Saturday, January 22, 2022

Alabama vs. Georgia 2022: Dawgs bring Tide blast from their past as styles clash in national championship

INDIANAPOLIS — No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia have reached to this point utilizing two different philosophies. Their ideologies are not new or necessarily unique, but in a sport that is defined by its competitive disparity, they respectively do them the best.

Consider that Georgia is largely what Alabama used to be: a team that wins by focusing on the run with (more or less) a game manager at quarterback, plays top-tier defense and puts great importance on the field position battle. That’s a description of Alabama from about 2009-13. Remember the likes of Mark Ingram, Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron?

In 2014, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban decided to switch to the spread. He hired Lane Kiffin to coordinate his offense and installed former running back Blake Sims at quarterback. Off went the Tide. The approach has been perfected to the point that Bama now regularly competes for the best quarterbacks and pass catchers each recruiting cycle.

Plus the best players overall, just like Georgia.  

“[It’s] how he’s adapted over the years,” Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young said of his coach. “The game has changed since he’s been coaching. The players, the landscape of college football, college football in general has changed. And for him to be able to adapt multiple times throughout his career, that’s not easy for guys who have been doing it so long.”

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has shaped a complementary offense around one of the most dominant defenses of the last 20 years. Hyperbole usually rules in these sorts of situations, but there’s speculation that up to 10 players from Georgia’s defense could make it in the NFL.

It’s getting to the point that these two programs are measuring themselves against one another — and little else.

Of course Alabama and Georgia will meet Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship. They started No. 1 (Alabama) and No. 5 (Georgia) in the Preseason AP Top 25.

Georgia lost its starting quarterback (JT Daniels) yet went undefeated in the regular season with former walk-on Stetson Bennett. Alabama lost, period, on Oct. 9 but hasn’t dropped a game since. Come Monday night, you can figure that Bennett will toss a few to running back James Cook and freshman All-American tight end Brock Bowers. Hopefully for the Dawgs, their defense will do the rest.

You know, the way it used to be at Alabama.

“These teams are pretty much evenly matched when it comes to personnel and physicality,” Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis said. “The thing that really sets us apart is mentality and who does things better.”

Since 2007, the last time Georgia won against Alabama, the Tide have been the one doing things better. Alabama’s seven-game win streak is the longest in a series that dates to 1895. But in this moment, the Dawgs must be considered nearly the Tide’s equal. It’s just a matter of proving it on the scoreboard.

You shouldn’t have to be reminded that Alabama is back here despite losing six first-round draft choices, including Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith. QB Mac Jones slid right in as starter for the New England Patriots. He was replaced by Young, who became the first Bama signal caller to win the Heisman.

Yes, life is good in this rarified air.

That 2020 team was second nationally in scoring and fourth in yards. But by halftime of the fourth game last season, Alabama had given up more points than it did across the entire 2011 season (106). That was one of four times Saban’s defense led the country in scoring defense.

Now, carryover (Alabama winning the SEC Championship Game) meets do-over (Georgia). Yes, it’s hard to beat a team twice in the same season, but what does that matter to the Tide? Win Monday and Bama will have captured back-to-back titles twice in the last decade.

It’s that singular focus that keeps arguably the greatest dynasty of all time humming.

“Anyone in the past wasn’t going to help us in the future,” Young said of having to go 97 yards in the final seconds to tie Iron Bowl at Auburn.

The eventual 24-22 win kept Alabama’s championship hopes alive. The fact that it has since blown out two undefeated teams — Georgia and Cincinnati — solidified those prospects.

“It’s the truth. You can’t really run away from the truth,” Georgia offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer said of his coach’s 0-4 record against Saban. “That’s our record. But we’re not trying to make it an emotional thing where you go out playing with emotions.”

The strange combination of two Deep South teams 4 1/2 hours apart in adjoining states meeting at an indoor stadium in central Indiana where the high Friday was 19 has not been lost. But it remains a provincial matchup.

Smart has a lot to do with the Alabama dynasty having worked under Saban for nine years. The concepts that made Bama great are now making Georgia one of the best defenses in a generation.

UGA has to know it is not only playing for itself and Dawg Nation but that 1980 team that would love end Monday night no longer being known as the last national champions at Georgia.

“I grew up listening to Larry Munson highlights on YouTube,” Bennett said of the Dawgs’ late legendary play-by-play announcer, “but there comes a point when you’re a player you can’t be a fan anymore. I don’t know when that was, and I don’t know why, but you just kind of flip the switch.”

These two teams have so separated themselves from the pack that Smart was legitimately worried Alabama had a head start of hours by playing in the early semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

When it’s that close, you look for differences in two master class program. Sometimes the scrutiny borders on the ridiculous. One reporter actually asked Smart if not being able to play early at such a loaded program hurts recruiting. That lit a fuse under the Georgia coach.

“The truly great players understand that no NFL scout or general manager or head coach has called me and said, ‘How much time did [former linebacker] Roquan Smith [get]? How much did Nakobe Dean play as a freshman? That’s not what [the pros] care about. They care about the intangibles, size-speed criteria, leadership skills, how good a football player are they in Year 3. That’s what they want. They start evaluating those guys really hard in Year 3.

“You want to be the best player you can be in three years. Where do you go to do that? You go where you can compete against really good people in practice. You get millions more snaps in practice than you do in a game. So you want to go against the best.”

The best have gathered here, and there is little sign it won’t happen soon again. An expanded playoff will give more opportunity to the underclass but doesn’t guarantee the powers will stop winning championships.

Most of Alabama’s best players return for the 2022 season, including Young and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Smart has stacked recruiting classes that have finished no lower than fourth since 2017. The current 2022 class is currently ranked third nationally in the 247Sports Composite team rankings. In four of those six seasons, Alabama was ranked ahead of Georgia.

Consider how far these teams have separated themselves from the rest of the game. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told the San Jose Mercury News the other day that his league has “a size disadvantage with our offensive and defensive lines”.

Can you imagine SEC commissioner Greg Sankey saying his league had small linemen? The SEC is the ultimate line of scrimmage league where it just means more. Every day.

Meanwhile, Kliavkoff lamented his conference’s plight, saying, “We need to recruit bigger, stronger, faster kids on the line of scrimmage.”

The Pac-12 hasn’t earned a single CFP berth in five years. In the SEC, there are seemingly always do overs. Georgia was assured of a playoff spot before a 17-point beatdown at the hands of Alabama in that SEC title game. The SEC is already assured of its 12th national championship in the last 16 season. It is playing in the title game for the seventh straight year.

We’re in a weird space going into the game as the fan bases argue over who is the real underdog and what motivation is derived from it. For the second time in a month, Georgia is favored over Alabama, this time by 2.5 points, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Those lines mark the only two times Bama has been an underdog since October 2015.

“I think it just fuels everybody up,” Anderson said.

“They threw a lot of haymakers. We didn’t really respond,” Davis said of Georgia’s effort during the SEC title game last month. “This time around, it will definitely be different.”

Since that epic Alabama win over Georgia four years ago in the 2018 CFP National Championship, the Tide have beaten the Dawgs three more times. How many teams could have done that? Well, none. Georgia’s only other losses in that span have been to Texas, South Carolina, LSU and Florida

Smart might be 0-4 against Saban, but he also is 24 years younger. That suggests, sooner or later, he’ll will have his time — if he isn’t having it already. This is the best Georgia has been in the 41 years since its last national title.

Whatever happens Monday, it doesn’t look like the Dawgs are going anywhere … but that doesn’t mean they’ll get to where the Tide always seem to be. 

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