Georgia and Alabama meet in a high-stakes showdown for the third time in the SEC Championship Game this Saturday in Atlanta. The stakes are usually high in Atlanta for the division winners in the SEC, but there's added intrigue this year. The Crimson Tide need to beat the Bulldogs to secure a place in the College Football Playoff, while coach Kirby Smart's squad enters this matchup ranked No. 1 and without much doubt about whether or not it will make the playoff on Sunday. While Georgia should feel good about its playoff standing, this team doesn't lack for motivation. After all, an SEC title is enough for Smart's squad, but it's safe to assume beating Alabama and keeping it out of the playoff is also of interest.
Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) started the 2021 season as the favorite to win it all, but coach Nick Saban's team stumbled at Texas A&M and had more close calls than usual in SEC play, winning by seven points or fewer against Florida, LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. Escaping the Iron Bowl with an overtime victory kept the Crimson Tide's playoff hopes alive for another week, but a loss to Georgia would mean this team likely needs help to stay in the top four. If Alabama loses and Oklahoma State also stumbles, there's a chance Saban's team could get in with two losses. Of course, the Crimson Tide could make things easy on the committee by winning on Saturday.
Georgia enters the SEC Championship as the odds-on favorite to win it all after cruising to a 12-0 (8-0 in SEC) mark. Smart's team has crushed 11 of its 12 opponents by 17 or more points, including Kentucky (30-13), Tennessee (41-17), Arkansas (37-0), and Auburn (34-10). Clemson (10-3) was the only opponent to stay within single digits of the Bulldogs this year. Georgia hasn't won it all since 1980, but with a dominant defense and a capable offense in place, it's very easy to see why Smart's team would be favored over the rest of the field this postseason.
These two teams have played two previous times in the SEC title game. Alabama won 32-28 in 2012 and claimed a 35-28 victory in '18. The Crimson Tide are 9-4 in 13 all-time appearances in the SEC Championship, while the Bulldogs are 3-5 in this game. Alabama holds a 41-25-4 edge in the all-time series and has won six in a row over Georgia.
SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Georgia -6.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama's offense ranks among the best in college football this year, averaging 42.7 points a game and 6.64 a snap. The catalyst behind that production is quarterback Bryce Young, who has been terrific in his first season as the starter and is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy going into Saturday's action. Young has passed for 3,901 yards and 40 touchdowns to four picks in 2021 and leads all SEC quarterbacks in per-game production as a passer (325.1 yards a contest). However, Young has a major obstacle in his way on Saturday, as Georgia's defense has suffocated its 12 opponents, limiting them to just 6.9 points a game and 3.7 yards a snap. No team has scored more than 17 points on the Bulldogs this year.
For Alabama to pull off the upset on Saturday, this game is likely going to fall on Young's right arm. Injuries have taken a toll on the backfield all year, and there's uncertainty surrounding the status of starter Brian Robinson Jr. (1,016 yards) due to a pulled muscle suffered in last week's win over Auburn. If Robinson can't go, Trey Sanders will get the nod, but there's virtually no proven depth behind him. Also, the offensive line has been a weak link for the Crimson Tide, and that's especially problematic against a Georgia front that has dominated teams this year. The line has allowed 35 sacks — or four more than the team allowed combined from 2018-19 — and cleared the way for rushers to average only 3.5 yards a carry in SEC play this fall. With Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, and Devonte Wyatt anchoring a defensive front that has limited teams to just 2.5 yards per carry and generated 3.4 sacks a game (41 overall), how well Alabama holds up at the point of attack is going to decide a lot in this game.
If Young has time to throw, although Georgia's secondary ranks first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, this is by far the best passing attack the Bulldogs will have faced in '21. Jameson Williams (20.7 yards per catch) and John Metchie III (1,045 yards) headline the weapons outside for Young, with tight end Cameron Latu (19 rec.) and receivers Slade Bolden (27) and Ja'Corey Brooks (four) rounding out the other playmakers. Opposing teams have connected on just five passes of 40-plus yards against this defense this year. If Young can navigate the rush and keep plays alive with his legs, the Crimson Tide can land a few punches through the air against this defense.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia's defense (rightfully so) has received all of the accolades for Smart's team this year. However, the offense also deserves its share of honors, as this unit enters the SEC title game leading the conference (league-only games) in scoring (40.1) and yards per play (6.97). Under the direction of offensive coordinator Todd Monken, the Bulldogs have scored at least 30 points in 11 of the team's 12 games and have reached 41 or more in each of the last four contests.
This game is also an opportunity for quarterback Stetson Bennett to enact revenge after struggling versus Alabama last year. An injury to JT Daniels opened the door for Bennett to claim the starting nod, and the former walk-on has impressed in '21, throwing for 1,985 yards and 21 touchdowns to just five picks. Bennett ranks second nationally in yards per attempt (10.8), while his mobility (208 yards) is an added dimension for Alabama to defend. The Crimson Tide rank eighth in the pass efficiency defense and have been prone to giving up a few big plays through the air at times. That's a concern against the Bulldogs, especially with the receiving corps getting healthier over the course of '21. George Pickens made his return from a torn ACL in the spring to catch a pass versus Georgia Tech last week, adding more talent and depth to a unit that already featured tight end Brock Bowers (37 catches) and receivers Jermaine Burton (20), Adonai Mitchell (24), Kearis Jackson (13), and Ladd McConkey (26).
The challenge of stopping Georgia is not only about containing several talented playmakers, but this offense is balanced and versatile, able to pound away at opponents at the line of scrimmage. A deep stable of backs powers the ground game, including Zamir White (691), the versatile James Cook (581), and Kenny McIntosh (287). However, Alabama's defense ranks second in the SEC versus the run (80.6 ypg allowed), and just one opponent eclipsed more than 110 yards on the ground.
Although this isn't a vintage shutdown group, Alabama is still holding teams to 19.9 points a game and 4.62 yards per play. For the Crimson Tide to slow down Georgia or have a shot at the victory, the defense is going to need a couple of takeaways or game-changing plays. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. has created havoc all season with 14.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss and has to deliver again on Saturday.
Georgia has accomplished a lot under Kirby Smart, but there are two goals left unchecked: Beat Alabama and win a national championship. The Bulldogs are 0-3 against the Crimson Tide since Smart arrived, which includes a 35-28 defeat in the SEC title game and a 26-23 overtime loss in the national championship in the 2017 season. It's rare to see Alabama as an underdog under Nick Saban. How rare? The last time the Crimson Tide were an underdog took place in 2015 when they played Georgia — a matchup Alabama went on to win 38-10. Young and Anderson are difference-makers, but none of that matters if the Crimson Tide can't protect at the line of scrimmage. If the Bulldogs dominate the point of attack, Alabama won't have the opportunity for Young to land any big plays downfield. The Crimson Tide hangs around, but Georgia is simply the better team and this team won't lack for motivation based upon the recent matchups.
Prediction: Georgia 27, Alabama 24
Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions