Alabama versus Georgia Southern
During the regular season, no SEC team rushed for more than 150 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide. In fact, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Florida were held under 20 yards rushing for the entire game. Ole Miss rushed for 28 total yards, Vandy accumulated a measly 47yards rushing in four quarters, Auburn rushed for 78 yards, and Tennessee ramped up the bid toward a 100-yard game, finishing with a net 92 yards.
On November 5, the LSU Tigers became the first to break the 100-yard barrier, rushing for 148 yards but only averaging 4.1 yards-per-carry. The 91 yards passing did provide balance, yet Russell Shepard led all Tiger receivers with just two catches for 39 yards, hardly a stellar game for a wideout. It was enough to defeat the Crimson Tide on that day.
But the lesson of the year for the Crimson Tide came on November 19, just two weeks after they suffered their first and only defeat of the 2011 regular season. Georgia Southern walked into Bryant-Denny Stadium and ran through the Crimson Tide as if high tide didn't even reach their shoelaces. The Eagles barely even attempted to go airborne, throwing a single complete pass on seven attempts for a total of 39 yards.
After four quarters of pulling guards and cut-blocks, the Alabama defense had yielded over 300 yards rushing and three touchdowns to the FBS Division II team, barely edging the Eagles in time of possession for the entire game. The Alabama defense spent more than 27 minutes on the field of play and faced the most adversity that they could ever have imagined from a team that averaged only 260 lbs on the offensive line.
The Eagles averaged 7.7 yards-per-carry on 39 rushes in four quarters of football. There were zero plays for negative yards by the Eagles against the number one defense in the country! The Eagles had 14 first downs on the day. Only two teams did more the entire year: Penn State had 16 first downs in Happy Valley and LSU had 15 first downs on November 5, in Bryant-Denny.
Moreover, the Eagles outplayed the Crimson Tide on special teams, accumulating 190 yards on kick returns. All of those return yards came on kickoffs, as the Alabama offense matched the Eagles, score for score. In the end, Georgia Southern had one score rushing, on an 82-yard jaunt by RB Dominique Swope, one score on the only pass completion by quarterback Jaybo Shaw and one memorable kick return for Trey DePriest.
I say it was memorable for an Alabama player because his outside cut around his teammate making a block was in the wrong direction; he should have cut inside the block to force Georgia Southern's Laron Scott toward the middle of the field. Instead, his misdirection opened just enough of a hole for the return man to shoot through a small gap and scamper 95 yards to the Alabama end zone. Saban was livid. It was a teachable moment for DePriest.
On January 9, against the LSU Tigers, when it counted even more, DePriest was in on three kickoff tackles. He never made the same mistake again during the 2011 season.
In the end, the game against what most consider a patsy for D1 schools such as Alabama provided more teaching before, during and after the game than any other gridiron contest in the 2011 season. It prepared the Crimson Tide for a finish that many didn't see coming after the loss on November 5.
The little school planted in Statesboro, Georgia in 1906, with the "Sweetheart Circle" at the center of campus, brought the sweetest and most important offense for the Crimson Tide defense to contend with in the 2011 season. The Eagles came prepared for the Tide and taught life lessons on how to handle the triple option offense, how to fend off cut blocks and how to deal with speed at the edge of the field.
In addition, the Eagles provided the Alabama offense with an opportunity to get back on track following the tough, back-to-back battles against LSU and Mississippi State. Thanks for that, Georgia Southern. The Alabama football program and its fans will forever be in debt.
Forever in debt, because on January 9th, with a national championship on the line, the LSU Tigers chose to go with the option offense. Their line was much bigger than the Georgia Southern Eagles, and the quarterback much more athletic. But with 44 days between the end of the regular season and the chance to play for a national championship, the Alabama players relearned the fundamentals of defense against the power run and the option offense.
Nick Saban, the coaching staff and leaders on the field practiced against the option, studied tape of where the mistakes came against the Eagles, and made corrections that were necessary to do the job correctly. Saban calls it assignment football, and it was learned to perfection.
On January 9th, the LSU Tigers ran for only 39 yards on 27 rushing attempts, averaging only 1.4 yards-per-carry. And because of the confusion caused by the Alabama defensive alignments, Jordan Jefferson completed 11 passes for only 53 yards.
At the end of the day, LSU had accumulated only 92 yards, total. They had no points to show for their efforts, and crossed the 50-yard line only once, thanks to the Alabama defense and special teams.
Defensive MVP, Courtney Upshaw said it best when he stated after receiving the trophy that the award went to the whole team. Everyone on the defense did their job.
For Alabama, it was a complete turnaround from their performance on November 19th, a turnaround for the better, without doubt. The Crimson Tide posted the best defensive performance in a BCS game, and one of the best performances of all time in a national championship game. At the end of the evening, Nick Saban and his players were hoisting the crystal trophy.