ATHENS – There already was going to be an enormous amount of attention on the Georgia-Alabama game before Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Now that he has, the challenge might be keeping the focus on the tremendous football matchup these teams present.
For the third time under coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs are facing Alabama with a top-5 team. This time it’s No. 3 Georgia (3-0) versus No. 2 Alabama (3-0). So, there’s a lot to be said for the teams that will take the field beyond one of them being under the direction of arguably the greatest coach in college football history.
Here are five considerations as the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide prepare for Saturday night’s competition (8 p.m., CBS) in Tuscaloosa at Bryant-Denny Stadium:
Saban vs. assistants
With last Saturday’s 63-48 win over Ole Miss, Saban improved his record against former assistant coaches to an incredible 21-0. First-year Rebels coach Lane Kiffin was the latest victim. He joins Georgia coach Kirby Smart (0-2), Derek Dooley (0-3), Jim McElwain (0-3), Will Muschamp (0-3), Mark Dantonio (0-2), Jimbo Fisher (0-4), Billy Napier (0-1) and Jeremy Pruitt (0-2).
Truly, though, Smart is the only one of those former assistants who has been intensely competitive against his old coach. McElwain, who as Florida’s coach went against Alabama twice in the SEC Championship game, keeping the margin to 14 points (29-15) in 2015. Otherwise, the other games all have been blowouts.
Smart’s Georgia teams actually led Saban by two scores in the second half of each of their games. Of course, Bama rallied behind their coach and won them both, 26-23 in overtime of the 2017 national championship game and 35-28 in the 2018 SEC Championship game.
Smart is again bringing a stout roster to face his former boss. But as of this writing it was still unclear whether a victory or defeated would be credited to Saban or his appointed interim, Steve Sarkisian. Officially, the NCAA leaves that up to the respective institutions and Alabama hadn’t made a determination as of Thursday afternoon.
Regardless, Smart insists he’s not at all concerned with breaking the streak.
“It is not something I focus on,” he said. “I focus on what’s going to allow us to play good.”
D vs. O
The most intriguing aspect of Saturday’s game is how it matches Alabama’s strength – the nation’s best offense – against Georgia’s strength – the nation’s best defense. Specifically, the Bulldogs' secondary and pass-rush specialists against the Tide’s prolific passing attack should make for a fascinating game within the game.
Alabama looks unstoppable with first-year starter Mac Jones throwing to DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and the other Tide wideouts behind a mammoth offensive line. They’re averaging 385 yards per game through the air, and Jones leads the nation in pass efficiency.
That’s not to mention running back Najee Harris who leads the SEC in rushing and the nation in scoring (20 ppg, or 10 TDs).
But if any team can combat that it’s Georgia. The Bulldogs' defense comes in ranked No. 1 against the rush (38.3 ypg), No. 21 against the pass (198.3 ypg), No. 2 in total defense (236.7 ypg) and No. 5 in points allowed (12.3 ppg). They will arrive in Tuscaloosa with a veteran unit that includes 36 players that played 100 or more snaps last season, when Georgia led the country in rushing and scoring defense.
What’s different this season is Georgia has been creating some serious “havoc.” In addition to five interceptions and seven takeaways overall, the Bulldogs have recorded an incredible 72 quarterback pressures in three games. That includes 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss.
“Obviously their offense has made a lot of plays,” junior nose guard Jordan Davis said of Bama. “At the end of the day, we just want to have one more point that they do.”
There probably is not a college football analyst on the planet who will give the Bulldogs the quarterback edge for Saturday’s game. Not only is Alabama’s Jones and his offense more statistically impressive, he’s more physically impressive as well.
Jones, a fourth-year junior, has prototypical quarterback size at 6-3, 214 pounds. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett is listed at 5-11, 190, though those close to him insist he’s an eighth-inch shy of 6 feet and weighs 198 pounds.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs have plenty of confidence in their quarterback, too. And, while his numbers pale in comparison with Jones' at Alabama, they’re nothing to scoff at.
Since taking over as Georgia’s quarterback in the second quarter of the season opener, Bennett has completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 689 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. That gives him a pass-efficiency rating of 151.55, which ranks 20th nationally.
Bennett also has proved exceptionally mobile. He has been sacked three times – once in each of the three games – but he’s also made several plays under pressure and actually has run for a touchdown and two-point conversion.
“Stet is confident in himself and he’s a competitor,” junior offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer said. “Stet goes out there and gives it everything he’s got every day. He doesn’t like to lose.”
The Cochran Effect
One area in which Georgia has a clear edge statistical edge is special teams. The Bulldogs enter the contest ranked No. 3 in ESPN’s special-teams efficiency rankings, which take into account all aspects of special-teams play. The Tide comes in at No. 24.
The person overseeing Georgia’s special-teams play is, of course, former Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran. He left Saban’s side to come help his buddy Smart as a first-time assistant coach. Considered a risky move at the outset, it is working out well for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs lead the nation in net punting (47.7), Jake Camarda leads the nation in punting average (51 ypp), Kenny McIntosh has them leading the SEC in kickoff returns (42.8 ypr) and walk-on kicker Jack Podlesny is second in the league in field-goal percentage (7-of-8, .875), including a 51-yarder.
Ins and outs
Georgia is supposed to get some players back for this game that missed all or parts of the Tennessee game, including running back James Cook (shoulder) and Matt Landers (shoulder). The Bulldogs will be without wideout Tommy Bush, who has not played this season but was struck by a car in downtown Athens on Sunday and required dental surgery.
Alabama will be without one significant player for at least one half. Starting safety Jordan Battle was flagged for targeting in the second half of the Ole Miss game and will have to sit out the first half against Georgia per SEC rules.
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