Alabama vs. Georgia: Key Storylines for College Football Championship 2018

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2018

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Jalen Hurts #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws the ball in the first half of the AllState Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Plenty has happened since the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs last played on October 3, 2015. 

Alabama has still been a dominant force on a national scale, but it lost the 2017 CFP National Championship to the Clemson Tigers and failed to qualify for the SEC Championship this season. 

Georgia replaced Mark Richt with Kirby Smart as head coach, and after one season in the middle of the pack in the SEC, the Bulldogs are back in the national spotlight and ready to take on the Crimson Tide in the 2018 CFP National Championship Game.

The matchup of master vs. apprentice between Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Smart is just one of the many key storylines that we're paying attention to ahead of the title tilt. 


Will Kirby Smart be the First Former Assistant to Beat Nick Saban?

This storyline will be beaten to death in the buildup to Monday's game, but it is worth repeating how successful Nick Saban has been against his former assistants. 

Saban is 11-0 against them, a group that includes Mark Dantonio and Jimbo Fisher, and the games haven't even been close, as he's beaten them by a combined score of 427-111, per SEC Network.

To put that statistic in context, some of Saban's former assistants have not been successful as head coaches, like Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, all of whom struggled to gain a foothold in the SEC East with Tennessee and Florida, respectively. 

Smart is one of the few who has experienced a wealth of success establishing his own program. He has built the Bulldogs into a monster this seasonand for years to comeby bringing in tremendous recruiting classes, setting the tone on offense by way of the ground game and putting together a tenacious defense. 

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01: Head Coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal Game against the Oklahoma Sooners at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2018 in
Harry How/Getty Images

Saban has yet to oppose Smart since Georgia and Alabama haven't played often in recent years. The legendary Crimson Tide head coach could receive his toughest test yet against a former assistant because Georgia is so similar to Alabama. 

While neither coach will decide the game on the fieldthat'll be reserved for the playersthey know each other inside and out. They'll try to expose small flaws they may have noticed on film and during their time together from 2008 to 2015. 


Will Alabama's Defense Be As Dominant As it Was in the Sugar Bowl? 

With a month to prepare for Clemson and get healthy, Alabama shell-shocked the Tigers offense and dominated it from start to finish on New Year's Day. 

The Crimson Tide recorded nine tackles for loss and sacked Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant on five occasions. If Alabama gets the same pressure on Georgia, it will run away with its fifth title in nine years. 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Mack Wilson #30 of the Alabama Crimson Tide returns an interception for a touchdown in the second half of the AllState Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, L
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Georgia's offensive line conceded 16 sacks of quarterback Jake Fromm, with 12 coming in SEC play and 10 against ranked opposition.

Against SEC opposition, Alabama's defense averaged 1.4 turnovers per game and limited them to 97.6 yards per contest on the ground. 

However, the Crimson Tide haven't faced a running back duo like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who helped the Bulldogs average 276.6 rushing yards per game in SEC play. 

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Sony Michel #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs runs to the end zone for a touchdown tying the game 31-31 in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal Game at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on Jan
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Something has to give in the colossal matchup in the national championship. Either Alabama's defense will succumb to Georgia's dominant running game, or the Bulldogs will fail to match the tenacity of the Crimson Tide front seven. 

If Alabama wins the battle in the trenches, it will put pressure on Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to complete passes on 3rd-and-long to keep drives going and set up scoring plays. 

In contrast, if Chubb and Michel find space in the Alabama front seven and have success in the first half, the Bulldogs will have a better chance of securing a victory. 


Which Young Quarterback Will Make the Most Plays? 

Fromm and Alabama sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts aren't unproven commodities, but they're also not game-changing signal-callers at this point in their respective careers. 

Neither underclassman is expected to throw for 300 yards and light the opposing secondary on fire, but they'll have to come up with high-percentage throws in order to give their respective running games breathing room. 

If Georgia can find a way to get a few yards on first and second down, Fromm will be in a more comfortable position on 3rd-and-short, as he recorded 568 passing yards and had a completion percentage of 58.9 on third down plays between three and seven yards

While he doesn't have terrible numbers on third down with eight to 10 yards to gain, Fromm doesn't have a large enough sample size for us to make a fair judgement on his play in that specific situation. The freshman has completed 11 of 20 passes for an average of 9.9 yards when faced with 3rd-and-long. He's also thrown two interceptions and been sacked twice in that situation. 

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Jake Fromm #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs looks to pass in the first half against the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose B
Harry How/Getty Images

Alabama's goal on defense will be to stop Chubb and Michel's advances on first and second down and then send a ton of pressure in Fromm's direction on third down and hope he either fails to find a receiver or turns the ball over. 

Hurts' versatility in the pocket makes him more of a threat to make plays with his legs in 3rd-and-long situations. The sophomore has run for 137 yards on 18 attempts on third-down plays with three to seven yards to gain. In that same situation, he's thrown for 292 yards and been sacked on four occasions. 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Jalen Hurts #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs with the ball as Clelin Ferrell #99 of the Clemson Tigers and Austin Bryant #7 defend in the first half of the AllState Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1,
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The best way for both teams to hand their quarterbacks confidence may be to throw the ball on first down. 

Hurts has 870 yards and eight touchdowns on first-down passes, and Fromm has 906 passing yards with nine touchdowns. Throwing on first down may not be ideal, especially if an incomplete pass sets the offense back, but it's worth a shot in a game that will be decided by the smallest margins. 


Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90

All statistics obtained from ESPN.com and Sports Reference


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