College Football National Championship Preview: 3 Questions That’ll Define This Year’s Matchup

College Football National Championship Zamir White (3) runs against Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) during the first half of the SEC championship game on Dec. 4
Zamir White (3) runs against Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) during the first half of the SEC championship game on Dec. 4Brynn Anderson/AP / Shutterstock

The 2021 college football season will end with the matchup it was always supposed to have. That’s not to say the sport is better off with Alabama and Georgia, two SEC teams that met just a month ago, competing in the College Football Playoff National Championship. It simply means that the lifeblood of any program is its recruiting, and Alabama and Georgia have recruited on their own tier, well above anyone else in this gigantic sport.

 

 

That was the story of the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, when Georgia overwhelmed Michigan and Alabama never let Cincinnati even pretend it was about to achieve an upset. The Wolverines brought in an offensive line that had just won the Joe Moore Award as the best in the country, and Georgia turned that line into rubble all night. The Bearcats appeared to have a defense that could hang with Alabama, but they couldn’t stop the run and their offense couldn’t score. These were the next best teams the sport had to offer, and they couldn’t do much to threaten the eventual finalists.

So here we are. Bama and Georgia will kick off the national championship Indianapolis on Monday, Jan. 10 shortly after 8 p.m (EST) on ESPN. Below are some questions I have about their matchup, and the answers will go a long way toward determining who lifts a trophy at the end of the evening.

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College Football National Championship Preview

Will this game look like every other time the Tide play the Dawgs?

That’s not the same as asking, “Will Alabama win like always?” Nick Saban has won seven in a row against Georgia, and the last four (two SEC Championships, a national title game, and a regular season game) have come against Kirby Smart, his old defensive coordinator. I don’t know if this will be the moment Smart finally breaks through. The Dawgs are three-point favorites, and in my head, they’re around a 50-50 proposition to pull it off.

But I think in terms of play calling, this game will look similar to the teams’ December meeting in Atlanta. In that game, Bama had Bryce Young drop back to pass on 68 percent of its offensive snaps, one of the highest rates of pass calls since Saban took over in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Georgia also had Stetson Bennett IV drop back 68 percent of the time, much higher than in any other game this year. (The next-closest figures were around 55 percent.) The game became a shootout, and Bama won because Young outperformed Bennett in the second half. Their 2020 regular season meeting took a similar shape, with both teams chucking the ball around frequently.

Expect lots of throwing. But that doesn’t mean the outcome—a 41–24 Bama win in each of the last two meetings—will match recent events. Both Saban and Smart are defensive-minded leaders, and their staffs will spend a ton of time looking for any little edge.

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Is the third time the charm for Stetson Bennett IV?

In many ways, this game is Bennett’s show. You are by now probably familiar with his story as a former Georgia walk-on and scout team quarterback who went to junior college, returned to the Dawgs as a backup, and worked his way into the starting job over the last two years through a mix of injuries to more touted peers and his own sturdy play. All the while, a lot of outside onlookers (I’m raising my own hand right now) have been publicly skeptical about whether he’s the guy for the job.

Bennett has given Georgia everything it could want in almost every appearance, but the two biggest exceptions to date have been two games against Alabama—losses in which he tossed a combined five interceptions. None of this is really an indictment of Bennett (Alabama is hard to beat), but beating Alabama is very nearly the whole point of Georgia’s football existence. He has been a more productive college QB than almost anyone imagined, and his unique (and likely unfair) circumstances demand that he slay the Saban dragon in order for his career at Georgia to be an unqualified success.

What does a good title game performance look like? Going shot-for-shot with the Heisman Trophy-winning Young would be nice, but a realistic target is to avoid interceptions and find a way to get Georgia into the mid-20s in points. From there, the Dawgs’ world-beating defense will have a chance to go out and win the game.

Has Alabama addressed its offensive line issues?

The dominance of the Alabama offensive line is one of the surest year-in, year-out bets in college football. You can safely assume that the Tide’s big dudes up front will blow open SUV-sized holes for whichever future NFL tailback is running the ball, and they’ll provide ample time for their QB to throw.

This season’s Bama line hasn’t been bad by most teams’ standards, but everything is relative, and by Bama’s standards, it has been terrible. The line played a big role in Bama posting just 5.1 yards per carry with sacks filtered out, their third-worst figure under Saban, and in Young feeling a lot more heat than Bama QBs normally do. (It has helped a lot that Young is nearly unflappable under pressure.) In narrow November wins against LSU and Auburn, the Bama O-line looked less intimidating than at any point in recent memory. The Tide could barely move the ball.

Saban barely tried to run the ball in December’s SEC Championship against this same Georgia team, but he did get a 200-yard rushing day out of Brian Robinson Jr. in the Cotton Bowl semifinal against Cincinnati. Georgia, however, has the fiercest defensive front in all the land. If the Bama offensive line has really improved over the last few weeks, it’ll be a crucial factor in keeping the offense humming. If not, the Tide might be in trouble.

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