Alabama vs. Georgia: Complete Guide to 2018 National Championship Game
It's an all-SEC battle for the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, as the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs will square off Monday night in Atlanta for all the marbles.
This is a matchup we've been anticipating for months. For most of the regular season, it seemed like Alabama and Georgia were on a collision course for an SEC championship showdown. Auburn had other plans, winning a game against each of these teams, thus keeping Alabama from competing for a conference title.
Better late than never, though, right?
To help prepare you for the proceedings, we've put together a full breakdown of the game, including noteworthy statistics, the keys to stopping each team's quarterback, the storylines to know about, the NFL draft implications and, ultimately, a prediction of how the champion is crowned.
Game Info and Key Stats
When: Monday, January 8 at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Line: Alabama -4, Over/Under 45.5, per OddsShark.com
This feels like a "throw out the statistics" type of conference rivalry game, but in case you're interested in them, this is what these teams have done for the past few months.
Alabama: 62.3% comp, 193.9 YPG, 8.4 YPA, 25 TD, 2 INT, 159.1 QBR
Georgia: 62.3% comp, 172.9 YPG, 8.9 YPA, 23 TD, 7 INT, 159.4 QBR
Alabama: 54.1% comp, 160.6 YPG, 5.3 YPA, 7 TD, 17 INT, 95.8 QBR
Georgia: 56.0% comp, 167.6 YPG, 5.8 YPA, 16 TD, 11 INT, 112.3 QBR
Alabama: 255.8 YPG, 5.8 YPC, 36 TD
Georgia: 267.4 YPG, 6.0 YPC, 41 TD
Alabama: 91.8 YPG, 2.7 YPC, 8 TD
Georgia: 121.9 YPG, 3.7 YPC, 8 TD
Alabama: 37.9 PPG, 11.1 PA
Georgia: 36.3 PPG, 15.7 PA
Alabama: 22 forced, 9 lost, plus-13 margin
Georgia: 19 forced, 14 lost, plus-5 margin
Alabama: 5 total yards allowed on punt returns in 2017 (No. 1 nationally)
Georgia: 24.9 yards per kickoff return (No. 9 nationally)
There are three major storylines that people have been talking about and will continue to focus on up to and during the game. One deals with the past, one with the present and one with the future.
The past storyline is the battle between the apprentice and the master.
In 2004, Kirby Smart was the defensive backs coach under then-LSU head coach Nick Saban. He also served as the safeties coach under Saban with the Miami Dolphins in 2006. Smart then followed Saban to Alabama, where he was his defensive coordinator for eight seasons. Basically, the man learned everything he knows from his opponent in the national championship. How will that history bear itself out in this chess match?
The present storyline is the never-ending debate about what this means for the SEC.
Prior to the College Football Playoff, the SEC was 2-5 in bowl season and possibly headed for disaster. But now it has two teams in the national championship game for the second time this decade, the other being Alabama vs. LSU in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. So, was the SEC great, or was it a bad league with just two really good teams up top?
The correct answer lies somewhere in between. At a national level, we overexaggerated how disappointing the SEC was this year. Ole Miss was respectable, but no one cared because the Rebels weren't eligible for postseason play. South Carolina was much better than anyone ever seemed interested in noticing. And Auburn was a damn good team that played a brutal schedule. But because Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas were worse than expected, many felt like the strength of this league dropped off a cliff after the top two or three.
But this final pairing doesn't prove the SEC is the best conference in the country. It just proves that Alabama and Georgia were two of the best teams in the country and that they were better than Clemson and Oklahoma on Jan. 1.
The obsession with conference supremacy is baffling, especially since people can't even seem to agree on whether or not you're supposed to root for your conference opponents during bowl season.
And for the future storyline, there will be a debate about which of these teams has the better chance of returning to the playoff in 2019. At this point, we almost have to just assume Alabama will be back in the picture, but where does Georgia go from here after losing a boatload of starters, including 31 seniors?
