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National Championship Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Georgia

Nick Chubb, Georgia Bulldogs Football

Nick Chubb, Georgia Bulldogs Football

The 2017-18 college football season is down to its final game, as Georgia and Alabama are set to meet in Atlanta on Monday night to decide the national champion of the CFB Playoff. This clash of SEC foes isn’t short on intrigue or storylines. The Bulldogs aim to win their first national title since 1980, while the Crimson Tide are looking to add their fifth national championship over the last nine years. Additionally, the coaching matchup is also set to draw plenty of attention on Monday night. Nick Saban is college football’s best coach, and his former assistant Kirby Smart will stand on the other sideline hoping to lead his alma mater to the national championship. Can the pupil beat the teacher? Or will Saban continue his dominance over former assistants?

Alabama Crimson Tide QB Jalen Hurts

Alabama is the only team to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff in all four years of its existence. But the Crimson Tide took a different path to the four-team playoff in 2017. Nick Saban’s team rolled to an 11-0 start but stumbled in the Iron Bowl in a 26-14 loss to Auburn. That defeat prevented Alabama from earning a trip to the SEC Championship Game and forced the program to get in via help on the final Saturday of action. Alabama got the help it needed in the form of Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin, which opened the door for Saban’s team to claim the No. 4 spot by the selection committee. The Crimson Tide dominated in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson to clinch a trip to Atlanta – where this program originally started the year with a victory over Florida State. As usual, Alabama’s offense is led by its deep stable of running backs, and the defense is once again among the best in the nation. After showing a few cracks late in the year, the Crimson Tide defense was fresh and in attack mode against Clemson. And up next is another test for the front seven against a standout ground game for Georgia.

Kirby Smart has Georgia playing for the national championship in just his second year at the helm in Athens. However, with the way Smart is recruiting talent, this certainly won’t be the Bulldogs’ last trip to the CFB Playoff. Georgia started its season by winning its first nine games, including a road victory at Notre Dame and a blowout win over rival Florida. But like Alabama, the Bulldogs also lost to Auburn in early November. The defeat didn’t derail Smart’s team from its quest to win the SEC title or reach the CFB Playoff, as Georgia dominated Auburn 28-7 in the SEC Championship to clinch a conference title and a spot in the playoff. In a Rose Bowl thriller, the Bulldogs knocked off Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime to book a trip to the national championship in their home state.

Alabama holds a 38-25-4 series edge over Georgia. These two teams have not played since 2015 and have met just twice since 2009. The Crimson Tide have a three-game winning streak over the Bulldogs, which includes the 32-28 thriller in the 2012 SEC Championship and a 38-10 blowout in Athens in 2015.

National Championship: Georgia (13-1) vs. Alabama (12-1)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Alabama -4

Three Things to Watch

1. The Rushing Attacks

Get ready for a 60-minute slugfest in the trenches on Monday night. Georgia leads the SEC by averaging 267.4 rushing yards a game, and Alabama is a close second at 255.8 per contest. The Bulldogs gashed Oklahoma for 317 yards and a whopping 9.3 yards per carry in the Rose Bowl victory. The Crimson Tide faced off against a tougher defense in the Sugar Bowl versus Clemson’s standout front. However, this offense still managed 141 yards on 42 carries (3.4 ypc).

Which team will be able to establish its ground game on Monday night to set up the rest of their offense? It sounds simple, but both teams want to stay out of third-and-long situations, which makes getting yardage on first downs critical. With both defenses expected to load the box and neither giving up many big plays to rushing games all year, yardage is expected to be tough to come by on the ground.

Georgia will test the Alabama front with arguably the best tandem at running back in college football. Senior Nick Chubb has rushed for 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns this year, with fellow senior Sony Michel chipping in 1,129 yards and 16 scores. And when these two need a break, dynamic freshman D’Andre Swift can ensure the ground game won’t miss a beat. Swift has rushed for 603 yards and three scores this year. A big reason for Georgia’s success on offense in 2017 starts in the trenches. The Bulldogs’ offensive line took a big step forward in assistant Sam Pittman’s second year directing this unit. Winning the battle up front and clearing lanes for Chubb and Michel is essential for Georgia to claim the national title on Monday night.

The same formula that applied to Georgia also matters for Alabama on Monday night. Coordinator Brian Daboll wants to let the offense flow through his deep stable of running backs. Damien Harris leads the way for the Crimson Tide offense, recording 983 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 129 carries this year. Bo Scarbrough has chipped in 573 yards and eight scores, with Najee Harris (306) and Josh Jacobs (276) also contributing. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is another valuable threat on the ground. The sophomore can take the ball on designed runs or scramble when things break down in the pocket. He’s rushed for 808 yards and eight touchdowns this year.

2. Standout Defenses

Considering the talent and play by both teams on defense this year, a high-scoring game would be a major surprise. Alabama leads all teams at the FBS level by limiting opponents to 11.1 points a game, while Georgia checks in fifth at 15.7. Additionally, the Crimson Tide limit teams to 3.92 yards a play, with the Bulldogs a small step behind at 4.65.

