The newly minted BCS playoff system debuts in 2014, but in a grand twist of fate, we won't have to wait until then for a National Semifinal Game.
When No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia square off in Atlanta this weekend, it will be––for all intents and purposes––a play-in game for the BCS National Championship. Think of it like a Final Four game where the other team (Notre Dame) gets a bye––the Final Three, if you will.
Both Alabama and Georgia have looked consistently dominant this season, with just a lone slip-up (Alabama vs. Texas A&M; Georgia vs. South Carolina) keeping them from perfection. That––coupled with the SEC's well-documented supremacy since 2006––has many calling this the de facto National Championship.
As some, including SI.com's Stuart Mandel, have astutely pointed out, that belief is a massive disservice to Notre Dame's impressive season. But that's an argument for a different day. We're here to talk about the immediate task at hand.
Come Saturday night, who will reign supreme in the nation's premier conference?
Let's take a closer look.
When: Saturday, Dec. 1, 4 p.m. EST
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
Live Stream: SEC Live
Spread: Alabama -7 (via Las Vegas Hilton)
Sharps jumped all over Georgia at 7.5 and bet the game back down to seven––which is probably where it belongs. Even so, as our own Adam Kramer reports, the early money seems to (surprisingly) be on the Bulldogs:
Early money actually going Georgia's way: 64% are betting Georgia (+7) against Alabama on Sportsbook.— Adam Kramer (@KegsnEggs) November 27, 2012
It's always weird to see money going against Nick Saban, but in this case, it's also understandable. The Tide's past two games against legitimate competition were a four-point win at LSU and a five-point loss vs. Texas A&M; neither of those performances would cover a touchdown.
Assuming you put Georgia in the same class as Texas A&M and LSU––which every metric suggests you should––the seven-point buffer seems like a nice value. Especially on a "neutral field" that just-so-happens to be in Atlanta. Tide fans travel well, but that's still worth at least a point.
Take the 'Dawgs and the points.
Over/Under: 50.0 (via Vegasinsider.com)
Alabama and Georgia boast the top- and 16th-ranked scoring defenses in the country respectively. They allow an average of 27 points per game....combined. Easy money on the under, right?
Not so fast, my friend.
Because Alabama and Georgia––despite playing in the notoriously stout SEC––also respectively boast the 15th- and 17th-ranked scoring offenses in the country. The Tide put up 39 points per game, while the Bulldogs post a not-too-shabby 38. All defense in the SEC, you say? Try this stat on for size:
Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron will go into the SEC title game as the nation's No. 1 and 2 rated passers.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 25, 2012
Having said all that, Georgia's offense has still, admittedly, sputtered in the team's biggest games. They averaged 12 points per game against South Carolina and Florida, a number that hardly instills confidence before going up against the Tide.
And even though Georgia's defense has been gashed before, it has played unrecognizably better in the second half of the season. Like Alabama, it is loaded with NFL players on defense (including Jarvis Jones, the darling of ESPN.com's Mike Mayock), and the unit as a whole is champing at the bit for a chance in the national spotlight.
Stick with the under and pray for a close game. Once Alabama gets up big, it has a way of pounding teams into submission and putting up giant totals.
Georgia Injury Report (via USA Today as of 11/28/12)
|LB Sterling Bailey||Thumb||Probable|
|FB Merritt Hall||Ankle||Probable|
|NT Mike Thornton||Ankle||Questionable|
Reserve lineman Mike Thornton, officially listed as questionable, remains unlikely to play for the Bulldogs. The sophomore provides depth along the interior offensive line, but his absence won't be too conspicuous.
Alabama Injury Report (via USA Today as of 11/28/12)
|DB John Fulton||Toe||Questionable|
|WR Chris Black||Shoulder||Questionable|
|WR Kenny Bell||Leg||Out For Season|
The loss of Kenny Bell, who broke his leg against Auburn last weekend, could be costly for the Tide. Despite never recording more than three catches in a game this season, the speedy Bell stretches the field as effectively as any player on Alabama's roster. He and his six catches of 30-plus yards will be sorely missed.
John Fulton, if he's able to play, provides solid depth for the Alabama secondary, playing mostly as a nickel and dime corner.
I mean, I guess this game has BCS implications...
In all seriousness though, this––as SEC Championships so frequently are––is the most important non-bowl game of the College Football season.
Barring an unprecedented shocker on Sunday morning, Saturday's winner will advance to face Notre Dame in the National Championship. The loser, although indisputably one of the five best teams in the nation, is unlikely to play in a BCS bowl game (have fun watching Rutgers, everybody!).
The NFL playoffs have "win or go home." The SEC Championship has "win or go to the Cotton Bowl." After the season each respective program has enjoyed, I'm not sure which one they would prefer less.
Keys For Georgia Victory
Aaron Murray, Aaron Murray and Aaron Murray.
Normally, saying an SEC matchup comes down to the quarterback trivializes the game's complexities. The defenses, the linemen, the coaches––they all matter to an amplified degree in this magnificent conference. But on Saturday, trite as it may be, Aaron Murray will be the most important player on the field.
Alabama has been matched physically on only two occasions this season. Once, against LSU, they were able to escape thanks to an unimaginative (albeit semi-impressive) effort from QB Zach Mettenberger. Against the intrepid Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, however, the Tide weren't so lucky.
Like Matthew Stafford before him, Murray has both endeared himself to and frustrated Bulldogs nation with his capricious potential. At his best, he's a sure-fire first-round pick in the NFL draft. At his worst, he's Joe Cox reincarnated.
Murray's QB rating this season is 177.1; in the team's lone defeat against South Carolina, his rating was 58.6. His stat line: 11-for-31 (35.5%), 109 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT.
With a soon-to-be NFL defense suiting up across the line, Georgia will need Good Aaron Murray, not Bad Aaron Murray, to show up on Saturday. If he does, the Bulldogs can open up their playbook––something LSU was reticent to do––and exploit some of the same holes Texas A&M exposed.
If not, they'll be hard-pressed to pull the upset in Atlanta.
Keys For Alabama Victory
It's strength vs. strength in this one: Georgia's pass rush vs. Alabama's offensive line.
And if the Tide's rag-tag group of bruisers can pass yet another test on Saturday, it could be the season's ultimate difference.
The aforementioned Jarvis Jones has become the best pass-rusher in college football, playing his best when Georgia needs him the most. In the Bulldogs' signature victory––a 17-9 stifling of Florida––Jones had 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Turnovers are paramount, even more so than usual, in low-scoring SEC contests, so the Tide will have to keep Jones away from A.J. McCarron at all costs.
The Alabama offensive line will also be counted on to spring Eddie Lacy against a stout Georgia defense. The 306 rushing yards Georgia gave up to triple-option-wielding Georgia Tech last week is obviously a fluke––this team can shut you down in the hole.
Between Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, the Tide always have a major advantage up the A-gap. They'll need to maximize the two All-American candidates if they want to control the clock in this one.
How can you pick against Georgia when they're playing this well? Then again––how can you pick against Alabama ever?
Mark Richt could end up being the difference. Texas A&M exposed flaws in Alabama's defense that were previously thought not to exist. If he can figure out how to exploit them without the services of Johnny Football, Georgia might be able to score some points.
Plus, the tag-team of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall gives the 'Dawgs their own Aggie-esque source of freshman magic in the backfield.
It's not exactly full-proof, but in a matchup this close, it's as good as anything––right?
Predicted Score: Georgia 20, Alabama 17