College football's return to a more normal season was marked with upsets, excitement and intrigue. Surprise teams like Wake Forest and UTSA emerged, Oct. 9 delivered on one of the most incredible single days in the game's recent history, and the national championship game? Well... it features two teams most would have projected playing in Indianapolis at the beginning of the campaign.
OK, so not everything in 2021 was unpredictable. Alabama and Georgia looked like the two best teams for most of the year and earned a rematch of the SEC Championship Game, and a second national title tilt in four years. The following are the numbers that both shaped the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide's marches to Indy, and historical context for their showdown.
+4.1: The difference in Alabama's YPA vs. Georgia and the Bulldogs' average
Georgia's pass defense ranks near the top of the FBS in pretty much every sub-category, including a yield of 5.5 yards per attempt. That's second in the nation by a scant 0.1 YPA.
The Bulldogs would be No. 1 overall had they not allowed 9.6 yards per attempt in the SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. Bryce Young solidified his status as Heisman Trophy front-runner with a performance no other quarterback came anywhere near producing against Georgia, completing 26 passes for 421 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
As excellent as Young played in Atlanta, it wouldn't have been possible without Jameson Williams hauling in seven passes for a ridiculous 184 yards with two touchdowns. The Bulldogs played eight games in which they didn't allow that many receiving yards to entire teams.
+7.7: Georgia's net average starting field position
The explosive plays Alabama generated via the pass in the SEC Championship Game negated what has been a tremendous benefit to Georgia's defense. Per FootballOutsiders.com, Georgia ranks third in the FBS in average net starting field position. Opposing offenses average a starting position inside their own 25-yard lines, while Georgia's drives average a start near the 33-yard line.
Alabama's average net starting field position, meanwhile, is just plus-2.3. Defensive drives start near the opponents' 27-yard line, while the Crimson Tide average a starting position inside their own 30.
Long fields didn't end up impacting the previous matchup for the Tide, with each of Alabama's first five scoring drives spanning 75 yards or more. But Georgia began each of its first eight possessions at its own 30 or further back from the goal line, a significant departure from its successful formula for the season.
0.588: Georgia's points per play
Per TeamRankings.com, Georgia boasts the nation's No. 3-ranked offense in terms of points scored per play. While the loss to Alabama would seemingly have marked a significant dip, Georgia's point-per-play average over its last three games only falls to 0.520.
In contrast, Alabama — which ranks No. 7 nationally for the course of the season at 0.530 points per play — has seen its average dip to 0.380 over the last three games. The explosive offensive performance against Georgia is bookended with grinding wins over Auburn and Cincinnati.
The Cotton Bowl defeat of Cincinnati is noteworthy for the Bearcats limiting the Crimson Tide to 0.351 points per play. However, Cincinnati — which finished its season just behind Georgia with a 0.572 PPP average — was held to 0.094 in the Cotton Bowl.
22.5: Will Anderson Jr.'s total tackles for a loss over the last eight games
Depending on your source, Anderson can either set the single-season record for tackles for loss in a season, or has already smashed it. Regardless, the Alabama linebacker is having one of the most dominant individual seasons from a pass rusher ever.
Anderson's taking his production to another level since the Tide's lone loss on Oct. 9, when he went without a sack or tackle for a loss at Texas A&M. In the eight games since, he's made 22.5 TFLs and 14.5 of his 17.5 sacks over the same span with at least one of which in every outing.
42: Jermaine Burton's yards per catch on touchdown receptions
Burton is a dangerous home-run receiving threat for Georgia. Just ask Michigan, which gave up a 57-yard score to Burton to put an exclamation point on the Bulldogs' dominant first half in the Orange Bowl.
Such has been the M.O. of Burton all season, whose shortest scoring catch is 12 yards. The Alabama defense surrendered a more-than-respectable seven passing plays of 40 or more yards this season, and limited Burton to 36 yards on three catches in the last meeting. Limiting his explosive-play ability could again be a difference-maker — with the opposite true for Georgia's national title hopes.
