College football’s 2021-22 season concludes on Jan. 10 with Georgia and Alabama meeting in an all-SEC showdown to decide the national championship. Monday night’s showdown in Indianapolis is the second time these two teams will play each other in the ’21 season. The Crimson Tide upset the Bulldogs 41-24 in the SEC Championship Game, which lifted coach Nick Saban’s team to the No. 1 overall seed in the CFB Playoff. Although Georgia stumbled in its biggest test this year, coach Kirby Smart’s team was arguably the better team throughout the season. This game marks the third time since the BCS era two SEC teams will meet for the title. LSU-Alabama met in ’11 in the BCS title and Alabama and Georgia met to decide the champion in ’17.
With a win over Alabama on Monday night, Georgia would end a national title drought that extends to 1980. Also, a national championship and victory over the Crimson Tide is about all that’s left for Smart to accomplish in Athens. For nearly all of the ’21 season, the Bulldogs appeared to be the superior team in college football. After a 10-3 victory over Clemson in the opener, Georgia won its next 11 games by at least 17 points. That run included wins against Arkansas (37-0), Kentucky (30-13), Florida (34-7) and Tennessee (41-17). However, the loss to Alabama in Atlanta showcased the vulnerabilities of Smart’s team. Quarterback Stetson Bennett has to play better to beat the Crimson Tide, and Georgia’s standout defense needs to contain quarterback Bryce Young better than it did in the first meeting. The Bulldogs rebounded from the SEC Championship loss to convincingly beat Michigan 34-11 in the Orange Bowl (CFB Playoff Semifinal) on Dec. 31.
An appearance in the national title game is almost an annual expectation for Alabama. Since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, the Crimson Tide have won six national titles and lost two other matchups to Clemson. Monday night’s meeting is the ninth time Alabama will play for the title under Saban, and this program has earned berths in seven of eight years since the four-team playoff started in ’14. After beating Ohio State in the title game last year, the Crimson Tide’s path to a repeat started with a 5-0 mark, including wins over Miami, Florida and Ole Miss. But Alabama stumbled at Texas A&M, losing by three on Oct. 9. Alabama had a few uneven performances down the stretch, yet the loss in College Station fueled a run that was capped by the win over Georgia in Atlanta on Dec. 4. The Crimson Tide dominated Cincinnati 27-6 on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl to book a trip to Indianapolis to attempt to become the first team since Saban’s program won in 2011-12 to go back-to-back as national champions.
Alabama owns a 42-25-4 series edge over Georgia. Since Kirby Smart took over as Georgia’s coach in 2016, Nick Saban is 4-0 against his former assistant. Alabama won the first two meetings by one score, but the last two matchups were decided by a 41-24 outcome. The Crimson Tide defeated the Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime to decide the national title in ’17.
CFP National Championship: No. 3 Georgia (13-1) vs. No. 1 Alabama (13-1)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Georgia -3
When Georgia Has the Ball
Quarterback Stetson Bennett enters Monday night’s game under the spotlight. USC transfer JT Daniels seemed primed for a huge season as the starter, but after an early injury, Bennett passed him on the depth chart and never surrendered the position. However, the senior had an uneven game in the first matchup. Bennett completed 29 of 48 throws for 340 yards but tossed two costly picks, including one that was returned for a score. Although the former walk-on had a rough outing in Atlanta, he rebounded by throwing for 313 yards and three scores on 20 completions in Georgia’s rout of Michigan in the Orange Bowl. For the season, Bennett threw for 2,638 yards and 27 touchdowns to just seven picks and led the SEC in yards per attempt (10.1).
How Bennett performs is likely to determine whether or not Georgia comes out on top. Coordinator Todd Monken could use more quick passes or roll outs to get Bennett on the move, but the senior quarterback is also going to need help from the trenches. Alabama’s defense enters the championship allowing 19.2 points a game, 4.7 yards per play and generating 3.7 sacks a contest (52 all year). Georgia’s offensive line has been a standout group all season, but this unit surrendered three sacks and seven tackles for a loss in the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide are coming off a dominant performance in the Cotton Bowl, limiting Cincinnati to 74 rushing yards and generating six sacks. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is a key reason for the success up front, as the unanimous All-American and Bronko Nagurski Trophy recipient enters Monday’s game with 17.5 sacks and 33.5 TFL. Can Georgia’s offensive line protect Bennett on passing downs to allow him to execute downfield?
