Alabama-Georgia preview: Can Bulldogs stem devastating Tide?
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Who: No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC) vs. No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs (11-1, 7-1)
When: Saturday, Dec. 1, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
TV: CBS
Odds: Georgia +13.5
Over/Under: 63.5

Tale of the Tape

2018 STATS Alabama Georgia
Points Per Game 49.0 (2) 40.1 (13)
Points Allowed/Game 13.8 (3) 17.2 (10)
Rush Yards/Game 205.9 (32) 259.8 (11)
Pass Yards/Game 332.1 (6) 221.0 (T-72)
Total Yards/Game 538.0 (4) 480.8 (13)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 114.0 (15) 128.4 (27)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 168.2 (10) 175.1 (T-13)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 282.2 (6) 303.5 (12)
Third-Down Offense 53.4% (3) 49.6% (7)
Third-Down Defense 30.9% (9) 31.7% (13)
Red-Zone Offense 84.1% (65) 90.6% (13)
Red-Zone Defense 65.4% (3)  89.3% (108)
Team Sacks 40 (5) 20 (T-99)
Turnover Differential +10 (T-9) +3 (T-44)

(Stats as of Friday; Division I rank in parentheses)

Season in review

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Alabama

Every time you think the Nick Saban era is nearing its end, Bama comes back bigger, badder, and stronger.

Somehow, this is Saban's best team yet. Alabama's outscored every opponent this season by at least 20 points, the first time anyone's done that since Yale in 1888. The Crimson Tide shut out the top two opponents on their schedule, beating LSU and Mississippi State by a combined 53-0 in back-to-back weeks. Starters have barely needed to play all four quarters.

The eye test says they're easily the best team in the nation. The numbers are almost funny:

  • 1st in offensive S&P+
  • 6th in defensive S&P+
  • 1st in offensive efficiency
  • 2nd in offensive explosiveness
  • 1st in defensive efficiency
  • 2nd in defensive sack rate

Elite programs usually dominate in one of those areas. Saban's team excels in all of them.

The defense wasn't playing as well earlier in the year. It slipped outside the national top 15 and consistently gifted explosive plays. But Alabama's tightened up in recent weeks and subsequently rocketed up the rankings.

Alabama is as it was advertised in the preseason: a great defense paired with perhaps the best quarterback in program history in Tua Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa seems like a lock for the Heisman at this point. He's elevated the Crimson Tide's newfangled, pace-and-space offense to a scary level.

Saban's team has no weakness. The only thing stopping the Crimson Tide from romping through the rest of the season and clinching another national championship - collecting the SEC title en route Saturday - is themselves.

Georgia

Kirby Smart's death star is fully operational in Athens. Despite disappointing out of the gate, the Bulldogs have played at an Alabama/Clemson level over the past month.

Early in the season, the team wasn't as impressive as the 2017 model that pushed Alabama to the brink in last year's national title game. The problems have mostly been on defense (though chatter about the quarterback position never seems to stop), and this isn't Smart's best group. Georgia ranks 14th in defensive S&P+ - perfectly fine, but not near the elite threshold many expected them to approach.

A disappointing loss to LSU clouded national perceptions of the Bulldogs. The Tigers punked Georgia on both lines of scrimmage and things got ugly fast. Since then, however, Georgia's walloped folks. It crushed Florida, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech, and brushed aside Auburn with ease.

The Bulldogs aren't what they were a year ago, but they're still the third-most talented team in the country.

Biggest mismatch

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Irv Smith Jr. vs. Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed

Nobody has been able to handle Crimson Tide tight end Irv Smith Jr., who's hauled in 35 catches for 613 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He is the personification of too big and too fast, and the rest of Alabama's artillery makes it impossible for opposing defenses to double the tight end as much as they would like to.

Smith will see single coverage Saturday. Tagovailoa will look to him on pretty much every third down. The two have developed an excellent wink-wink connection - particularly on option routes, a staple of the Tide's third-down package.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will flex Smith all over the formation, from the backfield to the slot to a classic in-line role, and will kick him out as a wide receiver too.

Georgia's safety tandem of Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed will have their hands full. They're both excellent safeties - LeCounte, who's improved massively during his sophomore year, is a jarring athlete, while Reed has more nous, and is much, much better against the run. Still, they don't have the combination of speed, hops, and size to match up with Smith. Not many players walking the planet do.