The success of both defenses starts in the trenches against the run. Alabama is allowing only 91.8 yards a game on the ground, with the Bulldogs giving up 121.9. Not only is small chunks of yardage hard to find against these two defenses, neither unit gives up much in the way of big plays. Both teams have allowed only two rushes of 40 or more yards in 2017.

Alabama’s defense entered the CFB Playoff with question marks up front. This unit lost a good chunk of talent to the NFL after last season, and injuries wreaked havoc all year in the front seven. This unit wasn’t spared injury in bowl practice, as Dylan Moses was knocked out for the playoff due to a foot injury. And in the Sugar Bowl, Anfernee Jennings suffered a knee injury that will prevent him from playing on Monday night. Jennings was a valuable force off the edge, but Christian Miller should be a capable replacement. The middle of Alabama’s defense is rock solid with senior Rashaan Evans (11.5 TFL) leading the way, and nose guard Da’Ron Payne anchoring the line of scrimmage. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is the unit’s best player and could be utilized in coverage or around the line of scrimmage as needed to stop the run.

Junior linebacker Roquan Smith was one of college football’s top defensive players in 2017, and he’ll be tasked with limiting the damage from Alabama’s running backs once they reach the second level. In addition to Smith, Georgia’s front had a strong showing in the second half against Oklahoma. Lineman Tyler Clark recorded two tackles for a loss, edge rusher Lorenzo Carter racked up 10 tackles, and end Jonathan Ledbetter picked up one sack and six stops. This unit will need a similar effort in order to win on Monday night.

It’s no secret both teams are bringing standout defenses to Atlanta. Which group is better against the run? Additionally, keep an eye on the battle on first downs. Both defenses want to stuff the run and prevent the offense from favorable distance on second and third downs. Turnovers will also be a factor. Which defense can force a timely takeaway?

3. Quarterback Play

Quarterback play is always important or magnified in the national championship. However, considering how similar and even these two teams are, a couple of plays are likely to decide whether Alabama or Georgia hoists the CFB Playoff trophy.

The two quarterbacks in this matchup are not grizzled veterans, but both continue to show excellent poise under pressure. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts took over the starting job as a true freshman last season and nearly guided the Crimson Tide to the national title. As a sophomore, Hurts hasn't recorded the same amount of pass attempts or yardage as he did last season. However, Alabama also didn’t need to win a lot of games with his arm. Under coordinator Brian Daboll, Hurts seems to be making progress as a passer. He looks more comfortable in the pocket than he did in 2016 and has tossed just one pick through 13 games. The sophomore’s favorite receiver is clearly Calvin Ridley, but the Crimson Tide may need another target or two to make a couple of plays on Monday night. However, the x-factor with Hurts remains his mobility. When plays break down in the pocket, Hurts can scramble for yardage or keep his eyes downfield and connect on a pass. Can Georgia keep him in the pocket and prevent big plays on the ground?

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is a true freshman, but he has certainly played beyond his years in 2017. Similar to Hurts, Fromm hasn’t needed to throw 30-35 times a game to win. The formula for both teams is pretty simple: Win with defense and the running game. After a knee injury to starter Jacob Eason in the opener against Appalachian State, Fromm stepped into the starting lineup and never looked back. He’s completed 2,383 yards and 23 touchdowns to just five picks in 2017. Additionally, Fromm is connecting on 63.7 percent of his throws. The freshman made a couple of clutch throws in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma to deliver Georgia a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime.

Both Hurts and Fromm have been excellent at taking care of the ball all year. Will that change on Monday night? And if both defenses succeed in slowing down the run, there’s a lot of pressure on the passing game to deliver. Which quarterback steps up and makes more plays through the air? 

Predictions for the National Championship from Athlon's Editors and Contributors




Steven Lassan

 24  20

Rashaan Evans, LB

Mitch Light

24 14

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S

Jasmine Watkins

32 28

Sony Michel, RB

Rich McVey

24 21

Jalen Hurts, QB

Braden Gall

21 0

Jalen Hurts, QB

Mark Ross

27 24

Roquan Smith, LB

J.P. Scott

24 20

Sony Michel, RB

Allen Kenney

20 17

Roquan Smith, LB

Adam Kurkjian

27 26

Jalen Hurts, QB

John Coon

27 24

Nick Chubb, RB

Jon Kinne

24 17

Jalen Hurts, QB

Aaron Tallent

30 27

Nick Chubb, RB

Mitch Harper

33 30

Bo Scarbrough, RB

Peter Mundo

27 17

Damien Harris, RB

Rob McVey

24 20

Ronnie Harrison, S

Elton Hayes

28 24

Jalen Hurts, QB

Chip Minnich

35 17

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S

Juan Jose Rodriguez

34 31

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S

Nicholas Ian Allen

24 21

Nick Chubb, RB