Abnormal season hinges on the usual for Georgia: Beat Bama

As Alabama begins another celebration inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban (left) gives his best to Georgia's Kirby Smart.
As Alabama begins another celebration inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban (left) gives his best to Georgia's Kirby Smart.

Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Georgia is set to begin the 2020 college football season in a month. No one knows if that’s when it really will start or if the 10-game schedule will be completed. The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll includes teams that aren’t playing. College football still plans on crowning a champion Jan. 11, but Las Vegas sportsbooks aren’t taking bets on which team that will be because ...

Gestures at fallout from uncontrolled pandemic.

The uncertainty makes college football predictions foolhardy. I’m going to do it, anyway. Assuming the schedule is completed — which I will for the sake of this essay and some needed optimism — I foresee Georgia, not Alabama, as the top threat to Clemson for the national championship.

ESPN’s Football Power Index strongly disagrees. It tabs Alabama as a big favorite to beat Georgia in October (72.5% chance), to win the SEC (41.6% chance vs. 27% for UGA) and to make the CFP (76.5% vs. 44.3%). FPI puts Clemson’s national-title chances at 44.9% and Alabama at 25.4%, with Georgia’s 7.9%. chance the best of the rest

The betting market aligns with ESPN’s numbers. Turning those odds into implied probabilities gives Alabama a 50% chance of winning the SEC and Georgia a 31% shot. As mentioned, Vegas isn’t taking bets for the national championship now, but before the pandemic UGA was getting much longer odds (12-1) than Clemson (1.5-1) and Alabama (4-1).

The Bulldogs rank fifth in FPI. Ohio State (No. 2) and Wisconsin (No. 4) of the Big Ten 10 are out. So are Penn State (No.7) and Oregon (No. 8). Pencil in Clemson for the CFP — the ACC is better, but no one can touch the Tigers — and that leaves a group of about seven teams with a realistic chance of earning one of the other three CFP slots.

Alabama is widely considered to be the best of that bunch. If that’s how it plays out then after all the upheaval, UGA’s national championship hopes largely rest on the usual: Beat Bama.

If the Bulldogs don’t do it in Tuscaloosa in October, they’ll have to do it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 19. Win at least one of those, and the Bulldogs still might have to beat Alabama again in the CFP. Lose twice to the Crimson Tide, and their national championship drought will continue even with the Big Ten and Pac-12 excluded from the CFP.

The Bulldogs will have to do many other things to win it all. But they’ve been there and done all of that. Beating Bama is what’s left. UGA poached Kirby Smart from Nick Saban’s staff to win a national championship. So long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa, that almost always will require beating Alabama, which Smart failed to do twice with championships on the line.

The pattern was briefly interrupted in 2019. LSU supplanted Alabama in the West before flicking aside UGA on the way to the CFP championship. The Tigers lost their most important player, Heisman Trophy QB Joe Burrow, among an astonishing number of prospects drafted by the NFL. Passing-game guru Joe Brady went to the NFL, too.

LSU’s attrition restores Alabama as the team for the Bulldogs to beat. Florida still is their only challenger in the East. FPI gives the Gators a 35.6% chance to win the division and puts Georgia’s chances at 62.1%. That leaves a 2.3% chance spread among the other five teams. FPI rates Alabama’s schedule as tougher than Georgia’s but, same as the bettors, sees the Tide as a far superior team.

It seems I’m among the few who don’t see it that way. I understand why. There’s the Saban Mystique, which wasn’t damaged by Alabama’s lowest AP poll finish (No. 8) since 2010. There’s recruiting, which Alabama still does best.

But Smart is the one coach who’s kept pace with Saban in that area. And Saban has more holes to fill this season. The Crimson Tide ranked tied for 84th among 139 FBS teams in Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings. That formula, which is weighted based on the statistics that correlate most strongly year-to-year, ranks Georgia 59th in returning production.

UGA retained players responsible for 80 percent of the key production from the nation’s best defense in 2019. Only one departing defender, linebacker Tae Crowder, was selected in the NFL draft. Elite defense has been a constant for UGA under Smart. That’s not changing.

The Bulldogs have more questions on offense. Departed offensive tackles Andrew Thomas (Giants) and Isaiah Wilson (Titans) are projected to start as NFL rookies. Running back D’Andre Swift is expected to be a top playmaker for the Lions.

I have little doubt Georgia will successfully replace those players. UGA’s tailback pipeline is years long. Smart’s recruiting has focused on building a deep offensive line. Plus, the 2020 Bulldogs have lots of experienced pass-catchers, and Connelly’s formula rates receiving yards returning as equally important to passing yards.

That brings me to the most important position. Alabama QB Mac Jones was good last season in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, who is in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranks Jones 24th among college quarterbacks. It rates Georgia’s Jamie Newman No. 3, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

One question about Newman is how well he’ll handle the step up in competition from Wake Forest to the SEC. PFF’s answer: He’ll be great if UGA takes advantage of his strengths.

“Newman’s mobility is a great attribute, but his arm talent is far superior,” writes PFF’s Anthony Treash. “His touch downfield is arguably the best in the country, and it was instrumental in him producing the second-best deep (20-plus-yard throws) passing grade among Power 5 quarterbacks.”

You may recall that Jake Fromm’s inaccuracy on deep throws was the subject of discussion in 2019. Newman promises to be better in that area. Smart’s hiring of offensive coordinator Todd Monken suggests the head coach will be more willing to let his new QB loose. I look forward to seeing the results, if that’s possible.

The SEC, ACC and Big 12 are pressing on without a “bubble” for their teams. Some good news on that front: the NFL announced six positive tests (none for players) among 58,397 administered from Aug. 12-20. False positives over the weekend were attributed to a lab error. Maybe the NFL can pull it off.

But note that professional players have a financial incentive to avoid behavior that puts them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 while away from work. That includes the possibility of fines. Unpaid college players are working and living on campuses that are, predictably, experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks with the return of all students.

The SEC, ACC and Big-12 all plan to play football if conditions allow it. It’s hard to think about games amid a relentless pandemic. But when I do ponder the season I see Georgia, not Alabama, as the top threat to Clemson for the national championship.

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