Sugar Bowl Star Trying to Stay Hot
The real star of the Sugar Bowl was Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings. The 262-pound sophomore was tasked with keeping Kelly Bryant in check, spying Clemson's dual-threat passer on just about every snap. He finished the game with one sack and three tackles for loss while making life miserable for Bryant, who completed just 50 percent of his passes and averaged 1.0 yards per carry. He also threw two interceptions in what was by far his worst game of the season.
But Jennings had knee surgery and will miss the national championship. Plus, it was actually Da'Ron Payne who was named the defensive MVP of the game, thanks to his momentum-altering interception and subsequent one-yard touchdown reception.
The 308-pound defensive tackle often goes underappreciated, because his hard work doesn't usually show up in the box score. In the final six games of the regular season, the big man had just three solo tackles, 13 assists and 0.5 sacks.
NFL scouts were all in on Payne long before he tapped his toes on that TD, though. He has been a projected first-round draft pick for a while now because of the impact he has aside from the individual stats. The most obvious example of his value added: Despite all the linebackers injuries the Crimson Tide have endured, they lead the nation in rushing defense.
Rose Bowl Star Trying to Stay Hot
One of the biggest questions heading into the Rose Bowl was if Oklahoma's run defense could slow down Georgia's multiheaded rushing monster.
It didn't take long for the Sooners to answer with a resounding "Nope."
Nick Chubb ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 10.4 yards per touch. And he wasn't even the star back for the Bulldogs. Rather, Sony Michel carried the ball 11 times for 181 yards and three scores. He also hauled in four receptions for 41 yards and another TD.
It's inexplicable that Michel was only given two carries in the first half, but he went 20 yards on the first and had a 75-yard touchdown on the other. He added a 38-yard score in the second half and the game-winning 27-yard scamper in the second overtime.
Michel and Chubb now have a combined 2,449 yards and 31 rushing touchdowns on the season, but Michel is the one the Bulldogs will need the most against the Crimson Tide. He is the Tiki Barber to Chubb's Ron Dayne, and lightning will work better than thunder against Alabama's front seven.
Top 2018 NFL Draft Prospects
It's always a little weird that after three months of nonstop action on Saturdays, the national championship game is on a Monday night. (Could you imagine the Super Bowl being played on a Tuesday?) But the biggest stars on these rosters better get used to the occasional non-weekend contest, because they'll be playing on Thursdays and Mondays in the NFL next year.
But which ones will be selected the first night of the 2018 NFL draft weekend?
Bleacher Report's draft guru Matt Miller posted his updated big board before the first game of bowl season, ranking the top 32 prospects in the country. There were seven players from this game on that list, six of whom play for the Crimson Tide.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS, Alabama (No. 3)
- Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama (No. 9)
- Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama (No. 13)
- Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (No. 15)
- Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia (No. 16)
- Damien Harris, RB, Alabama (No. 24)
- Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama (No. 32)
Georgia's Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Lorenzo Carter and Isaiah Wynn are all likely candidates to be drafted in either the second or third round, as are Alabama's defensive backs Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace.
How Can Alabama Stop Jake Fromm?
It's a testament to how great Georgia has been as an entire team that the play of Jake Fromm is almost an afterthought. The Bulldogs have an outstanding rushing attack, a defense that ranks sixth nationally in yards allowed per game and a darn good kicker who drained a 55-yard field goal in the Rose Bowl.
What they also have is a true freshman quarterback who ranks fourth in the country in QB rating and who rarely takes a sack.
While Fromm doesn't throw a ton—18.5 times per game—he's effective when he does. He averages 9.2 yards per attempt and completes 63.7 percent of those. He has thrown for 23 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
But the key to slowing him down is to focus on stopping the run.
It's no coincidence that two of Fromm's three worst passing performances of the season came on Georgia's two worst rushing days. In the loss to Auburn during the regular season, the Dawgs were abused at the line of scrimmage, rushing 32 times for 46 yards. As a result, Fromm was forced into a lot of 3rd-and-long passing situations, which he had trouble converting.
Georgia ran the ball better against Notre Dame, but it didn't dominate with the run like it usually does. Fromm had to attempt 29 passes that game, and the team converted on just four of 18 third-down attempts.
