Alabama as the underdog? Tide players don’t see it that way

Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) places the leather helmet from the "Old Leather Helmet Torphy" on head coach Nick Saban's head after they defeated Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

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Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) places the leather helmet from the "Old Leather Helmet Torphy" on head coach Nick Saban's head after they defeated Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

If you think “underdog Alabama” just doesn’t seem to have the right ring to it, you are not alone.

Alabama juniors Jordan Battle and Evan Neal were somewhat perplexed when asked how they would handle the underdog role against Georgia in the SEC Championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

To be fair, it’s the first time the Crimson Tide hasn’t been favored to win a game in their collegiate careers.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (12-0) are 6-1/2-point favorites over the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1), marking the first time in 92 games Alabama has not been the favorite.

“I don’t really look at it as an underdog, I feel like it is another game,” said Battle, the safety who is third on the team with 61 tackles. “Obviously Georgia is No. 1. Obviously, they are a great team. They have a great defense, they have a great offense.

“In this game we have to make them one-dimensional, like our plan going into every other game.”

Indeed, the Bulldogs’ offense would not seem to pose as much of a threat as others Alabama has triumphed against this season, after entering each contest as no less than 14-point favorites.

Georgia ranks second in the SEC in scoring offense (40.7 points per game), trailing only the Tide (42.7), but a deeper dive reveals the Bulldogs are only sixth in the SEC in total offense, and only eighth in passing offense.

If Alabama does indeed make the Bulldogs one-dimensional, by stopping the run, it could force the Georgia offense out of its comfort zone.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett, who ranks ninth in the SEC with a 65% completion percentage, has not completed more than 17 passes in a game this season and averaged less than 20 attempts in the six SEC games he started.

The Bulldogs rely heavily on the play-action pass game, needing an effective run game to set up high percentage passes and “shot” plays downfield. Bennett, who can also pull the ball down and run, has 10 passing touchdowns and four interceptions in eight appearances against SEC teams.

“Stetson Bennett is very elusive in the pocket, he’s creative in the pocket, and he keeps his eyes downfield,” Battle said. “But that should be nothing new to us. We see Bryce Young every day in practice. He’s elusive, and he makes us scrambles and stay locked on to our men when he’s scrambling.”

Battle and the Alabama defense, coming off a performance that saw them allow Auburn quarterback TJ Finley just 137 yards passing on 17 of 26 attempts with two touchdowns and an interception, ranks fourth in the nation in run defense.

Things aren’t, however, quite as much business as usual for the Tide’s offense.

Neal made it clear the Alabama offense is not nearly as concerned with the points spread as the game plan against a historically dominant Georgia defense that’s allowing only 6.9 points per game.

“It’s not often that Alabama is on the other side of that (as underdogs),” Neal said. “We are approaching this game like any other game. We’re approaching this game with intentions to win.”

The Tide is coming off a 24-22 quadruple overtime win that saw it surrender seven sacks to the Auburn defense.

Neal, a projected top-5 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, per ESPN analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, debunked the notion that Alabama might feed off not being favored.

“I don’t feel like us being an underdog is motivating to us,” Neal said. “I just feel like us being competitors, and us wanting to go out and win and be who we are, I feel like that’s what motivates us.”

Alabama, it’s worth noting, beat Georgia 38-10 in Sanford Stadium the last time it was an underdog in a game, in 2015 en route to a College Football Playoff Championship.