Alabama is one win away from claiming its seventh title of the Nick Saban era while winning back-to-back national championships for the first time since the 2011-12 seasons. Still, the No. 1 Crimson Tide find themselves as underdogs heading into the College Football Playoff National Championship against No. 3 Georgia, which they defeated 41-24 on Dec. 4 in the SEC Championship Game.
So why are Saban (the greatest coach of all time) and Alabama (the nation’s top-ranked team) entering Monday’s title tilt as underdogs? One reason: Georgia was the best team in the country on a week-in, week-out basis throughout the regular season. After the Orange Bowl semifinal thrashing of No. 2 Michigan, many believe the loss to Alabama in Atlanta was an anomaly in an otherwise championship-caliber season.
The Tide may have won the first meeting handily thanks to a 24-point explosion in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs are likely not going to be dispatched as easily in the rematch. So what will it take for Alabama to beat this talented and dominant Georgia team twice in 37 days? Let’s get into the keys to the game for the Crimson Tide.
Keys for Georgia: How the Bulldogs can defeat Alabama for the CFP title
1. Keep Bryce Young’s jersey clean
OK, this is highly unlikely to be met as a goal, but it functions as a key focus for the rematch after what occurred in the SEC title game. Georgia has one of the most dangerous defensive fronts in the entire country, but for all of their efforts to overwhelm Tide offensive line, the Dawgs did not register a single sack against quarterback Bryce Young. Alabama’s offensive line was identified as a potential liability heading into that game, but with a good game plan to get the ball out of Young’s hands quickly, it silenced doubters. That same group has some injury issues now, and it will have its depth tested given Georgia’s coaching staff now has a better idea of how to defend Young after having already faced the Heisman Trophy winner.
2. Stay on schedule offensively
This builds on keeping Georgia sack-less, expanding the focus to the run game and avoiding bad penalties. The worst place for Young to be is third-and-long, so it’s important to carry over the confidence from running back Brian Robinson Jr.’s 200-yard game against No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl semifinal to get some good push on the ground. After getting the run game going, it’s going to be important to avoid negative plays — not just sacks, but the holding penalties that can come from trying to keep Georgia’s elite defense at bay — to enhance the offense’s success rate. Young can do a lot to evade pressure with his escapability, but his job is going to be much easier if he’s not frequently faced with obvious pass-rush situations.
3. Young receivers must step up
The absence of John Metchie III has been considered the most significant difference in the matchup between these two teams since they met on Dec. 4, and not having him in the lineup is a significant loss for Alabama. But while missing Metchie’s experience and production is certainly a key piece in handicapping, so is considering who is up next for those targets and receptions if they can answer the call.
Freshman Ja’Corey Brooks started the Cotton Bowl in Metchie’s absence, but he’s far from the only underclassmen option for potential game-breakers in Alabama’s receiver room. Sophomore Javon Baker is another talented player who could be poised to emerge, and freshman JoJo Earle is another one to watch as he’s worked his way back from a late-season injury. Young has done a great job of establishing chemistry with the youth movement in Alabama’s receiver room, and that might be something that proves the key to beating Georgia.
4. Force Stetson Bennett into mistakes
Georgia QB Stetson Bennett had two interceptions in the SEC Championship Game and could’ve had a few more. Even in the Michigan game, where Bennett was excellent, there were a few moments that would have been considered especially risky if the contest was closer. Georgia’s offense is one of the most efficient in the country, averaging more than 7 yards per play, but turnovers will quickly reverse the positive effects of an efficient drive if the Tide can take advantage of an errant throw. Forcing a mistake is two-fold as it requires both linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and the defensive front to create the pressure that gets Bennett off his spot, while the Bama secondary gets to showcase the ball skills that have helped power an SEC-leading 15 interceptions on the season.
5. Don’t give up the mental advantage
It’s not just the four wins in a row for Saban over Georgia coach Kirby Smart. It’s the fact that UGA’s had a double-digit leads in each of those games yet still lost. There’s no point in which the Dawgs are going to feel comfortable based on previous experience, so the Tide can’t let up on that mental advantage in the series. Alabama is Alabama, and what Alabama does is win championships when championships are on the line. Don’t give Georgia any inclination that the 2021 Tide are anything but the program standard, and thus championship-worthy.