If Alabama can occasionally stifle Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on first and second down, it should have an easier time getting Fromm out of his comfort zone.
How Can Georgia Stop Jalen Hurts?
Unlike Jake Fromm, who rarely resorts to using his legs, Jalen Hurts can beat the defense either through the air or on the ground.
Even after excluding the sacks that technically count as rushing attempts, Hurts averages 9.6 carries per game. He has rushed for eight touchdowns and more than 800 yards, including a trio of 100-yard rushing performances early in the season.
To slow him down, the first step is keeping him in the pocket, which is something Georgia has proved capable of doing. In Week 2 against Notre Dame, the Dawgs were all over Brandon Wimbush, limiting him to one yard on 16 carries. A few weeks later, they held Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald to 47 rushing yards in one of his worst performances of the season. And in the Rose Bowl, Baker Mayfield finished with just one rushing yard.
The second step is to cover Calvin Ridley like white on rice. The junior wide receiver has made at least three receptions in every game this season and is the only player on the roster with more than 16 catches over the course of the entire year. He is always the primary target in third-down passing situations, and he seems to play a key part in every pivotal drive for the Crimson Tide.
In a nutshell, to stop Hurts, you must contain Hurts, who is a mobile game manager. He isn't going to make major mistakes. (He's has only thrown one interception in his last 16 games.) But if you adequately cover Ridley and spy Hurts, he's probably not going to make any huge game-changing plays either.
Key to the Game
The biggest key to this game will be whether Georgia can establish and maintain rushing dominance.
Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney got a little too cute in the Rose Bowl, calling upon Jake Fromm for 29 pass attempts despite Nick Chubb and Sony Michel averaging a combined 13.0 yards per carry. The time for giving the true freshman QB some experience and confidence passed two months ago. Now is the time to ride those two ball-carrying horses as hard as possible.
Granted, 13.0 yards per carry isn't going to happen against Alabama's defense. The most the Crimson Tide have allowed in any game this season is 3.6. But Georgia has to believe it can do at least a little better than that considering it has a more dominant rushing attack than anyone Alabama has faced to date.
During the regular season, Georgia averaged 2.3 rushing attempts per pass attempt, but that ratio was almost 1-1 in the Rose Bowl (29 vs. 34). To have a shot at beating Alabama, the Dawgs need to get back to doing what they do best.
Alternatively, this game may well be decided by which team cracks under pressure first. Georgia has not committed multiple turnovers in a game since Week 2, and Alabama has its own nice mark of 0.7 turnovers per game on the season. There might not be a fumble or interception in this entire game, but if there is one, the recipient immediately gets a huge edge.
Before the CFP semifinals, my pick was Georgia over Clemson, with the rationale being that it would be difficult for the winner of Alabama-Clemson III to emotionally get back up for another game of this magnitude.
But after watching the Crimson Tide physically manhandle Clemson for four quarters, I just don't see how anyone could pick against Nick Saban's guys.
Alabama heard every day for a month that it didn't belong in the playoff. Regardless of the gambling line for the game against the Tigers, Saban convinced his players they were the underdogs. Somehow, one of the greatest sports dynasties of our lifetime managed to get a "Nobody believes in us" chip on its shoulder. And now the Crimson Tide are out for blood.
When Georgia lost to Auburn, it was because the Tigers owned both lines of scrimmage. There weren't many tackles for loss, but it was as if Auburn's defense built a brick wall right where the ball was snapped, and as if the team had two extra offensive linemen paving the way for Kerryon Johnson. The Tigers simply out-muscled the Bulldogs.
That's a model Alabama can follow. Contain the big plays on defense. Get Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough to the second level with key blocks on a somewhat regular basis. Don't commit any stupid turnovers, and go for the kill if and when Georgia makes a mistake.
You know, all the stuff Alabama has been doing for the past decade.
It's going to be the lowest-scoring national championship in a while. Over the past five years, the average total has been 66.8 points. Hard to imagine this one coming anywhere close to that. But it's going to be an entertaining, smashmouth type of game.
Prediction: Alabama 21, Georgia 17
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.