A glimpse at the statistical profiles of Alabama and Georgia reveals two key areas where one side has a decided advantage. Those are their special teams units (Alabama is 40th in S&P+, while Georgia is first) and when Alabama has the ball (the Tide offense ranks 22nd in S&P+, and the Dawg D is 11th).
The Alabama offense is a relative weak spot this season, but only so many teams have the talent and discipline to shut down this unit.
Clemson quietly had a strong day against the Alabama offense, holding it to 261 yards, about 4 yards per play, and 17 points. That number is probably 10 or 13 points, if not for one of Clemson’s turnovers that set up the Tide on the Clemson 27-yard line.
Georgia should hope to improve on Clemson’s hopeless offensive performance and continue to play great special teams of the sort that forced Oklahoma to begin every second-half drive pinned deep in its own territory. Here’s the formula that could allow the Bulldogs to leverage their matchup against Alabama’s offense.
Containing Jalen Hurts
The exceptional error avoidance, efficiency when passing, and athleticism of Bama QB Jalen Hurts belies the fact that his skill set doesn’t really maximize Alabama’s roster or fit its scheme. Hurts threw 24 passes for 124 yards and a pair of scores against Clemson in the semifinal, which put him over 2,000 yards on the season.
Alabama regularly trots out Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster in its receiver corps, a pair of senior, former five-star recruits, and boasts an offensive line with a former five-star recruit and an All-SEC selection at left tackle in Jonah Williams. Yet for all that, their passing game is exceptionally limited, particularly in the pocket. Hurts’ decision-making process from the pocket often goes: “first read ... nope. Run!”
He doesn’t scan well, and his footwork isn’t conducive to progressing anyway. If a defense can take away the first read, then it’s typically a matter of whether the rush has Hurts contained (like above) or not ...
Outside of the pocket, he’s a fiery demon who can deliver accurate balls on the move or take off and run. Plenty of his 928 rushing yards didn’t come on designed runs or options but on scrambles after his first read was gone.
Teams like Texas A&M and Clemson did a good job of containing him in those moments, and his stat lines in those games reflect it. He threw for 5 yards a pass against Clemson and had 40 yards on 11 carries, two of which were sacks. Against A&M he threw for 5.6 yards a pass and had 56 yards on 14 carries, three of which were sacks.
Georgia just put on a solid performance against another QB who’s pretty dangerous on the move: OU’s Baker Mayfield. Watch this play, when the Dawgs force him through a full progression before bringing him down for the sack as he tries to escape a well-contained pocket:
If Georgia can take away Hurts’ easy reads and ability to make plays outside of the pocket, that removes a considerable chunk of the Alabama offense. There’s really not much left at that point, save for the standard run game, which is good but not as good as what the Dawgs are bringing to Atlanta.
So how do they pull this off?
Taking Bama on, straight up
Georgia’s solution for Oklahoma’s tricky and balanced offense was eventually to play man coverage, so that its linebackers could stay in the box and match up on the Sooner RBs or TE with help inside and over the top.
The benefit of man coverage is even greater when one of your linebackers is Roquan Smith, who’s freed to key the backs and run to the ball.
The Dawgs can play it in their base 3-4 defense if they like and have Lorenzo Carter (S linebacker) as an extra man in zone, spying Hurts, picking up the RB in coverage, or blitzing the edge (carefully). Or they can play nickel and use their safeties to aggressively rob or spy in the middle of the field. Either way, All-American Smith will be running sideline to sideline with minimal distractions.
The added benefit of playing man coverage is that it simplifies coverage against the perimeter screens and tosses that comprise a large chunk of Alabama’s passing game:
Man coverage makes everything into a contest of matchups and execution in the passing game while giving the defense a plus-one advantage against the run. If Alabama can’t punish Georgia’s veteran secondary with man-beating coverage combos, this would put the Tide in a major hole trying to work the ball down the field.
Clemson tended to play more zone, which worked fine, but Georgia might be able to challenge the Tide to win by dropping Hurts back or banging their heads against a wall up front. Georgia has a veteran secondary and a strong pass rush and one of the stouter fronts in the country, which has already proved itself against some of the best rushing attacks in the nation.
If Georgia is going to beat the Tide, it’s going to do so by challenging them straight up and “out-Alabama’ing” them. That’s been an ill-advised method for the entirety of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, but this might finally be the year.