No. 1 Alabama (13-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (13-1)
Location: Indianapolis | When: Jan. 10 (8 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: Georgia -3 | Total: 51.5
How these teams got here
Alabama: The Crimson Tide got the No. 1 seed for the College Football Playoff by virtue of that 41-24 SEC title game win over Georgia on Dec. 4. Alabama lost 41-38 to Texas A&M on Oct. 9 to snap a 19-game win streak that dated back to the Citrus Bowl after the 2019 season.
The Crimson Tide rebounded after that A&M loss with a 40-point win over Mississippi State and a 28-point win over Tennessee the next two weeks. But the Tide then had some close games down the stretch. Alabama’s final three regular-season SEC wins were by a combined 15 points. That included a 24-22 four-overtime win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl thanks to a fantastic drive by QB Bryce Young and the offense to force overtime.
That drive and Young’s performance in the SEC title game clinched the Heisman for him. It also set up a matchup with No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl, a game that Alabama dominated. Alabama saw that it could push Cincinnati’s defensive front around as Brian Robinson rushed 26 times for 204 yards and Trey Sanders added 67. Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder had just 144 yards passing and the Bearcats rushed for only 74 yards as a team. Now Alabama aims for back-to-back national titles in its sixth title game appearance in eight years of the College Football Playoff.
Georgia: The Bulldogs were the most dominant team during the 2021 regular season and the clear No. 1 team in the country ahead of the SEC title game. No team scored more than 17 points on Georgia during the regular season and just four opponents even got to double figures.
Georgia opened the season with a 10-3 win over Clemson that didn’t feature an offensive touchdown yet somehow felt like a three-score game. Blowout wins followed the rest of the season and no team got within 17 points. Georgia’s closest game of the regular season was a 30-13 win against Kentucky and it was obvious that Kentucky really never had a chance while watching that game.
That dominance returned against Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Georgia scored 27 points in the first half on the way to a 24-point lead at halftime as the team’s passing game did most of the damage against the Wolverines. Michigan only broke the 10-point barrier with less than five minutes to go, long after the game was out of reach and Georgia was looking ahead to Alabama.
A win will give Georgia its first national title since 1980 and former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart his first win over Nick Saban.
Alabama 41, Georgia 24
The Bulldogs enter as favorites despite the 17-point shellacking on Dec. 4. Here are some key stats from the game.
Alabama QB Bryce Young: 26-of-44 passing, 421 yards, 3 TDs; 40 rush yards, 1 TD
Alabama WR Jameson Williams: 7 receptions, 184 yards, 2 TDs
Alabama WR John Metchie III: 6 receptions, 97 yards, 1 TD
Georgia QB Stetson Bennett: 29-of-48 passing, 340 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
Georgia RB James Cook: 11 carries, 38 yards
Georgia TE Brock Bowers: 10 receptions, 139 yards, 1 TD
Alabama is getting 67% of the bets at +3 but the handle is split pretty evenly at BetMGM. Georgia is getting 49% of the money against the spread. Despite the total dropping to 51.5 from 52.5 points at the open, 70% of the bets and 78% of the money is going to the over. Alabama (+120) is by far the most popular moneyline bet. The Tide are getting 91% of bets and 90% of the money over Georgia at -145.
Which ground game will be better?
Both Alabama and Georgia can be very good running the football. Georgia averages 5.3 yards per carry with Zamir White and James Cook shouldering most of the rushing load and Alabama’s Brian Robinson has rushed for 1,268 yards in 2021 on 5.1 yards per carry. The Tide’s gameplan entering the Cotton Bowl against Cincinnati was clear. The Bearcats were going to be unable to stop Alabama’s power run game. And Alabama was right.
Neither team ran the ball well in the SEC title game thanks to each team’s staunch defensive front. It wasn’t for a lack of trying either. They combined for 56 carries for 224 yards and if you take away Young’s three scrambles for 40 yards, that stat drops to 53 for 184.
“I think if you’re going to have any success against any team, especially against a team that has the number one defense in the country, it probably starts up front,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “So for our offensive line to play well and be effective — whether it’s a run, whether it’s a pass, regardless of what the circumstance is — I think most plays are going to start with how well can we do up front against an outstanding front seven unit who’s proven that all year long.”
Alabama offensive linemen Evan Neal and Emil Ekyior were injured during that win over Cincinnati and have a chance of playing against Georgia. Their presence will be huge if they can go at near full-strength. Alabama was able to relatively neutralize Georgia’s front seven with a quick passing game.
Georgia will obviously be ready for that this time. Being able to get some run game push on first and second downs will be key if Georgia sits back in anticipation of a lot of early-down throws from Young.
“To go back and look at that game, we tried to attack in a lot of different ways and they were more successful than us,” Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “You’re going to have answers, and they had better answers that day than we did. But we’ll build off of that.”