If Georgia’s front holds up and Bennett has time to throw, there are plays available against Alabama’s secondary. Cornerback Josh Jobe is out for the year due to injury, and Jalyn Armour-Davis was limited due to an ailment in the win over Cincinnati. If Armour-Davis is limited or unable to go, the Crimson Tide will have to rely more on freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry and Khyree Jackson against a receiving corps that’s deep and healthier than it was at the end of the regular season. George Pickens was primed to rank as one of the top receivers in the SEC this year, but an ACL injury in spring practice sidelined him until late November. Pickens should be closer to form in this one, with other weapons like Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey primed to test the secondary. Tight end Brock Bowers (52 catches for 846 yards and 12 TDs) is Bennett’s favorite target and figures to be a tough matchup for Alabama’s secondary once again.
With the strength of both teams in the trenches, rushing yards will be hard to find on Monday night. Zamir White (772 yards) paces the Georgia ground game, but James Cook (651) will be the x-factor to watch. Cook ranks second on the team in rushing and is a valuable pass catcher out of the backfield (25 receptions). The Crimson Tide are only allowing 82.1 rushing yards a game and just 2.5 yards per carry. The Bulldogs don’t need to have a ton of success on the ground, but this unit needs to get some production to avoid being in long-yardage situations all night.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Bryce Young was the difference in the first matchup for Alabama and holds the cards once again on Monday night. Can Georgia find a way to slow down the Heisman Trophy winner after allowing 421 yards and three touchdowns on 26 completions in the first meeting? And it wasn’t just the production through the air that gave the Bulldogs fits. Young rushed for 40 yards and a score in the SEC Championship Game and consistently avoided rushers in the backfield to prevent negative plays. Also, in the first meeting, the Crimson Tide got their best performance of the season by their offensive line. This unit is dealing with injuries to Chris Owens and Emil Ekiyor, so a unit that was uneven during the year could be missing a couple of key cogs on Monday night.
Young is the catalyst behind an Alabama offense averaging 41.4 points a game and 6.7 yards per play, but he isn’t a one-man show. Receiver Jameson Williams caught seven passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the first game and has the ability to turn every catch into a big play thanks to his elite speed. The Ohio State transfer was quiet in the win over Cincinnati, catching seven passes for 62 yards and no scores. However, the Crimson Tide didn’t need their passing attack to hit on all cylinders to win last week’s game, and Williams should be heavily involved again against the Bulldogs. Although Georgia’s secondary had its issues defending Young and Williams in the first game, the rematch is going to play out a little different. Alabama lost John Metchie III to a torn ACL in the first half of the SEC Championship, leaving Slade Bolden and Ja’Corey Brooks to fill in as the top receivers behind Williams. Not having Metchie III makes defending this offense a little easier, but Georgia also has to do a better job of defending and mixing up coverage on the back end.
While Georgia’s secondary has to play better, it’s not solely on the defensive backs to win this game on Monday night. Smart and coordinator Dan Lanning have to find a way to get pressure and also get Young to the ground to create negative plays. After having zero sacks in the first meeting, the Bulldogs cannot leave another matchup without creating a sack or turnover and expect to win. However, this defense certainly has the pieces up front to cause problems. Linemen Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt, along with linebacker Nakobe Dean, form the best front in college football. This collection of talent is a big reason why the Bulldogs are limiting teams to 4.1 yards per play and 9.6 points a game and could take advantage of an iffy Alabama front. Not only does this unit need to win up front more often in the rematch, but the defense has to use improved pressure to take the heat off a secondary that will have issues defending Young if it has to cover for too long.
Similar to Georgia’s offense against Alabama’s defense, the Crimson Tide isn’t likely to find much running room against the Bulldogs. This defense is only giving up 82.4 rushing yards a contest. In the first meeting, Alabama’s offensive line did clear the way for rushers to have 4.4 yards per carry (115 yards), but it’s unlikely this unit repeats its performance from the Cotton Bowl, which saw the team run for 301 yards. Brian Robinson Jr. (204 vs. Cincinnati) mustered 55 yards in the first matchup and is likely to find the sledding tough on Monday night.
A complete repeat of the first matchup seems unlikely. Georgia should make adjustments and come to Indianapolis with a much better game plan of how to defend Young and the Alabama offense. In the first game, the Bulldogs lost the small things – turnovers, red zone offense and third downs – and had issues on both sides of the ball. If they can reverse those three areas, get a better performance out of Bennett, Smart’s team is likely to leave Indianapolis with the title. On the other sideline, if Young has another huge night, and Alabama’s defense creates a ton of problems for Bennett again, the Crimson Tide will go back-to-back. Expect a closer game this time around with the trophy on the line.
Predictions for the National Championship from Athlon's Editors and Contributors
Bryce Young, QB
Will Anderson Jr., LB
Bryce Young, QB
Bryce Young, QB
Zamir White, RB
Bryce Young, QB
Bryce Young, QB
Juan Jose Rodriguez
Bryce Young, QB
Stetson Bennett, QB
Jordan Davis, DT
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