National Championship Preview: Alabama vs. Georgia
Another year, another national championship appearance for Alabama.
The fact that this legitimately feels routine speaks to the level at which the Crimson Tide has dominated this sport. Since 2009, Alabama has made the national title game twice as often as it has missed it and is 4-1 in National Championship games.
When Nick Saban’s squad faces Georgia on Monday Night in the College Football Playoff National Championship, the Tide will be going for their second national title in three years. For as good as Alabama has been in recent seasons, though, the game will hardly be a cakewalk for the Crimson Tide.
While Alabama is the 4 seed in the CFP and the Bulldogs are the 2 seed, our power ratings see this as a matchup of the best two teams in the country. The Crimson Tide top the ratings, with our numbers pegging them as 31.18 points better than average, while Georgia is a close second at 30.43 (4.0 points separate them, according to Las Vegas, with 'Bama favored).
For the third straight season, Alabama was powered by a dominant defense and efficient offense, the latter of which probably deserves more credit than it receives. Per our metrics, the Tide have the best defense against both the run and pass, and their offence ranks third and eighth, respectively, through the air and on the ground.
Georgia's offense is similarly well balanced, coming in at eighth in terms of passing efficiency and and fourth on the ground. On defense, the Bulldogs are third against the pass and 11th versus the run.
Here is what we can expect when both teams have the ball.
When Georgia Has the Ball
The efficiency of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was a pleasant surprise this year, but the ground game is really what makes the Bulldogs' offense go.
Georgia got another terrific season from senior running back Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns on 205 carries (6.4 yards per rush). He is a huge reason the Bulldogs are in this game in the first place, as he rushed for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns on 14 carries in Georgia's wild semifinal win over Oklahoma on New Year’s Day.
That performance, though, was not even the best one for a Georgia running back in that game. That distinction belongs to Chubb’s backfield mate, Sony Michel, who ran for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Sooners. The senior has been the other half of Georgia’s two-headed running-back monster as he has rushed for 1,129 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 8.0 yards per carry this season.
As if that was not enough for opponents, Georgia can also turn to freshman D’Andre Smith, who has 603 yards on the ground and might be the biggest “home run” threat of the team's three main backs. Smith is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and 9.3 “highlight yards” per opportunity, per Football Study Hall (highlight yards is a measure of explosiveness that look at a running back’s production after he has gained at least five yards).
For good reason, Georgia has leaned on its running game this year -- only seven teams have thrown the ball less frequently.
The stacked backfield will probably not worry the Crimson Tide, though, as Alabama again owns a suffocating run defense. For the second straight year, the unit leads the nation in yards allowed per carry (2.7) and has not allowed more than 3.6 yards per run in a game since the 2015 season.
This could force Georgia to rely on Fromm more than usual as he attempts to become only the second true freshman to quarterback his team to a national title.
Then again, it is not as if Alabama gives up a ton of yards through the air, either. Led by standout safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison and corners Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace, the Crimson Tide allowed just 5.3 yards per pass, which also led the nation.
The playmakers on the backend also have support from a pass rush that was 29th in adjusted sack rate. Defensive lineman Raekwon Davis was fifth in the SEC in sacks with 7.5, and linebacker Rashaan Evans added six more.
This could spell trouble for Georgia, as the Bulldogs' offense is just 68th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Study Hall. Still, while Fromm was not asked to do a ton this season, when called upon, he was excellent.
Only five passers bested his 9.2 yards per pass average, and he was fourth in the nation in efficiency rating and eighth in ESPN’s opponent-adjusted Total QBR. While Fromm has as many games with 15 or fewer attempts as he does with more than 20, on a per-pass basis, he has been exceptional. The question Monday will be how he holds up if he needs to be a bigger part of the game plan and finds himself in less advantageous down-and-distance scenarios.
The Alabama defense was not kind to the first freshman quarterback it faced in 2018, as it held Clemson's Kelly Bryant to 3.4 yards per pass in its semifinal matchup. Fromm is in a position to do better than Bryant, but the degree of difficulty remains immense.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama’s offense is similar to Georgia's in that its passing game is efficient but secondary to a dominant rushing attack.
The Crimson Tide are 111th in terms of passing play percentage, and while some of this is naturally a function of playing with a lead most of the time, the running game is still Alabama’s bread and butter.
Running backs Damien Harris (983 yards, 11 touchdowns, 7.6 yards per rush) and Bo Scarborough (573 yards, 8 scores, 4.8 yards per carry) run behind a line that features All-SEC performers Jonah Williams and Bradley Bozeman, while quarterback Jalen Hurts is also a threat to run. The sophomore signal caller was Alabama’s second-leading rusher, gaining 928 yards on the ground while averaging 7.4 per carry and scoring 8 touchdowns.
Georgia’s run defense may not be as daunting as Alabama’s, but it was still 30th nationally in yards per carry allowed. The unit is led by first-team All-SEC linebacker Roquan Smith, who made 124 tackles this season, including 11.5 for a loss.
The Bulldogs’ pass defense is its bigger strength on this side of the ball, and it was tied for third in yards per pass allowed (5.8).
This game could be the biggest test of the season for Hurts, who was 5th in Total QBR (which factors in rushing as well as passing), 11th in passer rating and tied for 18th in yards per pass (8.4). His go-to target is junior receiver Calvin Ridley (935 receiving yards), who could be matched against fellow All-SEC performer Deandre Baker.
Hurts’ biggest weakness has been a propensity for sacks, as Alabama is 92nd in adjusted sack rate. This may not be something Georgia can take full advantage of, though, as the Bulldogs' defense is 71st in adjusted sack rate.
As a freshman, Hurts struggled badly in last season’s national title game, completing just 42% of his throws while averaging 4.2 yards per pass. He has another year of experience under his belt, and it was a good season, but given the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the Georgia defense, expect Alabama to lean heavily on its running game.
Of course, that is not a guarantee of success either, and it is very possible we’re in for a clash in which the defenses take center stage -- exactly what you would expect from all-SEC showdown.