Alabama vs. Georgia preview: Who matches up better with Notre Dame?

Scott Cunningham

Alabama is, and should still be, the favorite in this Saturday's SEC title game. But Georgia has without a doubt closed the gap significantly.

It's been my mantra for the last month: November cleans up a lot of messes. And sure enough, while we entered November with a potential BCS mess on our hands, we finished the month with, basically, two semifinal matchups (and one asterisk special to only college football) to determine who plays for the national title:

  • November 24: Notre Dame at USC*
  • December 1: Alabama vs. Georgia

* If USC wins, Florida takes the Trojans' place in the BCS title game.

It is pretty clean and simple when you look at it like that. It is also funny to think back to the situation we faced on November 1: Four undefeated teams in the BCS Top 4 (all of whom would be favorites in every remaining game they would play), with a fifth undefeated BCS conference team (Louisville) a bit further down in the rankings. It was easy to fret about a really good undefeated team being left out of the mix. It was easy to wring hands and get annoyed that the college football playoff isn't already in place. But then November came and tidied the house up quite a bit.

So now we head into Saturday with one game remaining in the national title race. To no one's surprise, it is the SEC Championship game. It always is, huh?


The class of the SEC? || How we got here || Notre Dame: a SEC team anyway

Which should Notre Dame want?

Since this is, in effect, a national title semifinal game, we should probably first look at it with one eye on the finals. We already know Notre Dame is in. Who should Irish fans be rooting for in the Alabama-Georgia matchup?

To approach this answer, let's look at some rankings. Here are the Off. S&P+ and Def. S&P+ rankings pages. Let's look at some general categories (rushing, passing, standard downs, passing downs) to see who has which advantages. For the most part, the answer is probably what you were expecting:

When Notre Dame Is On Offense
Team Rushing Passing
Std.
Downs
Pass.
Downs
Notre Dame (Offense) 14th 9th 6th 22nd
Alabama (Defense) 1st 4th 3rd 1st
Georgia (Defense) 14th 58th 19th 32nd
Irish Preference UGA UGA UGA UGA

Alabama's defense fell back to earth a bit in November, at least a little bit. The Tide allowed 853 yards and 46 points to LSU and Texas A&M, proving they could be victimized by intermediate passing and stellar execution. Since the loss to A&M, of course, the Tide have looked just fine -- they allowed identical 163-yard totals to Western Carolina and Auburn in identical 49-0 routs. They could have their hands full against Georgia on Saturday, but we'll get to that. Despite potential, incremental slippage, Notre Dame's offense would still much prefer to face off against Georgia.

That said, however, it should be noted just how much Georgia's defense has improved in recent weeks. Let's flash back to the week of October 27. Following iffy performances against Tennessee (44 points, 5.6 yards per play), South Carolina (35 points, 6.4 per play) and even Kentucky (24 points, 5.2 yards per play), Georgia safety Shawn Williams called out his teammates:

"We've gotta stop playing soft. We're playing too soft defensively," Williams said. "That goes for D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties. I don't know, we're not playing with the same attitude we played with last year. I don't know what it is."

In my Georgia-Florida preview, I basically gave Georgia little chance of winning because of the cracks that had grown in the Dawg defense.

And the defense? It currently ranks an egregious 71st in Def. F/+. Georgia safety Shawn Williams is calling out his own defense in public in an attempt to light a spark. Georgia is still 6-1, but the one loss was a demoralizing rout at the hands of South Carolina, and a loss to Florida on Saturday would officially hand the SEC East title to the Gators. In the blink of an eye, you can go from the class of your division to an afterthought. […]

I was evidently underestimating Williams' motivational abilities. Since Williams spoke out, Georgia has allowed 8.6 points per game and 4.6 yards per play. The Georgia defense has improved, incredibly, from 71st in Def. F/+ to 25th.

This is the unit we expected to see all year, with Jarvis Jones wreaking havoc (19.5 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, three passes defensed, and if you believe the Georgia stat-keeper -- and having seen Jones play live, I think I do -- 30 quarterback hurries), linebacker Alec Ogletree flying from sideline to sideline (Ogletree leads Georgia in tackles despite playing only eight games), and safety Bacarri Rambo playing the role of Ball Hawk Extraordinaire (against Georgia Tech last week, Rambo forced two fumbles, recovered and returned one for 49 yards, and returned an interception for 27 yards while also logging 6.0 tackles). After single-handedly accounting for a good portion of Georgia's big defensive plays against teams like Missouri and Florida, Jones has gone from the country's most valuable player (at least a co-MVP with Kansas State's Collin Klein) to simply a cog in a destructive, physical defense.

