How Georgia Can Beat Alabama

Before Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa became a household name in last season’s national title game, the Georgia Bulldogs had a 13-0 lead and were 30 minutes away from the program’s first championship in nearly 40 years. To start the second half, Nick Saban plugged in the freshman quarterback from Hawaii, and Tagovailoa rallied the Crimson Tide to an overtime victory, adding to the team’s already overflowing trophy case.

Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs retreated with their tails tucked between their legs.

This weekend’s SEC title game, then, represents the rematch. And once again, Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide stand in Georgia’s way.

It’s ridiculous to think there’s a blueprint for beating Alabama when they’ve looked so dominant, outscoring opponents 588 to 165 this season. But there are a few areas where Georgia may have an advantage.

Of course, Georgia doesn’t want to get baited into a shootout with arguably the nation’s best offense. Of course, limiting possessions and muddying up the game are a more optimal approach. Of course, Tagovailoa should be kept off the field as much as possible.

All of this starts with running the ball.

Georgia’s expected points added per game on running plays during seasons under Kirby Smart

Season Nat’l Rank Rush EPA/Game
2018 10 7.85
2017 12 7.22
2016 68 1.91

Source: Espn Stats & Information Group

Perhaps the most underappreciated storyline in the SEC can be found in Athens. Running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb were selected in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL draft, and Georgia’s run game improved.

This season, the two-headed monster of Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift has run buckshot through the SEC. Each will likely eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Largely behind the two, the Bulldogs have over their last four games rushed for 1,345 yards, more than nine teams have accumulated all season. Georgia has the conference’s top rushing attack, gashing opposing defenses for 259.8 yards per contest on 6.3 yards per attempt, and leads the conference in total rushes of 10-plus yards (102) and 20-plus yards (35).

Now, it seems silly to nitpick an Alabama defense that has allowed only six rushing touchdowns all season and ranks in the top 15 in both rushing yards allowed per contest (114.0) and rushing yards allowed per carry (3.3) … but we’re going to do it anyway. If Alabama’s ultra-young defense has had difficulty with anything, it’s mitigating explosive plays. Over 12 games this season, the Crimson Tide has allowed 13 carries of 20-plus yards, tied with five teams for 35th-fewest in the nation. On top of that, the Tide defense has also allowed 38 carries of 10 or more yards. Both numbers are the most Alabama has allowed through 12 games since 2011:

Alabama is vulnerable on the ground

Big runs given up by the Crimson Tide defense and yards given up after first contact on a running plays each year (through 12 games) since 2011

Number of Opponent Rushing Plays with …
Season 10+ yards gained 20+ yards gained YDS. After 1st Contact/Rush
2018 38 13 2.46
2017 30 6 1.70
2016 33 6 1.36
2015 28 5 1.39
2014 33 7 2.13
2013 30 5 1.64
2012 23 6 1.47
2011 21 5 1.39

Yards after contact data is unavailable before 2011.

Source: Espn Stats & Information Group

Opponents are running through Alabama tacklers like never before, too. This season, the Tide has allowed 2.46 yards after contact per carry, which is the worst performance for Alabama through the first 12 games of a season since 2011, the earliest year for which data is available. Of note: Only Memphis has gained more yards after first contact this year than Georgia.

Of course, Tagovailoa is the closest thing to a cheat code in college football this season and could render these potential advantages for Georgia moot. The sophomore has racked up more passing touchdowns in the first half of games (27) than all but 21 schools1 have scored over the entire season. But this is an elite Georgia defense that could be Tagovailoa’s biggest test this season.

The ultimate irony would be if a quarterback change by Smart decided the outcome of Saturday’s game. Jake Fromm has capably commanded the Georgia offense this season and has been sensational since his tepid showing during the team’s lone loss, which came against LSU. But Justin Fields, one of the most sought-after recruits from the 2018 class, has an uncanny athleticism that adds another potential threat to an already devastating offense. At receiver — again, the irony — Riley Ridley (brother of former Alabama star Calvin Ridley, who scored a touchdown in last season’s title game) has elevated his game this season. Fromm and Fields will look to Ridley, the team leader in receiving touchdowns, to take the top off the Alabama defense.

If the game comes down to the wire, Georgia should be the more confident team. Long the Achilles’ heel of Saban-led teams, special teams could be what holds Alabama back. Kicker Joseph Bulovas has missed four of 16 field-goal attempts and has botched five extra points. And while the Crimson Tide ranks in the top two in offensive and defensive efficiency, it ranks a dismal 87th in special teams efficiency. “It’s not really acceptable,” Saban said earlier this month.

Conversely, Rodrigo Blankenship, the bespectacled Georgia sensation, has been among college football’s most accurate kickers, nailing 19 of his 22 attempts and all 58 of his extra points. Georgia’s special teams rank far better than Alabama’s, landing at No. 38 in efficiency.

It speaks to the sheer dominance of Alabama that Las Vegas sportsbooks installed the Crimson Tide as double-digit favorites against Georgia. But this is a dangerous underdog with all the trappings of a dominant squad. Some metrics consider the Bulldogs among the two best teams nationally. They won’t be short on motivation, if nothing else, as they seek to avenge last season’s loss when the lights were brightest.

Check out our latest college football predictions.