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SEC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Alabama vs. Georgia

SEC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Alabama vs. Georgia

SEC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Alabama vs. Georgia

Alabama and Georgia will meet in Atlanta for the second time this year when these two teams battle for the SEC Championship on Saturday. As you might remember, the first matchup between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs was an unforgettable showdown in the national championship. Led by a second-half performance from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to win 26-23 in overtime. These two teams have one previous meeting in the SEC Championship Game, as Alabama held off Georgia in the final seconds for a 32-28 victory in 2012.

After leading Alabama to a comeback victory in the national title game last fall, Tagovailoa opened 2018 as the team’s No. 1 quarterback and hasn’t looked back. The sophomore is the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy, leading the Crimson Tide to a perfect 12-0 mark and No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff this fall. Under coach Nick Saban, Alabama’s strength is usually its defense and ground game. However, Tagovailoa’s emergence has shifted that thinking to offense and the passing attack in 2018. The Crimson Tide has steamrolled through the schedule, posting a 62-7 win over Ole Miss, a 45-23 victory over Texas A&M, a 29-0 win at LSU and a 52-21 victory against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Led by a high-powered offense and a standout defense once again, no opponent has come within 22 points of beating Alabama this season.

Georgia coach (and former Alabama assistant) Kirby Smart is building this program into an annual contender for the SEC title and trip to the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs will enter Saturday’s game ranked No. 4 in the playoff rankings and 11-1 overall. After losing a handful of key contributors from last year’s team, Smart and his staff have reloaded on both sides of the ball.  Georgia opened the season with six consecutive victories, including a road win at South Carolina (41-17) and Missouri (43-29). However, the Bulldogs slipped at LSU (36-16) for their only defeat of the year. However, Smart’s team has been sharp since that loss, beating Florida (36-17), Kentucky (34-17) and Auburn (27-10) to close the season with five consecutive victories.

Alabama holds a 39-25-4 series edge over Georgia. The Crimson Tide have won four consecutive matchups versus the Bulldogs. Georgia’s last win over Alabama took place in 2007.

Alabama vs. Georgia (SEC Championship)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 4 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: Alabama -13.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Georgia Find a Way to Slow Down Alabama’s Offense?

Alabama enters Saturday’s SEC Championship averaging 49 points a game, 8.0 yards a play and ranks first in the SEC with 26 plays of 40 yards or more. Tagovailoa has passed for 3,189 yards and 36 touchdowns to just two picks. Damien Harris (719 yards) leads the ground game, but Najee Harris (664) and Josh Jacobs (412) will see their share of carries on Saturday. Jerry Jeudy (56 catches) is Tagovailoa’s favorite target, but there’s no shortage of depth on the outside. Henry Ruggs (39), Jaylen Waddle (37), DeVonta Smith (27) and tight end Irv Smith (35) give Tagovailoa five standout weapons in the passing game.

With a balanced attack that’s capable of putting 40 points on the board or scoring from anywhere on the field with big plays, Georgia is going to have its hands full on Saturday. Smart’s defense entered the year with just five returning starters but seems to be getting better with every snap. The Bulldogs have been susceptible to the run at times but are still limiting opponents to 4.0 yards a carry. This defense is also holding offenses to 4.9 yards per play overall and ranks fourth in the SEC in points allowed a contest (17.2 ppg).

Small battles could make a big difference in this game. Georgia is not getting to the quarterback (20 sacks in 2018) as often as it did last season but has only allowed five passing plays of 40 yards or more. Cornerback Deandre Baker is among the best defensive backs in the nation, but can the rest of Georgia’s secondary prevent Alabama’s receivers from generating big plays downfield? The goal for Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has to be to limit the big plays and force the Crimson Tide to piece together long drives in order to score. Additionally, stopping Alabama in the red zone and holding to three points would be a victory.

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2. Georgia’s Offensive Line Against Alabama’s Defensive Front

Coach Kirby Smart has recruited well in the trenches, and line coach Sam Pittman is among the best assistants in college football. That’s the good news for Georgia going into Saturday’s game. The bad news? The Bulldogs are dealing with a couple of key injuries up front, which only adds to the challenge of knocking off No. 1 Alabama.

Guards Ben Cleveland, Cade Mays and Kendall Baker have each missed time due to injury in recent weeks, and there’s no guarantee any of the three are ready to go on Saturday. Freshman Trey Hill replaced Mays when he was injured in November and was banged up against Georgia Tech. However, all signs point to Hill returning for Saturday’s game.

Even though Georgia’s offensive line is at less than full strength, this unit has only allowed 16 sacks and has cleared the way for this team to record at least 285 rushing yards in each of the last four games. D’Andre Swift started slow due to an offseason surgery but has picked up his production over the second half of the season. Swift paces the offense with 962 yards, with Elijah Holyfield (896) also receiving significant carries. Led by likely first-team All-American Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s defensive front ranks third in the SEC against the run (114 ypg) and is only giving up 3.3 yards per rush. Additionally, the Crimson Tide have generated 40 sacks through 12 contests.

Will Georgia’s offensive line be able to win the one-on-one battles up front to give Swift and Holyfield running lanes? And can this unit keep Williams, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis away from quarterback Jake Fromm?  

3. Georgia’s Passing Game

As mentioned in the previous section, it’s no secret Georgia could be facing an uphill battle to get its ground game on track this Saturday. However, the Bulldogs aren’t one-dimensional and could ask more of Fromm to win this matchup.

Could Georgia open up the passing game and spread out Alabama’s defense to let Fromm get rid of the ball quickly to playmakers in space? While the Crimson Tide rank second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, this might be the one unit where Saban’s group is a little vulnerable. Fromm enters Saturday’s game with 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions. The sophomore is also completing 69.1 percent of his passes.

Helping Fromm on the outside is a deep and talented group of playmakers. Mecole Hardman has caught six touchdowns this fall, while averaging a healthy 16.2 yards per reception. Riley Ridley has scored eight times and posted 34 receptions, with Jeremiah Holloman (21), Terry Godwin (17) and tight end Isaac Nauta (25) also in the mix.

Georgia can’t afford to be one-dimensional on offense, but this team is one of the more balanced attacks Alabama will face this year. Finding a balance between staying committed to the run and allowing Fromm to make plays is crucial. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has to keep this group out of third-and-long situations, and most importantly, the Bulldogs have to score touchdowns when inside the red zone.

Final Analysis

Alabama is 60 minutes away from another SEC title and a trip to the CFB Playoff. And it’s not crazy to think the Crimson Tide could even make the playoff with a loss to Georgia. On the other sideline, the Bulldogs need a win to finish in the top four of the CFB Playoff rankings, so there’s no shortage of motivation (in addition to the conference title factor). Alabama’s offense is firing on all cylinders and will test a Georgia defense that had a few issues stopping the run early on but has improved over the course of the season. The Bulldogs have to continue to bend a little bit on defense and hold in the red zone. Offensively, Smart’s team has to find the right balance between getting their ground game on track and not falling too far behind schedule. Fromm has a capable group of receivers at his disposal, so spreading out Alabama’s defense and attacking the field isn’t a bad gameplan. Even if the Bulldogs have success on both sides of the ball, it’s an uphill battle for Smart’s team to pull off the upset. Georgia stays in this game until the fourth quarter, but the Crimson Tide pull away in the final 15 minutes to clinch the SEC title.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

Prediction: Alabama 38, Georgia 27