Alabama's keys to victory

Attack with condensed formations. Saturday pits the irresistible force against the immovable object. Alabama's hit chunk plays at an astonishing rate this season. Georgia, meanwhile, has gifted fewer plays of 20 yards or more than any team in the country.

Something's got to give. Alabama should look to attack the Bulldogs' secondary through condensed formations, shrinking the field pre-snap so that receivers can expand it post-snap.

Georgia's secondary has difficulty when its corners are forced to work in cluttered areas. Bunched formations and stacked looks mess with the team's matchup principles on defense. The corners and safeties have to communicate more, creating opportunities for misunderstandings.

Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker prefer to play straight-up - man coverage with some creative "rain" blitzes and trap coverages chucked in on third down. If Alabama can get Georgia out of that pattern early, the Bulldogs won't have a chance.

Show up. Sometimes, coaching cliches are actually relevant, and one makes a lot of sense here: Stay the course. Alabama has more talent and is deeper. Georgia has elite talent on both sides of the ball, but position group by position group, it's hard to find a batch of players you'd prefer to Alabama's offering.

Georgia's keys to victory

Don't overthink it defensively. One of the big challenges Alabama's athletes-in-space offense presents is its ability to turn bad plays into good ones. A defense can have the perfect call, be in solid position, or beat the protection up front, and one of Alabama's studs can still make a great play. Saban just has better players.

That can lead defensive coordinators to make irrational choices. They drastically overthink their schemes. They start running wacky coverages in a bid to bait Tagovailoa into a mistake or force a running back to misread the line of scrimmage.

Alabama's offense won't fall for such childish traps. Look at this play, for example:

Ole Miss crowds the line of scrimmage before bailing into a Tampa-2 look. The low-hole defender (a hybrid safety/linebacker) is asked to carry any vertical route. Playing Tampa-2 is perfectly reasonable. Doing it from that pre-snap look is football suicide.

Ole Miss gifted Jerry Jeudy, the quickest player on the field, a free release from the line of scrimmage. It pitted Jeudy in a sprint against a dime linebacker who had to turn and run rather than having that defender line up with depth and keep Jeudy in front of him - or at least potentially re-route the receiver.

Jeudy skipped beyond the defender with ease and Tagovailoa found him downfield for the score. Neither the receiver nor the QB was ever touched.

This kind of thing is a frequent sight on Alabama's tape; DCs feel forced into decisions they'd never normally make.

Smart and Tucker should take notice. They want to play Cover 1 on each and every down, man coverage across the board with a single high safety and a rotating safety playing as a robber - reading the eyes of the quarterback. Stick to that! It might not work, but it's Georgia’s best shot.

Win the early downs. It's shocking, but Alabama's been a middling third-and-long and third-and-medium unit in 2018. True, those situations haven't happened much, and backups have often been on the field when they do, but we have to find some path for the Bulldogs here!

Unfortunately, Georgia is also last in the FBS in third-down average. Teams live in third-and-4 against Georgia. Give Bama that kind of advantage and the Bulldogs will have no shot.

Finish drives. Jim Chaney's play-calling has been scrutinized since he arrived in Athens. It's actually been fine, but the biggest issue is in the red zone.

Georgia does not finish drives. It's one of the worst red-zone teams in the country this season, and that doesn't make much sense. Chaney wants to use a smashmouth-spread approach in which the running game informs every aspect of the offense. He has a beastly offensive line and a trio of good running backs. This team should be able to pile-drive into the end zone from a couple of yards out.

Yet the Bulldogs rank 128th in goal-line success rate and are just as bad from 10 yards and in. They have more success the farther they get from the goal line!

Chances to score touchdowns will be rare against this Alabama side. If Georgia gets the opportunity, it needs to cash in.

Prediction

Alabama simply has too much talent. Tagovailoa tips the scales in an unfair way. Even if Georgia's defense gets Bama off script, Tagovailoa can create magic on his own. Plus, Alabama's defense has been better than Georgia's this season. We may be in for a replay of this year's Georgia-LSU game. Alabama 36, Georgia 14

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Alabama-Georgia preview: Can Bulldogs stem devastating Tide?
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