Is the SEC once again the best conference in college football? That's a debate that will rage on, but there's no denying it produced the two best teams in the country for the 2017-18 season.
The Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs will battle Monday not just for league bragging rights but also a national title, the first all-one league championship of the College Football Playoff era and the first since the all-SEC BCS final between Alabama and LSU in 2012.
Because the SEC has 14 teams and few crossover games, Alabama (12-1) and Georgia (13-1) didn't meet in the regular season. In fact, they haven't played since 2015, when the Crimson Tide went to Athens, Georgia, and rolled to a 38-10 win over the Bulldogs.
But that was before Kirby Smart left Bama to take over Georgia's program.
Plenty of the defensive players Smart helped bring to Tuscaloosa and develop in their early years are determined to show him what he left behind. That includes the likes of senior linebacker Rashaan Evans, junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and senior defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand, all of whom were integral in Alabama's 24-6 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia's defense is no slouch, either, though giving up 48 points and 527 yards to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl might indicate otherwise. Linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith and D'Andre Walker combined for 26 tackles, 3.5 for loss, with 1.5 sacks in that game.
That side of the ball will be critical to the outcome, but don't sleep on the respective offenses—particularly their ground games. Georgia averages 267.4 rushing yards per game, with seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel compiling 2,449 yards and 31 touchdowns, including 326 yards and five scores against Oklahoma.
Alabama had a season-low 141 rushing yards against Clemson but averages 255.8 per game and 5.8 yards per carry.
Let's take a look at the viewing, betting and injury info.
When: Monday at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: Alabama -5
|Alabama Crimson Tide|
|Shaun Dion Hamilton||LB||Knee||Out|
|Bleacher Report research|
|Bleacher Report research|
Young Quarterbacks Take Center Stage
Last year, it was Jalen Hurts who, as a true freshman, led Alabama to the national title game. Now he's a grizzled veteran compared to Georgia's Jake Fromm, who will be making his 14th career start Monday.
Fromm took over for an injured Jacob Eason in the 2017 season opener and never looked back, throwing for 2,383 yards and 23 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He's been picked off just once in Georgia's last six games, and since completing just 46.4 percent of his passes in a loss to Auburn he's completed at a 70.4 percent clip.
CBSSports.com's Barrett Sallee called Fromm the "X-factor" of the championship game and his youth shouldn't be considered a weakness:
"Don't fall into the trap of thinking that, since Fromm is a true freshman, he can't handle the stage and spotlight of the national title game. That's just factually inaccurate. He literally handled as big of a stage as you could possibly script (in the Rose Bowl) in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. As long as Fromm continues to do what he's done all season, Georgia will be fine. No moment has been too big for him yet, and the bigger the moment this season, the better he has played."
The same can't be said for Hurts, whose sophomore campaign has fallen short of what he did in 2016-17. While a 17-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 808 rushing yards with eight TDs is far from paltry, Alabama isn't turning to him as much as it did a year ago. And when it does he's looked hesitant and uncertain at times.
"Jalen Hurts is making some mistakes that I would expect from a true freshman," SEC Network's Jordan Rodgers said, per 247Sports. "And it's pre-snap. Hurts has the arm, but it's a confidence [issue]. He's not stepping into his throws and playing as a confident quarterback."
Student vs. Mentor
Any conversation about whether Alabama's Nick Saban is the best coach in college football—he is—will touch on his national titles, of which he will have six if the Crimson Tide beat Georgia, his overall record and his ability to recruit and develop NFL-caliber players.
But maybe the most telling statistic is his mark in games against teams coached by his former assistants. Saban is 11-0 in such contests, most recently in the 2017 season opener, wherein Alabama beat a Jimbo Fisher-led Florida State team.
Former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gets a chance to break through with a win or join the group of Fisher, Derek Dooley (0-3), Jim McElwain (0-3), Will Muschamp (0-2) and Mark Dantonio (0-2).
Jeremy Pruitt will get his first opportunity in October during his first season as Tennessee's head coach but not until after spending one last game as Alabama's defensive coordinator. It's the same thing Smart did in the 2015-16 playoffs, pulling double duty between his old team and the one he was taking over.
Smart believes Pruitt has had a tougher task than he did because of the addition of the early-signing period in December, telling Saturday Down South's Andrew Olson:
"Yeah, I'll be honest with you, I sympathize with Jeremy because I think he was in a worse situation because I did not have to deal with the signing day, and the fact that he had to deal with the signing day while there, I wouldn't wish that—it was probably outside of—I don't know, it was probably the hardest month of my life trying to deal with the two jobs because you're trying to hire a staff, run an organization but be loyal to a group of players who helped you get this opportunity."