8:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -4.5, Over/Under: 56.5
The irresistible force meets the immovable object as SEC juggernauts clash with the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide playing host to the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Needless to say, this is what Georgia (3-0, 3-0 in SEC) had in mind when they hired Kirby Smart back in 2016, as they desperately sought to challenge in the rugged Southeast Conference. Despite winning at least ten games in four out of the five previous seasons before his hiring, the Bulldogs continuously failed to meet expectations, while their neighbors in the West Division built themselves into the class of not just the SEC, but all of college football, winning three BCS National Championships during that span. So when you can’t beat ’em, you raid their Coaching Staff, which is a tried and true method for improvement in sports inevitably leading them to Smart; a Georgia graduate, the 44-year old joined the Crimson Tide as a member of Nick Saban’s Staff back in 2007, serving as his Defensive Coordinator from 2008 to 2015. Since arriving in Athens, Smart has positioned the ‘Dogs back into being a national power, amassing a 47-12 record (.797), highlighted by a trip to the 2017 CFP National Championship Game where they faced Alabama, narrowly meeting defeat in Overtime, 26-23. He’s gone head to head with Saban twice and has yet to best his mentor, with the 2018 SEC Championship Game serving as the last time that they crossed paths.
All the talk coming into this season for Georgia was who the hell would be their Starting Quarterback, with Smart remaining coy all the way up to the Season Opener. Initially, it was supposed to be Jamie Newman, a transfer from Wake Forest, who would snub the program shortly after joining, choosing to opt out of the 2020 campaign due to concerns over Covid-19. Another high-profile transfer, J.T. Daniels, arrived in the Offseason from USC, where he missed practically the entire season with a torn ACL. However, that injury prevented him from practicing enough for Smart’s liking, leading to Redshirt Freshman, D’Wan Mathis (47.1%, 55 YDS, 3.2 Y/A, 0 TD, 1 INT, 62.5 RATE) getting the nod in the Opener against Arkansas, though that particular experiment would be short-lived, as the Georgia native was benched after an abysmal First Half which saw the Bulldogs trail 7-5. Then came Stetson Bennett (63.1%, 689 YDS, 8.2 Y/A, 5 TD, 0 INT, 151.6 RATE), who ironically transferred away from the program three years ago, only to return last season from a brief spell in Junior College. The Senior immediately stabilized the Offense, managing the game ever since en route to completing 63.1% of his passes for 689 yards, five touchdowns and more importantly ZERO turnovers. So much of playing Quarterback in Athens is simply playing the role of game manager, behind a massive Offensive Line and punishing rushing attack, which has churned out 172.0 yards per game thus far, including 202 yards on forty-five carries in an impressive 27-6 drubbing of (7) Auburn. With that said, if quarterbacking Georgia is simply a matter of managing the game, then the Offense is really just playing complementary football to the Defense, which has been downright DOMINANT thus far. Smart has helmed some filthy units over the years, but this one may just be his best; the Bulldogs have relinquished just 12.3 points per game (5th Overall) on a scant 236.7 total yards, including 198.3 yards against the pass and a miniscule 38.3 yards versus the run. That last bit has been the most telling feature of this group, which has frequently snuffed out their opponents’ advances on the ground, yielding 1.5 yards per carry. Case in point: Auburn’s prolific rushing attack could muster only thirty-nine yards on twenty-two carries, with their Quarterback, Bo Nix, logging eight yards on eleven carries, suffering three sacks. Linebackers, Monty Rice (18 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 PD) and Azeez Ojulari (12 TKL, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR), have been wrecking balls in the Backfield, pacing a front seven that has accumulated fifteen tackles for loss and ten sacks through the first three weeks. The Secondary has smothered the competition with Senior Cornerback, Richard LeCounte (8 TKL, 2 INT, 1 PD) looking like a legitimate First Round Pick, ensnaring an SEC-best two interceptions thus far. With the Crimson Tide packing plenty of firepower in the passing game, keep an eye on the Georgia Defensive Backs, for this will be the marquee matchup of the night.
“It’s No. 2 versus No. 3. It’s Alabama versus Georgia. Our players know what’s at stake.”Kirby Smart, Georgia Head Coach on Saturday’s showdown with (2) Alabama
When we last saw Georgia, they faced their second test against a ranked opponent, this time matching up with (14) Tennessee, who gave them all manner of problems in the First Half. The Volunteers were absolutely game in this one, trading blows with the Bulldogs through the first thirty minutes of action, scoring quickly with a fumble return for a touchdown to open their ledger, a 36-yard strike to retake the lead, and a 27-yard touchdown to take a 21-17 advantage into intermission. We can imagine that Smart read his charges the riot act, for they would go on to run off twenty-seven unanswered points en route to a 44-21 victory. The aforementioned Bennett was solid, completing 16-of-27 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another score to boot, with the ground game totaling 193 yards and a pair of scores on fifty attempts. Tailbacks, Zamir White (54 CAR, 209 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 4 TD) and Kendall Milton (15 CAR, 90 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 0 TD), rushed for fifty and fifty-six yards respectively, with Kenny McIntosh (17 CAR, 80 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 0 TD) adding another forty-five yards, while Receiver, Kenny Burton (4 REC, 53 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 0 TD), took a reverse forty-three yards as well. On the flipside, Tennessee attempted twenty-seven rushes and came away with an astounding NEGATIVE ONE YARDS. The hosts racked up six tackles for loss and five sacks with three forced fumbles, the last which was scooped up by the aforementioned Rice, who returned it twenty yards to the end zone to put an exclamation point on the affair. Georgia has been a takeaway machine thus far, registering seven turnovers through three contests, including three on two separate occasions.
