Five months and more than 800 games will finally culminate Monday in Lucas Oil Stadium when the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship is decided in … a rematch. The national final features two teams that not only spent the better part of the season considered by most to be a cut above the rest but also played each other four weeks ago.
The eighth final of the College Football Playoff pits No. 1 Alabama against No. 3 Georgia, with the Tide seeking their seventh national championship in the past 13 seasons and the Bulldogs seeking their first since 1980. It will be Alabama’s sixth appearance in the national final in the past seven years, including last year’s title-winning turn. For Georgia, it will be a chance for Kirby Smart to break a winless streak against his former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, and an opportunity for the fan base to exorcise the Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith demons of 2018.
Last month, the Tide swept away the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game behind a Heisman Trophy-crystallizing, 421-yard passing performance by QB Bryce Young. The all-time great Bulldogs defense entered the postseason having allowed a nation-leading 6.9 points per game but was exposed for 41 under the lights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was the first time all season that the Georgia defense had allowed more than two touchdowns, and Alabama accomplished that feat before halftime.
After that one-sided affair, each team had nearly a month off to regroup for the playoff. Neither semifinal was particularly close: Both Alabama and Georgia had at least two-touchdown leads by halftime and won by at least 21 points.
Georgia cruised past Michigan in the Orange Bowl, holding the Wolverines’ potent rushing attack to 91 yards and the team to 11 points. On the other side of the ball, it was the quiet-but-capable Stetson Bennett IV who guided the Bulldogs around Michigan, whose Big Ten-leading scoring defense is led by Aidan Hutchinson, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Bennett, a former walk-on, finished 20-for-30 for 313 yards and three touchdowns. His 95.9 Total Quarterback Rating ranked seventh-best of any playoff game since the format was introduced in 2014.
In the Cotton Bowl, Young’s performance wasn’t as highlight ready as his undoing of the Georgia defense in the SEC championship; against Cincinnati, he finished 17-for-28 for 181 yards and three touchdowns and an interception in the win. Instead, it was a long-dormant, mostly unexplored rushing attack that paved the way for the Tide.
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has largely grounded the ground game this season,1 but Alabama began the semifinals with 10 carries and a single pass on its opening drive. It was a sign of a preset shift. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. finished with a career-high (and Alabama bowl record) 204 rushing yards as the Tide repeatedly gashed the Bearcats between the tackles. Leave it to Alabama to largely relegate its first ever Heisman-winning QB to handoff duty in the most important game of the season to that point. Even Robinson was surprised: “I didn’t think I was going to be the spotlight,” he said after the win.
Tale of the tape: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Georgia
College Football Playoff Championship, 8 p.m. Eastern Jan. 10
|1||Strength of record rank||2|
|Bryce Young||Starting QB||Stetson Bennett IV|
|88.0||Starting QB QBR||88.3|
|3||Starting QB QBR rank||2|
|Pass offense||Biggest EPA strength||Pass defense|
|Punting||Biggest EPA weakness||Rush offense|
|44%||538 forecast to win title||56%|
Georgia has a chance to rectify the mistakes made in its loss to Alabama. On offense, that starts with keying in on the pass rush that disrupted the Georgia offensive line. Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. — the nation’s leader in tackles for loss, sacks and pressures — was dominant yet again in the team’s semifinal victory, picking up two more sacks and largely ruining the final game of Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder’s career. With a star turn in the team’s win over Michigan, Bennett jumped Young in the Total QBR rankings, and he’ll need to play like it for the Bulldogs to be competitive.
Alabama’s offense is deadly — 3.19 points per drive (fifth in the nation), with a 13.7 percent three-and-out rate (13th) — but dominance is relative, and this unit actually averages the fewest expected points added per play (0.24) of any Alabama offense since 2017. By overall efficiency, the 2021 squad ranks seventh of eight Tide teams in the playoff era. And remember: Bama nearly dropped games to LSU, Arkansas and Auburn this season. It’s uncertain whether Robinson can come close to replicating his semifinal performance against a unit that has prevented success on the ground this season. The last time these teams met, the Tide had just 115 rushing yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. If the Bulldogs can keep Young in check in Round 2 in a way they failed to do in Round 1, Alabama’s quiet rushing attack might not pack enough punch to threaten Georgia’s chances.
And Georgia has played like the superior team this season by most advanced team metrics. By efficiency, Georgia features the stronger offense (89.3 compared to 86.4), defense (95.9 compared to 81.9) and special teams (57.5 compared to 43.9). Caesars Sportsbook knows this and has installed the Bulldogs as 2.5-point favorites, which means Alabama will enter Indy as an underdog for just the second time in the past 95 games.2
But only someone who has avoided the past decade of college football — and the last two Alabama victories, specifically — would count out the Tide, a dynastic powerhouse on an unprecedented tear through the sport. A greatest-of-all-time coach and head-to-head dominance clashing with a resurgent challenger should make for a fun collision.