Georgia is aiming for its first national title since 1980 on Monday night, as the Bulldogs meet fellow SEC foe Alabama in Atlanta to decide college football's 2017 champion. After an 8-5 record last season, Georgia showed marked improvement under second-year coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs lost only one game (Auburn), defeated the Tigers in a rematch for the SEC title and won in a thriller over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl to clinch a trip to the national championship. Smart’s team is led by a standout defense and rushing attack, but the steady play of quarterback Jake Fromm is an underrated cog in the run to the College Football Playoff National Championship. This matchup is also the first meeting between Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban on the gridiron. Smart worked in Tuscaloosa under Saban's watch from 2007-15.
Why will Georgia win on Jan. 8 in Atlanta, Ga.? Here are five reasons the Bulldogs will claim the national title over Alabama:
5 Reasons Why Georgia Will Beat Alabama in the National Championship
1. Jake Fromm is Ready for the Moment
Playing as a true freshman quarterback in the SEC is no easy task, but Jacob Eason’s knee injury against Appalachian State in the opener forced Fromm to step under center as Georgia’s starter. Fromm was steady all season, completing 63.7 percent of his throws for 2,383 yards and 23 touchdowns. Most importantly, Fromm has tossed just five picks. The true freshman was sharp in Georgia’s win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Fromm certainly used the month to prepare to learn under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and it showed against the Sooners. The freshman connected on 20 of 29 throws for 210 yards and two touchdowns in a 54-48 victory. Fromm’s poise was on display late in the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs needing a touchdown to send the game into overtime. The freshman was calm and collected, leading the team on a seven-play, 59-yard drive, which included three big completions. Even though Alabama’s defense is the best in the country, Fromm has proven over and over this year that he won’t be intimidated.
2. The Ground Attack
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel turned down the NFL last year for one more season in Athens. That decision has paid dividends for this duo, as Chubb and Michel are the driving force behind Georgia’s offense. Chubb leads the team with 1,320 rushing yards and has reached the end zone 15 times on 2015 attempts. Michel holds an edge in rushing touchdowns (16) and is second on the team with 1,129 yards. And if either of those two players need a break, the Bulldogs won’t miss a beat with D’Andre Swift taking carries. The freshman is averaging 7.8 yards per rush in 2017. This backfield has rarely been held in check all year. Just one opponent (Auburn) held Georgia under 100 yards. Additionally, the Bulldogs have rushed for at least 200 yards in 12 out of their 14 contests. Alabama’s rush defense is stingy and among the best in the nation. But this defense hasn’t faced a one-two punch at running back like the one Georgia is bringing to Atlanta.
3. Georgia’s Rush Defense
It’s no surprise Smart has transformed Georgia’s defense into one of the best in the nation. After all, he helped Nick Saban mold Alabama’s group into a suffocating, physical group that rarely left the top of the defensive statistics during his stint in Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs finished second in the SEC by limiting opponents to 15.7 points a game and only three teams managed more than 20 points against this defense in 2017. Smart’s group is only giving up 4.6 yards per play, has forced 19 turnovers, is fourth in the SEC in third-down defense and second in red-zone stops. But most importantly, Georgia doesn’t give up too much on the ground. Despite allowing 242 rushing yards against Oklahoma, the Bulldogs rank second in the SEC by holding teams to just 121.9 yards a game on the ground. This defense has the necessary pieces to keep Alabama’s ground game in check. Linebacker Roquan Smith is a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports, and the defensive line – led by Tyler Clark and David Marshall – stepped up in the second half versus the Sooners. If Georgia can stuff the run, that puts a lot of pressure on Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and will keep the offense in long-yardage situations on third downs.
4. Special Teams
As the Rose Bowl showcased, Georgia’s special teams are a standout group. Under the direction of assistant Shane Beamer, this unit was instrumental in the win over Oklahoma. The Bulldogs recovered a squib kick at midfield just before halftime, which allowed the offense to steal three points prior to the break. Punter Cameron Nizialek averaged 48 yards a punt against the Sooners and pinned three of his six kicks inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship went two-for-three on field goal attempts, including the Rose Bowl-record 55-yard bomb just before halftime. This wasn’t a one-game strength, either. Blankenship is 17 of 20 on field goal attempts, and Nizialek is averaging 44.9 yards per punt and has placed 25 of his 55 punts inside the 20. Mecole Hardman is averaging 11.3 yards on punt returns and a healthy 27.4 mark on kickoffs. In a close game, one play on special teams could be the difference. Georgia’s special teams have the ability to produce that game-changing play.
5. The Pupil Has to Beat the Teacher at Some Point
Nick Saban is 11-0 in games against former assistant coaches. That’s a staggering statistic to say the least. But it can’t last forever, right? As Smart has showcased all year, this team will be prepared and ready to play on Monday night. The staff made excellent adjustments to counter Oklahoma’s high-powered offense in the Rose Bowl and guided the team to a second-half comeback and victory to book a trip to Atlanta. Smart is working to close the gap between Alabama and Georgia on the recruiting trail, and the Bulldogs have the necessary pieces to win. The offense leans on the run, but Fromm is capable of connecting downfield enough to keep Alabama’s defense off balance. And when the Crimson Tide have the ball, expect Smart to have a standout gameplan to counter Saban’s offense. Georgia is a slight underdog in Monday night’s game. But the Bulldogs weren’t a trendy pick to reach Atlanta in the preseason, were doubted before the Rose Bowl and are at a slight talent and depth disadvantage to Alabama. However, with Smart leading the way (and in an essential home game), the pupil is ready to show the teacher what he’s learned.