It took a little while, but the pieces have come together for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and the Georgia defense like we thought it might at the beginning of the year.

Make no mistake: Alabama's defense is still possibly the best in college football. But Georgia's might be the hottest.

When Notre Dame Is On Defense
Team Rushing Passing
Std.
Downs
Pass.
Downs
Notre Dame (Defense) 8th 10th 5th 12th
Alabama (Offense) 8th 5th 17th 2nd
Georgia (Offense) 19th 1st 3rd 13th
Irish Preference UGA Bama Bama UGA

Alabama may still hold a (shrinking) advantage on the defensive side of the ball, but on offense, this is either a dead heat or a slight Georgia advantage.

The 3-4 defense coordinator Bob Diaco has crafted at Notre Dame would be right at home in the SEC, but there are a lot of ways to use a 3-4. Diaco employs it a lot like Alabama head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart do at Alabama: almost passively. Notre Dame is not a blitz-heavy unit, preferring to generate a pass rush mostly while rushing four men (you can do that when you've got players like 300-pound end Stephon Tuitt (12.0 sacks) and surging outside linebacker Prince Shembo (7.5 sacks). If you can generate pressure with four, you can drop seven into coverage and swarm. And when one of those seven is all-world linebacker Manti Te'o (seven interceptions, four passes broken up, 5.5 tackles for loss), you're going to have a ridiculous defense. Notre Dame's secondary was a bit inexperienced heading into the season, but this incredible front seven can mask a lot of deficiencies.

Notre Dame's defense is as sturdy as it comes on standard downs, but there is at least a bit of a drop-off on passing downs. In that sense, Georgia might once again be a better matchup for the Irish. Georgia is perfectly solid (13th in the country) on passing downs, but Alabama is incredibly underrated in this regard. A.J. McCarron may have pulled off a strange feat this season, going from underrated ("He's just a game manager!") to overrated ("He should be the Heisman favorite!") back to underrated (he was awful against Texas A&M) this year; but no matter what awards he should or shouldn't be a candidate for, he makes tremendous decisions on passing downs. Granted, most of those decisions are pretty easy -- "Throw it to Amari Cooper; he's open" (Cooper has caught 20 of 24 passing downs passes for 264 yards) -- but it still bears mentioning that Alabama's is the second-best passing downs offense in the country, behind only Texas A&M. If Notre Dame weren't able to get pressure on McCarron, he might be able to make plays whether Te'o is roaming the field or not.

Notre Dame would face the opposite problem against Georgia. The Irish would probably have more luck ending drives on passing downs, but they also wouldn't be able to force as many passing downs. Quietly, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has put together one of the most impressive, underrated seasons in recent memory. Despite losing two key cogs in his receiving corps -- Michael Bennett (71 percent catch rate, 10.1 yards per target) went down after five weeks, Marlon Brown (65 percent catch rate, 11.5 yards per target) after nine -- Murray has produced at a high enough level to place Georgia first in the country in Passing S&P+.

With no Bennett or Brown, receiver-turned-cornerback-turned-receiver Malcolm Mitchell has once again stepped up on the offensive side of the ball, and players like tight end Arthur Lynch and sophomore receiver Chris Conley have raised their production in recent weeks. As a result, Murray has developed almost no season-long tendencies whatsoever. Including Mitchell and Brown, four Bulldogs have been targeted between 34 and 56 times (Tavarres King 56, Mitchell 45, Brown 40, Bennett 34), and seven more have been targeted between 12 and 26, or once to twice per game. Murray throws to whoever is open, period, and he would test the entire Notre Dame secondary.

Georgia is rather conservative on passing downs, running the ball 44 percent of the time (the 15th highest average in the country) but moves with perfect balance between Murray's right arm and the legs of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (combined: 24 carries and 155 rushing yards per game) on standard downs. They do whatever you cannot stop, and they are brutally effective. Alabama, meanwhile, can pound away at you with the run on standard downs and bail itself out on second- or third-and-long.

Both are underrated, interesting units, and you could make the case that either one is the tougher matchup for Notre Dame.

So ... who will Notre Dame face?

