Alabama and Georgia set up the first all-SEC College Football Playoff final with a pair of very different victories. The Bulldogs prevailed in a thrilling offensive shootout against Oklahoma while the Crimson Tide ground out a dominating defensive win over Clemson.
But these teams are much more alike than their semifinal wins would indicate.
This isn’t a coincidence, either. In his two seasons as UGA’s coach, Kirby Smart has deliberately built a team that looks like a carbon copy of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide squads. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, each ranks among the nation’s top five teams in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they also have similar strengths in terms of how they achieved those efficiency marks.
|Power 5 Ranks|
Given how close a profile these teams share, a few of these mirror-image matchups could prove decisive. So let’s take a look at the most important battle on each side of the ball, and what the numbers say to watch for.
When Georgia has the ball
The biggest matchup in this game might be the clash between the Bulldogs’ explosive ballcarriers and the Tide’s front seven. With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia was the only Power Five conference team this season to boast not one but two 1,100-yard rushers on the same roster. The duo carved up Oklahoma’s defense in the Rose Bowl for an absurd 326 rushing yards, including seven runs of at least 20 yards. Slowing down the Bulldogs’ running game will be a major challenge for Nick Saban’s defense.
It could certainly be up to the task. Alabama had one of the nation’s top run defenses during the season, yielding just 88.5 rushing yards per game — second-best among Power 5 teams — and 2.6 yards per carry — also second-best — against Power 5 opponents. The Tide defense completely stuffed opponents at the line1 just as often as it gave up runs of 5 or more yards (roughly 30 percent of opposing carries falling into each category), and it almost never gave up the kind of long runs UGA managed against the Sooners.2 In Power 5 competition, only Michigan State and Ohio State allowed fewer runs per game of 10 or more yards.
Only three teams really gave Bama trouble on the ground this year: LSU (who racked up 151 rushing yards against the Tide), Mississippi State (172) and Auburn (168). Not coincidentally, that trio limited their negative runs (22 percent) and had a higher rate of 5-plus yard carries (34 percent) than Alabama usually allows. Those kinds of runs help keep an offense “on schedule,” in turn producing the favorable down-and-distance situations that are essential to beating a team as good as the Crimson Tide. (Just ask Clemson, who found themselves in third-and-7 or worse 11 times during the Sugar Bowl, nearly double their per-game average for the season.)
Georgia can take heart in how those teams pushed Alabama’s run D. LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn found particular success running the ball on the perimeter against Alabama. Together, they torched the Tide for 93 yards per game outside the tackles, helping contribute to Alabama’s worst defensive performance against outside runs in a season since 2013. That style of running happens to be a forté for Georgia, too: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Bulldog running backs led the nation in rushing yards outside the tackles and were third in touchdowns to the outside (one of which was Michel’s game-winning touchdown run against Oklahoma). If the Dawgs can consistently turn the corner against the Tide’s defense, it will give their championship odds a big boost.
Of course, Georgia’s dynamic backs can be stopped with the right game plan. In the Bulldogs’ sole loss of the season, Auburn bottled up the UGA running game, holding Chubb and Michel to 48 combined rushing yards and 2.4 yards per carry. They made freshman QB Jake Fromm throw while trailing and put him in unfavorable down-and-distance situations.3 Fromm improved in those scenarios against Oklahoma’s porous defense, but Georgia’s best title ticket still involves running the ball effectively enough to give Fromm comfortable throwing opportunities downfield, where he was one of the most efficient passers in college football this season. That means Chubb and Michel have to keep the chains moving, break off a few huge gains and generally make sure Bama is preoccupied with defending the run.
When Alabama has the ball
Alabama’s offense operates in a similar fashion to Georgia’s, using success on the ground to open up chances to throw downfield. But the Tide have also matured during quarterback Jalen Hurts’ second year as starter. After ranking 24th in offensive efficiency last year, Alabama ascended to fourth this season, nearly offsetting the slight — and inevitable — decline of its all-time great defense from a year ago.
At the center of it all was, as usual, a powerful running attack. The Crimson Tide ranked fifth among Power 5 teams with 256 rushing yards per game, and they had five players (including Hurts) gain 275 or more yards on the ground. Alabama doesn’t have a scary RB duo to compete with Chubb and Michel; in fact, it didn’t have a single 1,000-yard rusher on the roster. But the Tide ran the ball effectively anyway, picking up 5 or more yards on 45 percent of their rushes (second-most among Power 5 teams) and dominating especially between the tackles, to the tune of 116 yards per game.
Nobody personifies that approach more than running back Damian Harris, Alabama’s leading rusher during the season. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Harris averaged 7.0 yards per carry between the tackles this year (sixth-most in the Power 5), and he’s hoping to replicate the success Oklahoma enjoyed on inside runs against Georgia a week ago. With so much attention paid to the Sooners’ passing game, Oklahoma was able to pick up 242 yards on the ground — including 114 right up the gut.4 Sooner RB Rodney Anderson might serve as Harris’s role model; 105 of his 201 total rushing yards came on inside runs alone.
Alabama’s offense isn’t as prolific as Oklahoma’s, and Hurts certainly isn’t going to be confused with Baker Mayfield. But the Alabama QB does present defenses with his own unique challenges, starting with his ability as a runner. Although Hurts was slightly less productive on the ground this season than he was as a freshman, he averaged more yards and picked up more first downs per run5 in 2017. Among Power 5 QBs, only three gained more yards with his legs than Hurts, who also ranked as the No. 2 cog in the Crimson Tide’s rushing machine.
Perhaps more importantly, Hurts continued his development as a passing threat this season. A year after placing 25th among Power 5 quarterbacks in passing efficiency rating, he ranked eighth this season, averaging more yards per attempt and posting a nearly mistake-free 17-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.
Hurts has often been slapped with the dreaded “game manager” label, and it’s true that he doesn’t throw often. Among top-20 FPI teams, only Fromm threw fewer passes per game. But when he does pass the ball, Hurts can deliver lethal strikes when the defense least expects it. He tossed 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions on play-action throws, and led all Power 5 QBs in passing efficiency on rollouts, going 18-for-23 for 222 yards, 6 touchdowns and zero picks.
In a game plan based around effective rushing and opportunistic passing, Hurts — with his ability to limit mistakes, pick up yards on the ground and make big plays in the air — isn’t as far from the ideal field general as he seems. There’s a reason Alabama was a perfect 8-0 in games where Hurts completed passes of at least 40 yards.
Despite the teams’ seemingly identical strengths, most power ratings and Las Vegas books give Alabama a slight edge over the Dawgs Monday night. And certainly Saban is no stranger to winning on the game’s most important stage; a win would tie him with his Alabama predecessor, Bear Bryant, for the most national championships by a coach in college football history (with six apiece). But as Clemson proved last season, even the greatest coach — leading the greatest team — can still be beaten. Soon enough, we’ll see whether the matchups are right for Georgia to pull the upset, or if Bama avenges last year’s title-game defeat. It may be an all-SEC affair, but the chess match should be enough to pull in football fans from across the country.