Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Will Georgia’s might or Alabama’s decade-long dominance prevail in the national championship game?

There have been 1,648 FBS college football games played so far this season. Why does the end of the campaign next week in Indianapolis seem a lot like the beginning?

Alabama and Georgia were ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the Preseason AP Top 25, and that’s exactly where they sat in the final College Football Playoff Rankings. What’s changed now that they’ve both reached another CFP National Championship against one another?

At first glance, not much. The teams will meet 37 days apart in yet another rematch — the fourth overall within a 12-month span in the last decade for the BCS/CFP.

What national title game lacks in viewing diversity with two SEC behemoths battling, it makes up in drama. Will Georgia finally break through? Will Alabama continue to apply its chokehold not only on the Bulldogs but all of college football?

Bama has now been involved in more than half of all CFP games played (13 of 24). Georgia is attempting to become only the second national champion in the BCS era (since 1998) to not win its conference championship.

How much would that matter if the Dawgs won their first national title in 41 years? Two words: Not. Much.

Any TV executive can tell you that brand names sell. These traditional powers will draw eyeballs. These teams are so aligned, they could call each other’s plays.

“I want to get focused on Alabama,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said immediately following Friday’s Orange Bowl semifinal win over No. 2 Michigan. “They got a five, six-hour head start [after beating Cincinnati]. To be honest with you guys, I’m not interested in celebrating.”

So much so that Smart emphatically avoided a Gatorade bath. You know, unfinished business and all that.

Regardless, the BCS/CFP era to this point is largely known for repetition. Same teams, same results. This matchup seems different, at least different than LSU-Alabama in 2011, the rematch that created the momentum for the playoff itself. It’s also different than 2017 when Alabama and Clemson met in the CFP for the second straight year.

It’s different because these teams know more about each other than their mamas. When Alabama and Georgia meet again on Jan. 10 it will mark their fifth matchup in the past four years. Smart has lost the four prior meetings to his old boss, the last two by identical 41-24 margins.

It’s different because we can probably look forward to more rematches if the CFP expands. It’s different because it feels different.

“You can list all the things we did in the last [Alabama] game,” Smart said. “That’s all our kids have heard about for three weeks. Our focus has been on, ‘OK, what can we get better at, where can we turn our energy,’ because it does no good to look backward. It only does good to look forward.” 

After four decades wandering in the national championship desert, Georgia doesn’t have a choice.

How Georgia can win

The Dawgs have improved incrementally this month. From being dominated as a 6.5-point favorite in the SEC Championship Game to dominating Michigan as a favorite of the same margin, Georgia looks like it is inching toward its ultimate goal.

“We knew we were better than we showed last game,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said.

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken had an impressive Orange Bowl, allowing Bennett to further show off his arm (310 yards, three touchdowns). Bennett, the former walk-on, has 10 touchdown passes in his last three games while continuing to shrug his shoulders.

“I didn’t go out there and play well today in spite of people,” Bennett said Friday. “I came out there and played well and worked hard throughout the few weeks we had off because my teammates needed me to do that, and we needed that to win.”

Simple enough. But what Georgia did offensively against Michigan won’t likely work against Alabama. Monken attacked on the perimeter with the short passing game, mixing in big-shot plays down the field by Bennett.

Michigan either didn’t or couldn’t make tackles in space. Alabama will close off those gaps in the flat.

“When you get our guys out in space, especially with the blockers at the skill positions that we have, good things happen,” Bennett said.

The Bennett critics were silenced. It’s clear Georgia can win without the services of backup QB JT Daniels and wide receiver George Pickens.

The defense proved it had a one-game hiccup against the Crimson Tide after it limited the Wolverines to a season-low 84 yards rushing. Linebacker Nakobe Dean, possibly Georgia’s best NFL prospect, had 12 tackles (three for loss) and a sack in the semifinal.

“Was it a magic potion? I don’t think it was a magic potion,” Smart said. “We called a lot of the same calls we called against Alabama.” 

How Alabama can win

Nick Saban has a disrespect card to play. Bama is an underdog (+2.5) for only the second time since Oct. 3, 2015. Both circumstances have come against Georgia over the past six weeks. Alabama obviously covered in the SEC Championship Game. Georgia is a favorite of four points less but will likely be far better prepared.

Despite each team winning its semifinal by similar margins, Georgia was more impressive because it shrugged off the previous performance against Bama.

The Tide have shown an amazing ability to adapt. Like Monken lately, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is showing a brilliant finishing kick. Alabama went from throwing the ball against Georgia in the first meeting to featuring Brian Robinson (career-best 204 yards rushing) against No. 4 Cincinnati. That performance came within Alabama’s worst statistical rushing season (yards per game) since 2007.

Bama’s biggest chance continues to revolve around Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, who is already in the discussion of being the program’s best-ever quarterback after one season as a starter. In the first meeting with UGA, Young threw 44 times for an SEC Championship Game-record 421 yards.

Will Young have to repeat that performance against a defense that is ranked third nationally against the rush? That’s assuming Georgia can run it with Alabama being ranked second in that category. Will Anderson Jr. is a given. The defense revolves around the talented linebacker, who leads the country in sacks with three of 17.5 coming in the postseason.

Who will win?

This game screams close and screams under the total (52.5 points). Georgia must limit Young and history. Alabama has won seven in a row, a record in a series that goes back to 1895. Just a hunch, but this seems to be Georgia’s time. Smart gets his first national championship and denies Saban his eighth. Call it 27-25, Dawgs.

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