Thrill of Victory

Alabama, Georgia to slug it out in Atlanta

Tomorrow’s Southeastern Conference title game between Georgia and Alabama won’t be for all the marbles; that’ll come in January when the winner of this game takes on Notre Dame in the national title game.

But guess what? It might be even better.

If you like watching players you’ll see again in the NFL, then tomorrow’s game’s for you. In next year’s NFL Draft alone, Alabama center Barrett Jones, cornerback Dee Milliner, guard Chance Warmack and defensive lineman Jesse Williams should all hear their names called in the first round. Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins, linebacker Jarvis Jones, and perhaps quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Alec Ogletree should join them in the first round as well.

And that’s just the first round; certainly, you’ll see ‘Bama quarterback A.J. McCarron and Eddie Lacy snagged at some point, as well as Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo. Those are just the names I can think of off the top of my head, and of course there are future first-rounders like freshman running backs T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) playing, too.

The point is, you probably won’t see more NFL talent on a football field at one time this year without watching the NFL itself. And as for the game itself, it promises to be a hum-dinger.

There will be many storylines to follow tomorrow, but the storylines for each team to get here have been interesting already. We all expected Alabama to get this far after the Crimson Tide blew Michigan out of the water, 41-14, in the season opener, then followed up by posting consecutive shutouts. The ‘Tide seemed to be the team of destiny… until that LSU game started a roller-coaster of emotions for Alabama fans; the Tigers had ‘Bama dead-and-buried in Baton Rouge… until McCarron led Alabama down the field and connected with Yeldon to save its unbeaten season.

We were all penciling the ‘Tide into the national title game, and then the next week when Texas A&M shocked the world and knocked off ‘Bama on its home field and out of the national title picture… and then, a pair of upsets the next weekend put Alabama right back there.

As for Georgia, it looked like the one team that could compete with Alabama… until it didn’t. The Bulldogs looked like world-beaters until Tennessee posted 44 on UGA on Sept. 29 (but Georgia managed 51). Cracks exposed, South Carolina blasted UGA, 35-7, the next weekend, and the Bulldogs didn’t inspire any confidence in beating lowly Kentucky, 29-24, the next time out.

Then, safety Shawn Williams called out his teammates as “soft,” and everything changed. Georgia handed Florida its only loss the next weekend, and would give up only 43 points in a five-game span starting with that one… and now, the Bulldogs come to Atlanta looking as tough as the ‘Tide.

So, who’ll win? I think these things hold the keys.

First – and this is no great insight, but it’s nonetheless likely true – the team that wins the turnover battle probably wins the game. Alabama’s plus-14 on the season, and Georgia’s plus-9, so both teams have done well there.

The key here is Georgia’s Murray, who’s been great throughout his career, but not-so-great in big game. If Murray brings his “A” game, that bodes well for UGA, but if Murray’s throwing interceptions, then you can kiss Georgia’s chances goodbye, since his counterpart, McCarron, has been picked just twice this season.

Second, look out for which team can dictate tempo and time of possession. Both teams have outstanding running games; ‘Bama’s Lacy and Yeldon helped the Crimson Tide finish second in the league in rushing, and Georgia’s duo of freshman stars, Gurley and Keith Marshall, were almost as good (UGA finished fourth).

The difference here is in defenses; ‘Bama’s run defense ranked first in the SEC (77 yards, 2.4 ypc) while UGA finished 11th (163, 3.8). But again, Georgia’s defense played better at the end of the year, and in conference games yielded just 127 yards and 3.3 per carry, so it depends on which Georgia shows up.

Next, look to see who wins the battle of the big plays; on the whole, UGA may have a slight advantage here but it’s also missing wideouts Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett, who are done for the year with injuries. But, it also has wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who spent the first part of the year playing defensive back as Georgia had a ton of suspensions in its secondary. Mitchell’s the kind of player who can change a game in one play – as, for that matter, is his counterpart, ‘Bama freshman Amari Cooper.

Finally, since this figures to be a lower-scoring game, it could be decided by field goals and field position. Alabama’s got an edge in the kickoff return game but with the new kickoff rules, there just aren’t that many opportunities any more. Neither team has kicked a lot of field goals; ‘Bama’s Jeremy Shelley is 7-for-7 while UGA’s freshman, Marshall Morgan, is 6-for-8. Shelley has the edge in experience, but also missed a slew of field goals in ‘Bama’s big game vs. LSU last year, while Morgan has mis-fired on four of 32 extra points, which you don’t see often.

So, who wins?If my keys turn out to be true, ‘Bama has done better with turnovers, plays the run better, and has a slight edge in special teams. Georgia might have an edge in big plays because it takes a few more risks, but ‘Bama’s got plenty of threats of its own.

Finally, there’s the matter of coaching, and there’s not a coach I’d rather have in a big game than Alabama’s Nick Saban, who is often the master of taking small edges and making them into big edges in big games. For that reason, I like Alabama to win in the neighborhood of 30-20.