Alabama hosts Georgia for a high-stakes clash between two of college football’s top teams on Saturday night. Both programs head into this huge showdown at 3-0 and ranked inside of the top five of every poll. Considering where both teams are projected to finish in 2020, Saturday’s game could be the first of two matchups. And when these two teams kick things off, one of the season’s most intriguing battles will take place. The Bulldogs own arguably the top defense in the nation, while the Crimson Tide have the No. 1 scoring offense through three contests. However, an unexpected development has altered the outlook for this contest. Alabama coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and likely won’t be on the sidelines for this matchup.
Make no mistake: Losing the top coach in college football will have an impact on Alabama. However, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has experience as a head coach from stints at Washington and USC and will work in that role on Saturday night. Saban’s leadership to the entire team and impact on the defense is certainly an x-factor to watch. However, the nucleus of a strong team remains in place with quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. The offense has led the way to three victories, starting with a 38-19 win at Missouri to open 2020, followed by a 52-24 defeat of Texas A&M and a 63-48 thriller over Ole Miss last Saturday.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart has developed this program into one of the best in the nation. But there’s just a couple of missing pieces on the resume: Beat Alabama and win a national championship. The Bulldogs are poised to challenge both of those goals in 2020. An updated offense behind coordinator Todd Monken provided optimism for improvement on that side of the ball to team with the best defense in the nation. Georgia has raced to a 3-0 start with relative ease. Smart’s team took care of Arkansas 37-10 after a slow start, defeated Auburn 27-6 and knocked off Tennessee 44-21 last Saturday.
Alabama holds a 40-25-4 series edge over Georgia. The Crimson Tide have won five in a row, including the 2018 SEC Championship Game and ’17 national championship. Three of the last four meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
Georgia at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -4.5
When Georgia Has the Ball
It’s no secret the battle between Alabama’s offense against Georgia’s defense is one of the most-anticipated showdowns of the season. But the other matchup – the Bulldogs offense against the Crimson Tide defense – also has plenty of intrigue. New play-caller Todd Monken was brought in to modernize Georgia’s offense after a sluggish 2019 season. So far, the results are promising. This unit is averaging 36 points a game – up from 30.8 last fall. The Bulldogs are averaging 5.6 yards per snap, but the per-game total has increased from 4.4 in the opener to 6.1 versus Auburn and 5.6 against Tennessee.
While the Bulldogs are far from a finished product on this side of the ball, Monken is the right long-term fit here and has successfully worked his offense into place in an usual offseason. And of course, there’s the quarterback carousel that surrounded Georgia since Jake Fromm decided to depart for the NFL. Jamie Newman – a graduate transfer from Wake Forest – was expected to be the starter, but he opted out and left for the NFL. USC transfer JT Daniels wasn’t cleared for the opener at Arkansas, leaving D’Wan Mathis to start. Mathis struggled in his first action with the Bulldogs, prompting Monken to turn to former walk-on Stetson Bennett under center. Bennett won’t wow anyone with his size, but he’s done everything asked by the coaching staff. The junior has completed 53 of 84 throws for 689 yards and five touchdowns to zero interceptions and added 27 more yards and a score on the ground. While Bennett has just one completion of more than 40 yards, he’s been efficient and directing the offense at a high level.
Georgia’s offense leans on the run (137 rush to 102 pass attempts), but the ground game may find room limited versus Alabama. The Crimson Tide were torched for 48 points in last week’s win over Ole Miss and aren’t playing at the usual dominant level Saban has delivered during his tenure. However, Alabama is still holding teams to 3.7 yards per rush, and this game is a better matchup than the up-tempo battle faced against the Rebels last week. The Crimson Tide have struggled to get off the field on third downs (11th in the SEC) and have just five sacks. Georgia is seventh in the SEC in third-down conversions, but Bennett’s mobility and ability to hit receivers George Pickens and Kearis Jackson downfield will be critical. Most of Bennett’s completions (37 of 53) have been over the middle of the field. Look for the Alabama defense to play to stop the run, forcing Bennett to convert on third downs on the outside. Monken is likely to counter with some easy first-down throws to keep Bennett in third-and-manageable situations.
Alabama’s defense against Georgia’s offense isn’t a weakness-on-weakness battle. But both teams have displayed question marks here through the first three games of the season. The Crimson Tide have to do a better job of limiting big plays, generating a pass rush, and finding ways to get off the field on third downs. Will the Bulldogs use some tempo to try and catch Alabama’s defense out of alignment similar to what Ole Miss used last week?
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama’s offense against Georgia’s defense is the must-see matchup on Saturday night. The Crimson Tide average 51 points a game and 8.7 per play. Both of those totals rank first in the SEC. The Bulldogs counter with a defense holding teams to just 12.3 points a game and 3.7 yards per play. Also, Smart’s group ranks first in the SEC against the run and pass and has allowed only one play of 40 yards or more. Essentially, this matchup features an offense that has punted six times all of 2020 and has been unstoppable against a defense simply suffocating opponents.
Mac Jones had big shoes to fill in replacing Tua Tagovailoa this offseason. Although Jones played well in a limited stint last year, he entered the fall having to hold off touted freshman Bryce Young and expectations to perform at a high level against a 10-game slate in the SEC. Needless to say, the junior has passed every test so far. Jones has arguably been the top quarterback in the SEC through three games. He’s connected on 79.5 percent of his passes for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns to just one pick. Additionally, Jones ranks second among SEC passers with five plays of 40 yards or more. The receiving trio of DeVonta Smith (27 catches), Jaylen Waddle (19), and John Metchie (11) has been nearly unstoppable this season. But Jones and the receivers will face their toughest test of 2020 on Saturday night. Georgia’s secondary – led by All-America candidates in cornerback Eric Stokes and safety Richard LeCounte – has allowed just one pass to be completed of 40 yards or more and surrendered just three touchdowns through the air.
Alabama’s success on passing downs or ability to hit the big plays downfield starts up front. The line has allowed four sacks over 91 pass attempts this fall and had its best performance in run blocking against Ole Miss. Running back Najee Harris gashed the Rebels for 206 yards and five touchdowns last week, giving him 347 yards for the entire year. It’s unlikely Alabama will be able to pound Georgia’s defense for 300-plus yards like it did against Ole Miss last week. Over the last three games, the Bulldogs have allowed just 115 rushing yards and just 1.5 yards per carry. Active linebackers like Monty Rice (18 tackles) and Azeez Ojulari (three sacks) figure to be around the line of scrimmage all night, with linemen Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt creating havoc up front.
Will Alabama’s offense do what no team has managed to do this season and consistently move the ball on Saturday night? Or will the Bulldogs continue to suffocate opposing offenses and keep the high-powered Crimson Tide offense in check?
Saban’s absence looms large in this one. After news broke of his positive test, the spread dropped a couple of points on Wednesday night. Having Sarkisian on the sidelines as the play-caller, along with his previous experience as a head coach, ensures Alabama is in good hands. However, there's little doubt this team will miss Saban's leadership. Regardless of how this game plays out, it’s safe to assume these two teams could see each other again in the SEC Championship Game or even College Football Playoff. Alabama’s offense and Georgia’s defense should each claim a couple of victories on Saturday night. But can the Bulldogs consistently move the ball well enough on offense to win in Tuscaloosa? These two teams have played in two classic games recently, and Saturday night’s matchup should go down to the wire. The guess here is the better quarterback (Jones) is the factor that decides which team comes out on top.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Georgia 24
Podcast: Week 7 Preview and Predictions