28.57%: Georgia's percentage of touchdowns allowed on red-zone possessions
Georgia's touchdown yield in the red zone isn't just the best in the nation this season: It's the second-best such percentage in any season dating back to 2009. The eight total red-zone touchdowns the Bulldogs have allowed in 14 games this season are the fewest from any defense in a full season since the historically dominant Crimson Tide of 2011 gave up just six in 13 games.
Alabama is the only opponent to score on each of its red-zone opportunities against Georgia, and recorded touchdowns on two of its three trips to account for a quarter of all the red-zone touchdowns the Bulldogs have allowed all year.
164.5: Combined rushing yards allowed per game between the Alabama and Georgia defenses
At 82.14 yards per game, Alabama comes into the national championship game with the nation's second-stingiest rushing defense. Georgia is fourth at 82.36. Their respective ranks in yards per carry allowed are the same, and the difference between the two is just as negligible: 2.53 for Alabama and 2.66 for Georgia.
Both surrendered more than their averages in the SEC Championship Game, but not by much. Georgia finished with 109 yards on 30 carries, and Alabama with 115 on 26 carries.
The Crimson Tide's success with the pass last time around makes for an interesting dynamic: Does Dan Lanning, in his final game as Georgia defensive coordinator, try to counteract with a defensive back-heavy look? John Metchie III's knee injury takes away a critical weapon in the Alabama passing attack, so the Crimson Tide may need to hammer the run early to open up more of the field with Metchie out.
33: Combined number of 5-star recruits on the Alabama and Georgia rosters
Reaching the final game in January starts with roster construction in February... well, and mid-December since the advent of the early signing period.
FOX Sports shared a cool infographic that provides a visual representation of just how important recruiting elite talent is to building championship contenders.
25-1: Nick Saban's record against former assistants
Nick Saban isn't just the most successful coach of this era, and arguably the best of all-time: He also boasts one heckuva coaching tree. Recent seasons' championship weekends have been loaded with former Saban assistants, from new Miami head coach Mario Cristobal taking Oregon to three straight Pac-12 Championship Games, new Florida head coach Billy Napier building Louisiana into a Top 25 team, and even Curt Cignetti guiding James Madison's transition from FCS power to the FBS.
As good as Saban's former assistants have proven to be in other jobs, they simply don't beat the master. Before Texas A&M's win over the Tide in October, none accomplished the feat.
Kirby Smart is the most successful of the former Saban assistants, and came within a possession of unseating his longtime colleague when the two last met in the national championship game.
31.3: Average point-differential turnaround in national championship same-season rematches
Monday's national championship game marks the fourth time in 45 years that the title game (de facto or official) featured a rematch from a regular-season matchup. In each of the previous three, the team that lost in the regular season won in the postseason — and usually, in commanding fashion.
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of Alabama getting another crack at LSU after losing a 9-6, overtime slog in the regular season to win a 21-0 rout in the BCS Championship. New Orleans was also home to the previous title-game rematch 15 years prior, where Florida — aided by Ohio State's defeat of Arizona State in a Rose Bowl Game for the ages — walloped a top-ranked Florida State, 52-20, just five weeks after losing to the Seminoles, 24-21.
But while Alabama and Florida used postseason rematches to elevate to the title, such a game cost Ohio State in 1975. The Buckeyes thumped UCLA in October of that season, 41-20, but returned to the Rose Bowl to lose to the Bruins in the Granddaddy of Them All, 23-10. The Ohio State loss opened the door for Oklahoma to claim the national championship.
That was actually the second time in 10 years UCLA beat a No. 1-ranked Big Ten team in a Rose Bowl Game that was a rematch from the regular season. The 1965 season's encounter between UCLA and Michigan State created a disputed title, as the Associated Press announced its national champion after the bowl games for the first time. The AP tabbed Alabama for the third time in five years.
Podcast: Fallout from the CFB Playoff & NY6 Games + Appreciation for Michigan and Cincinnati & Future of Playoff Expansion
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.