Sunday, January 23, 2022

National championship 2022: Five keys to Georgia beating Alabama and winning the College Football Playoff

INDIANAPOLIS — No. 3 Georgia is seeking revenge for its Dec. 4 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Monday night when the two meet in the College Football Playoff National Championship. In that SEC Championship Game matchup, the stout Bulldogs defense was stymied by a Crimson Tide offensive line that was lit up like a Christmas tree the previous week in a quadruple-overtime win over Iron Bowl rival Auburn. 

The Bulldogs are led on offense by former walk-on quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and a versatile rushing attack that can make any defensive coordinator’s head spin. A win on Monday will give coach Kirby Smart his first national title and the Georgia program its first since freshman running back Herschel Walker led them to college football glory in 1980. 

So what will it take for Georgia to break the four-decade drought? Let’s break down the five keys of the game for the Dawgs. 

Keys for Alabama: How the Crimson Tide can defeat Georgia for the CFP title

Fix the glitch

The Bulldogs defense entered Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first game against the Crimson Tide with enough hype to fill the Peach State. The front seven was touted as one of the best of all time, and polishing off an unblemished regular season seemed like a mere formality. Instead, they were unable to sack Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young once as the star sophomore sewed up the Heisman Trophy and set multiple SEC Championship Game records in the process.

That has to change. 

“They did a good job, number one. [Young] did a good job of moving around in the pocket, of creating time,” Smart said. “He’s really way more elusive than people give him credit for. Extremely good athlete. Has elite spatial awareness. He knows where people are, where his people are, where he’s protected, where he’s going with the ball beforehand. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And we brought a lot of different pressures. They did a good job picking those pressures up. And at the end of the day, there’s four or five guys that are one-on-one up there. Somebody’s got to win one-on-one. And a lot of times you’re better at pressure when you’re not on the field as long and you’re winning some third downs.”

Smart is right. They did bring pressure, but not enough. Whether it’s with four or with more creative blitz packages, the Bulldogs defense has to not only pressure Young, but get him on the ground.

Get Stetson Bennett comfortable

Many view Bennett as a “game manager” rather than a “difference-maker” despite being third in the nation in yards per attempt (10.1) and fourth in completion percentage on passes of 15 or more air yards (54.3%). With that said, the last thing that Georgia wants is to get into a shootout with the Heisman Trophy winner. What should offensive coordinator Todd Monken do? Get Bennett comfortable with tempo and some designed runs.

Bennett has 283 yards and one touchdown on 48 carries, a stat that includes negative yardage for sacks. That figure also includes 96 yards and a whopping 8.73 yards per attempt on run-pass options. Tempo can also be used to keep Alabama’s defense vanilla and, perhaps more importantly, wear down its defensive front and test its depth.

Brock Bowers has to be a star

Freshman tight end Brock Bowers leads the Bulldogs with 846 yards receiving and 12 touchdown catches, and he is a mismatch no matter who covers him. Check out his receiving heat map through 14 games.

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Brock Bowers’ receiving heat map Tru Media

If Bennett can connect with his star tight end up the middle and take away the safety’s attention, it’ll go a long way toward opening up those passing lanes outside for wide receivers Jermaine Burton and George Pickens

Getting the ball to Bowers in space is a must since he’s one of the most dangerous players in college football. Monken has even used him on jet sweeps at times during his freshman season. When was the last time a tight end was used as a legit weapon on the ground? It doesn’t happen often, and that versatility needs to be on full display Monday night. 

Stop Jameson Williams

It sounds overly simplistic to say that Georgia’s secondary has to slow down a Biletnikoff Award finalist in order to win, but let’s not out-think the room. Williams, who has 1,507 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns this season, torched Georgia with 184 yards and two scores in December. Alabama lost fellow 1,000-yard receiver John Metchie III to a knee injury in the middle of the game, which had an impact in the win over Cincinnati last week when the passing game wasn’t as effective as it has been in the past. 

Georgia doesn’t have Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner or Coby Bryant — the two stud Cincinnati defensive backs — to help them out. But cornerback Derion Kendrick is no stranger to this stage from his time at Clemson, and safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith are well-versed on Williams’ speed and ability to high point a football. 

The best elixir for the Williams bug is for the Georgia defense to get pressure on Young. He’s been awesome in a clean pocket and when he escapes, but Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and the rest of the defensive front need to help so that Young doesn’t pick the Bulldogs apart again.

Elephant in the room

The elephant in the room is, of course, Smart’s inability to beat his former boss at Alabama — Nick Saban. The Bulldogs are 0-4 vs. the Crimson Tide since Smart got to Athens, including heartbreaking losses in the national title game after the 2017 season and the 2018 SEC Championship Game. Is Saban in Smart’s head? That question has been bandied about over the last week, but Smart needs to treat this like any other game and not worry about what uniform the team across the field is wearing.

To Smart’s credit, he has focused his answers to his lingering question in the way that a coach with eyes on the prize should.

“It’s about the players,” he said. “It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that, the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions — the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games, not he and I.”

If there’s a key spot in the game, Smart can’t lose his mind like he did in the 2018 SEC Championship Game when he called a fake punt to Justin Fields on fourth-and-11 on the Alabama 48-yard line in the waning minutes of a tie game with a CFP berth on the line.

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