A month ago, I'd have picked Alabama to beat Georgia by 24 points on a neutral field. I was that confident in Alabama, and I was that shaky about Georgia. But just as November has cleaned up some BCS messes, it has also changed my perceptions of both teams. I still think Alabama is the best team in the country, and I still think they will win Saturday's "national semifinal," but the difference between these two teams is much, much smaller now.

Here are five questions to keep an eye on early in Saturday's game. The answers should give us a very good idea who will be facing Notre Dame in January.

1. Is Aaron Murray able to find open receivers? Having no tendencies, and being able to survey the whole field is fantastic. But you still have to find somebody who can catch the ball, and that is no given against Alabama. Can Tavarres King or Malcolm Mitchell get open against Alabama corner Dee Milliner? Can Murray's Nos. 3-5 options (the Lynchs and Conleys of the world) find space against such a great defense like they did against lesser outfits? Murray has an arm similar to that of LSU's Zach Mettenberger, who had a career game against Alabama. He is capable of firing hard, accurate intermediate passes. But his receivers will still have to find space to catch those passes.

2. Is Georgia generating anything on the ground? Even if the 19-year-old version of Herschel Walker appeared in a Georgia uniform on Saturday, the Dawgs would only have so much luck running on Alabama, because it is damn near impossible. This game will be determined, really, by how well Aaron Murray is throwing the ball (and how well his receivers are catching it). But Georgia still has to manage something on the ground.

In Bama's two closest games (the narrow win over LSU and the loss to A&M), LSU's Jeremy Hill averaged 3.7 yards per carry over 29 rushes, and A&M's Ben Malena averaged 3.6 while quarterback Johnny Manziel averaged 7.6. Murray does not have Manziel's legs, so it will be up to Gurley and Marshall to fully exploit every narrow crevice and crease the Georgia offensive line can carve out against the fierce Tide front seven. You don't have to average eight yards per carry, but you probably do need to average at least 3.5. Otherwise Murray will be throwing most of his passes on second-and-9 and third-and-7. You aren't going to beat Alabama doing that.

3. How accurate is A.J. McCarron? Perhaps the only part of Alabama's loss to A&M more jarring than Johnny Manziel's performance was McCarron's. He averaged just 5.1 yards per pass attempt in the game's first three quarters, and with the game on the line in the fourth, he did produce stellar stats but misfired on three passes that could have won Alabama the game.

At first glance, McCarron's fourth-quarter stat line against A&M is fabulous: 8-for-12 for 190 yards. He completed three passes of 50 yards or more, one for a 54-yard touchdown to Cooper. But on the other two (one to Cooper, one to Kenny Bell), his receivers were incredibly wide open, and, even with a reasonably accurate pass, would have scored. But the balls were both underthrown enough that beaten A&M defenders were able to catch up and make a tackle short of the goal line. Alabama scored on neither drive after the long passes. After the first one, T.J. Yeldon fumbled. After the second, McCarron's inaccuracy again cost Alabama, as a fourth-and-goal rollout pass to Bell was thrown too far to the inside and picked off by DeShazor Everett.

For the season, McCarron has been wonderfully accurate, completing 67 percent of his passes and, as I mentioned above, coming up big on passing downs. And he was near-perfect in the game-winning drive against LSU. But in Alabama's lone loss, he was quite flawed. We might be able to tell pretty early on which version of McCarron has shown up.

**********

I have often said that Mark Richt is a victim of poor timing. If his 2002 SEC championship team had taken the field in 2003, or 2000, or 2006, he very well might have won a national title, and all of the silly, "He can't win the big one," talk that emanated a few years later would have been rendered all but moot. Instead, his best squad, which finished with one loss, also finished behind two great, undefeated teams (Ohio State, Miami) that year in the BCS standings.

On Saturday, Richt has an incredible opportunity to rectify that. His Dawgs are justifiable underdogs, but they are peaking at the right time (yes, they have played mostly weak competition in recent weeks, but you can still look good or bad in taking out bad teams, and Georgia has looked outstanding), and they are one fantastic performance from facing Notre Dame for the national title.

I'm still picking Alabama, of course. It's what I've done for most of the last two years, and it is almost always a pretty safe bet. But whereas I thought the Tide held significant advantages over the Bulldogs a few weeks ago, said advantages are much more marginal now.

If McCarron has a bad game, or if a few extra bounces go Georgia's way, this game will be, at worst, a tossup, and at best, a 7-10 point Georgia win. This should be fun.

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