Is Stetson Bennett the biggest key?
Georgia’s ability to blow out Michigan was possible because Stetson Bennett played the best game of his career. The senior was 20-of-30 passing for 313 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-11 win and was flawless in the first half — until an apparent mixup on the final drive — as Georgia put the game away in the first 30 minutes.
Friday’s game was just the second 300-yard passing game of Bennett’s career and just his fifth game with three or more passing touchdowns.
“Like I said after the game, I thought I played all right in the SEC Championship game,” Bennett said this week. “I made a few mistakes that you can’t do against a good team. But I also made some really good throws, good decisions. So my main focus going into the Michigan game was cleaning up on the mistakes and keep doing what I had been doing well.”
“There was no personal doubt. I knew what I had to do. Felt like I needed to play that well to beat a team like Michigan because of who they are and how talented they are. But it wasn’t to prove anything to me that I could play football in this league.”
Bennett does have a tendency to make a throw or two that leaves you scratching your head. He did that in the second half of the Orange Bowl after scrambling to his right and throwing back across to the middle of the field into traffic. That pass fell incomplete but it was a microcosm of the plays that Bennett sometimes can sometimes trick himself into making.
If he can play within himself and play off of Georgia’s running game, the Bulldogs have a shot. But it’s also important to note that Bennett is 0-2 as a starter against Alabama with five interceptions and each of those games ended with a 41-24 final score. Georgia has little chance if he turns the ball over multiple times in his third game against the Tide.
Georgia needs to cover better than it did in Atlanta
Georgia’s pass defense had its worst game of the season in the SEC championship game.
A defense that had allowed opponents to throw for over 200 yards in three games was torched for 421 yards on 44 pass attempts. Those yards also came on only 26 completions as Georgia’s secondary had some uncharacteristic coverage and tackling failures.
“They did a good job picking those pressures up,” Smart said of Alabama’s offensive line when Georgia brought the blitz. “And at the end of the day, there’s four or five guys that are one-on-one up there. Somebody’s got to win one-on-one. And a lot of times you’re better at pressure when you’re not on the field as long and you’re winning some third downs.
“We had some really critical third-down losses that, hey, they didn’t beat us. We busted. And you can’t do that, not and beat a good football team. You’re giving them extra snaps every time that happens, and you can’t do that.”
Alabama was 7-of-14 on third down while Georgia was just 3-of-12. Four of those seven conversions were on pass plays longer than 20 yards. One of those four was this TD to Jameson Williams on a 3rd and 2. Look at how open Williams was before he turned on the jets and beat everyone else to the end zone.
Will Ja’Corey Brooks play a big role?
Ja’Corey Brooks has been Alabama’s supersub over the last few games of the season.
The four-star freshman entered the Iron Bowl with two catches. After Williams was ejected for targeting while covering a punt in the first half, Brooks had a bigger role the rest of the game. And that role became huge over the final drive of regulation when he had two catches for 49 yards and the TD that sent the game to overtime.
He’s now being asked to step up again with John Metchie III out of the lineup. Alabama’s No. 2 receiver suffered a season-ending knee injury in the SEC title game, opening the door for Brooks and others to get more playing time opposite Williams. Brooks responded in the Cotton Bowl with four catches for 66 yards and a score while slot receiver Slade Bolden also played a key role and scored the game’s first TD.
Bolden is likely to remain the slot weapon on Monday night while tight ends Jahleel Billingsley and Cameron Latu will be threats over the middle and in the flat too. Brooks is in line to be the guy to help take pressure off Williams on the outside, especially if Georgia’s secondary plays better and focuses on neutralizing one of the best big-play threats in college football.
“He stepped up before Metchie went out,” Williams said. “You seen in the Auburn game when I couldn’t play he stepped up. He made a big play, had a real big play then. And the SEC Championship, Metchie went out. He played real good ball in the SEC Championship.”
“Last game he made a big play, scored a touchdown. I would say Ja’Corey, he’s doing excellent right now. He’s a real good ball player. And I think you guys are going to see very much more from him in his coming days.”
Nick Bromberg: I’m not going to be surprised if Georgia wins this game. You can argue that Georgia’s roster is better than Alabama’s from top to bottom. But it’s not better than Alabama’s at quarterback. And I ultimately think that’s the difference. I think picking games like this can be pretty simple at times when there’s this much of a chasm at quarterback. And especially when the team with the Heisman winner is getting points. Pick: Alabama +3
Sam Cooper: Unless there was a lot Alabama was holding back offensively against Cincinnati, I think the absence of John Metchie will really be felt in this game and Georgia will be able to get more pressure on Bryce Young and make him uncomfortable. UGA has jumped out to a lead in all four of its matchups against Alabama under Kirby Smart, including three by double digits. This time, the Bulldogs hold on and win their first national title since 1980. Pick: Georgia -3