Meanwhile, leave it to Alabama (3-0, 3-0 in SEC) to bring some sense of normalcy to a season that has seen so little of it. Even after seeing a host of key players leave for the NFL, with a ridiculous NINE coming off the board within the first three rounds of the 2020 Draft, the Crimson Tide remains well endowed coming into this season. Who else but Nick Saban can successfully replace a Heisman-caliber Quarterback, his two most prolific Receivers, his top Offensive Lineman, and five starters on Defense, and yet feel good about his team’s chances of heading to the College Football Playoff? Indeed, nobody stacks the deck better than Saban, who since arriving in Tuscaloosa back in 2007 has turned this program into the ELITE football factory in the country, winning 87.4% of his games (160-23) on the road to capturing six SEC Titles, and a staggering FIVE National Championships. Keep this in mind: since the Playoff began back in 2014, the Tide had participated in the tournament every season until last year, where they were omitted from the Poll’s Final Four. As we touched upon earlier, his longevity is really something to behold, particularly when you consider how many of his Assistants have left his Staff for greener pastures. However, none have been able to fell the maestro, with Saban going a perfect 20-0 against former employees, which includes each of his last two opponents, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Mississippi’s Lane Kiffin. With that said, the fate almost dictated that Saban wouldn’t be stalking the sidelines in Tuscaloosa tonight, as the 68-year old tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, but after a three successive negative tests has been cleared to participate in this matchup.
For a team that lost so much firepower on the offensive side of the football, you’d never realize it after watching Alabama trounce their last three opponents by a combined score of 153-91. Through three weeks they’ve averaged a robust 51.0 points per game (1st Overall) on 560.3 total yards, including 385.0 yards through the air and another 175.3 yards on the ground, churning out a remarkable 8.7 yards per play. No Tua Tagovailoa? No problem, because there has been ZERO dropoff in play with his deputy, Mac Jones (79.5%, 1,101 YDS, 13.3 Y/A, 8 TD, 1 INT, 220.3 RATE). After patiently biding his time, the Junior has been sensational in the early goings of the campaign, completing a surgeon-esque 79.5% of his attempts for 1,101 yards on a whopping 13.3 yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns in comparison to one interception. No Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs? With the likes of Jaylen Waddle (19 REC, 396 YDS, 20.8 Y/R, 3 TD) and Devonta Smith (27 REC, 316 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 2 TD), the faithful in Tuscaloosa aren’t losing any sleep over their latest draftees. Smith actually led the Receiving Corps in both yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14) last season, with his 18.5 yards per reception narrowly trailing Ruggs’ average of 18.7. This year Waddle has emerged as the explosive playmaker, reeling in nineteen catches for 396 yards and three scores on a wild 20.8 yards per catch. Oh, and though he isn’t a replacement by any means, Najee Harris (52 CAR, 347 YDS, 6.7 Y/A, 10 TD) is off to a career start out of the Backfield; after accumulating 1,528 yards from scrimmage and twenty total touchdowns in his first season as the Starting Tailback, Harris surprised many by returning for his Senior campaign, in which he has totaled 423 yards from scrimmage and ten touchdowns through the first three weeks alone. Really the only thing about this current incarnation of Alabama that hasn’t been up to par thus far has been the play of the Defense, which certainly appears to be in the process of figuring things out at this stage of the season. As we touched upon earlier, this unit saw five starters leave for the National Football League, and though they still have plenty of prospects to entice the professional scouts, they’ve yet to meet the typical standard in Tuscaloosa… yet. Through three weeks, Saban’s Defense has been gashed for an average of 30.3 points per game (44th Overall) on a whopping 473.0 total yards (66th Overall), including 322.3 yards against the pass and another 150.7 yards versus the run, with those two aforementioned Assistants, Fisher and Kiffin, proving that their respective sides could indeed move the football against the Tide with relative ease. Against the former, ‘Bama relinquished 450 total yards in a 52-24 victory that would have likely been much closer had it not been for a pair of crucial turnovers from the Aggies. As for the latter, well…. let’s take a moment to catch our collective breaths.
“Some of that is our issue in terms of how we disguise things…They were going fast. We were struggling to get lined up, and we didn’t do a very good job of disguising things. So they were able to take advantage of a lot of situations… They know us well, so all those things contributed to me feeling a little bit like we were one play behind.”Nick Saban, Alabama Head Coach on his Defense’s struggles at Ole Miss
When we last saw Alabama, they survived a 63-48 shootout against Ole Miss, a game that featured a staggering 1,370 total yards of Offense (an SEC record by the way), sixty-eight first downs, and fifteen total touchdowns between the two teams. Over the course of his tenure in Tuscaloosa, Saban hasn’t found himself in too many conflicts that can be described as shootouts, but it certainly appears that his former charge, Kiffin, has a habit of bringing the unpredictable out of his former boss. Of course, Kiffin served as Saban’s Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach from 2014 to 2016, arriving as damaged goods following poor tenures at both Tennessee and USC. His relationship with Saban can be described as frosty at best, with the Head Coach berating his Assistant on a number of occasions, before ultimately relieving him of his duties altogether days before the National Championship Game (which the Tide would go on to lose). After getting hired by Mississippi, Kiffin poked fun at his old boss, comparing their relationship to that of an ex-wife, with Saban accusing him of stealing signs during last weekend’s meeting (which Kiffin denied). As for the players, Jones was solid in completing 28-of-32 passes for 417 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with the dynamic duo of Waddle and Smith accounting for 284 yards and one of those scores. However, the player of the game was none other than Harris, who seemed to make a play every time he touched the football, amassing 248 yards from scrimmage and FIVE touchdowns, averaging a healthy 9.5 yards per touch.