip off whether the Bulldogs would be running simulated pressure or a traditional four-man rush, which gave Young the opportunity to know pre-snap he’d be throwing into a zone.

“There were some pre-snap identifiers that allowed [Young] to know where to throw the ball before he ever got it,” said another coach. “He’ll kill a zone defense. You have to understand: He’s better outside the pocket than inside the pocket.”

What will be different for UGA? 

Georgia will have to be more creative in figuring out ways to make Young uncomfortable. That’s obvious. Will that mean more pressure from the edges, where Alabama struggled against Auburn? Will that mean varying the front looks in order to keep Young’s pre-snap reads cloudy?

“Auburn used a whole bunch of different fronts – 4-man, 5-man and 6-man,” a coach said. “They gave them a ton of different presentations and seemed to want to isolate pass rushers on guards and tackles.”

Considering that Georgia’s defense is an evolved version of Saban’s defense, sprinkled with defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s simulated pressure twist, there was a feeling of familiarity with the way Alabama picked it apart.

How creative will Georgia get to attempt to create pressure? 

“You are going to see a different Georgia show up,” said one coach. “They’re going to look to pressure and confuse the quarterback. The idea about what you have to do against this quarterback is make him throw in tight windows. He’s better outside the pocket than in the pocket.”

ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 04:  Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III (8) runs with the ball as Georgia defensive back Kelee Ringo (5) attempts a tackle during the SEC Championship college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs on December 4th, 2021 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama’s John Metchie III caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the SEC title game last month. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What does loss of John Metchie III mean? 

Young won’t have his security blanket. Williams is a blazer, a long-strider who can blow the top off the defense. Meanwhile Metchie, who tore his ACL in the second quarter of the SEC championship game, is more of a chains grinder, a slippery receiver who can find soft spots in a defense. He brought 96 catches for 1,142 yards this season.

Coaches said they found the way Cincinnati appeared to guard Williams in the CFP semis as instructive to how Georgia could end up playing him. Williams had seven catches for 62 yards in the semis – productive but not destructive like the SEC championship.

“They bracketed him and made sure they were banging him at the line of scrimmage and had their hands on him,” one coach said. “With Metchie on the field, the under-zone defenders had to be aware of him at all times — all the quick slants. Williams can do that, but it’s not his game.”

So how will Georgia’s secondary adjust to Williams being the biggest threat? 

“It’s really like, ‘Where’s Waldo,’” said another coach. “It’s not like other receivers aren’t good. They’re capable. But Metchie is different. He’s a move-the-chains guy. And it’s going to be easier to put a double or even triple team on [Williams].”

Who could step up for Bama? Junior Slade Bolden has some of the same craftiness and instincts as Metchie, just not the twitch or the production. One coach pointed out that junior tight end Jahleel Billingsley hasn’t been as much of a threat this season, as 10 of his 17 catches came in his first three games.

Which Bama offensive line will show up? 

The SEC championship and the CFP semifinal showed that Auburn’s domination of Alabama’s offensive line in the Iron Bowl wouldn’t necessarily become a trend.

Alabama didn’t give up a sack against Georgia, and then Alabama bullied Cincinnati in the CFP for 301 rushing yards. But there’s uncertainty for Alabama heading into the title game.

Right guard Emil Ekiyor left the CFP semis with a shoulder injury and right tackle Chris Owens left in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury. There’s ambiguity about their status for the title game and both could be game-time decisions.

Owens has been an issue in pass protection for Alabama all season. If he can’t go, either redshirt senior Kendall Randolph or sophomore Damieon George will replace him. That position should be one of the biggest factors as to whether Alabama can properly protect Young, and will certainly be a focus of Georgia’s attempts to exploit Alabama up front.

Why was Alabama’s line so bad against Auburn? George got the start at right tackle and played just 33 snaps. Owens gave the line a spark by coming in at halftime. Seth McLaughlin came in at center on the second drive of the second half, a move that’s helped solidify the line some. He started his first game against Georgia and then against Cincinnati, thriving in both. Alabama left tackle Evan Neal is a future top-15 NFL draft pick, and even he struggled against Auburn.

“Even the left tackle was mediocre against Auburn,” said a coach. “You watch against UGA and he’s pretty dominant. I think [offensive coordinator] Bill O’Brien ran the ball a little more schemed in run game than he did against Auburn.

“Auburn made some huge third-and-short stops in tempo run game. The environment of that game hurt Alabama’s offensive line. They went silent count and were not getting off the ball quick. At times, they didn’t move when the ball was snapped. That environment hurt Alabama as much as anything.”

If Alabama’s offense sputters Monday, the line will be the place that’s most susceptible to allowing that to happen.

Dec 4, 2021; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) is tackled for a loss by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis (48)
during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett is tackled for a loss by Crimson Tide defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis in the SEC title game. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Can Stetson Bennett manage a victory

The most scrutinized and polarizing player in this title game is Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on who has played at a generally high level during his career. Except against Alabama.

In the 2020 season, Bennett threw three interceptions and Georgia went scoreless in the second half in a 41-24 loss. In the SEC title game, Georgia lost by the same score and Bennett threw two more interceptions. Generally, his limitations were exposed when Georgia got down and needed to come from behind.

Much will be made about what Bennett isn’t — an NFL prospect, an oversized physical individual or possessor of the most arm talent. But coaches who’ve faced him spend a lot of time gushing about what he is — efficient, smart and athletic. “He is fast,” said one coach. “He’s much faster than people give credit for.”

There are drawbacks. His height — listed generously at 5-foot-11 — leaves him susceptible to batted balls. Even with his downfield success against Michigan, there’s going to be a mentality of slowing down Georgia’s elite tailbacks and forcing him to make plays with his arm.

“The more you take those guys away and make him play quarterback, the better chance you have of winning,” another coach said.

Also looming is what happens if Bennett struggles in the first half or Georgia falls behind. Could we see a reverse scenario where Smart makes a quarterback switch to JT Daniels in the national title game, much like Saban famously did against Georgia in the 2017 season?

Can Alabama stop Georgia’s tight ends? 

Coaches are gushing about Georgia freshman Brock Bowers in rare terms. He’s a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end who has emerged as, perhaps, the most integral and explosive weapon in Georgia’s offense.

“When we played them, he was the wide receiver that we had to stop,” a coach said. “He’s a legit dude. He’s not Kyle Pitts, but he’s a special kind of guy in that next tier, like Travis Kelce of the Chiefs.”

Bowers is a scheme nightmare, and he’ll be magnified as Georgia’s offense opens up with field-stretching wide receiver George Pickens continuing to emerge as a bigger threat. He caught three balls for 50 yards combined in games against Alabama and Michigan. He’s not a focus, but still a threat.

One coach said the combination of Pickens’ ability to go over-the-top, and Bowers and Georgia’s other outlandishly gifted tight end — 6-foot-7, 265-pound Darnell Washington — running seams to the boundary looms as a dangerous combination.

“I haven’t seen anyone stop him yet, and that’s saying a lot for a young guy,” a coach said of Bowers. “You watch him last week in 12 personnel in the slot to the boundary and they run him on a vertical seam, and he’s running away from guys.”

After UGA targeted Bowers 16 times in the SEC title game, expect Saban to have a wrinkle or two ready to slow him down.