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SEC Championship Game Primer

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the SEC Championship Game.

The path may not have been the one that was expected to be taken, but the final result was the predictable one. It will be preseason favorites Georgia and Alabama for the SEC title in Saturday’s 30th annual SEC Championship Game. The undefeated Bulldogs’ College Football Playoff berth is secured, while the Crimson Tide likely need a win to avoid missing the big show for the second time in three seasons.

Rivalry games are awesome, and other conferences deliver great title games, but there’s something special about the SEC Championship Game. Maybe because it’s the first. Maybe because it’s the one that has an atmosphere comparable to an on-campus game. Maybe because 1992 Florida-Alabama and 2012 Alabama-Georgia still resonate as some of the best college football games we’ve ever watched.

A 2012 redux seems unlikely, but, despite the favorite having lost only once in this game since the mid-2000s, never count anything out in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December. Let’s preview the showdown between the ‘Dawgs and the Tide.

The Vitals
(1) Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC) vs. (3) Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Time: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, Georgia)
TV: CBS (Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson)
Line: Georgia -6.5
Over/Under: 50.5
Most Recent SEC Title: Georgia – 2017 (def. Auburn); LSU – 2019 (def. Georgia)
Last Meeting: Alabama 41, Georgia 24 (Oct. 17, 2020, in Tuscaloosa)
Last SEC Championship Game Meeting: Alabama 35, Georgia 28 (2018)

5 Big Questions
1. Can Alabama’s offensive line be quickly fixed?
Auburn sacked Bryce Young seven times in last week’s Iron Bowl, as Alabama continues to struggle to run the football consistently and with pass protection at right tackle. Georgia’s pass rush is superior to Auburn’s, finishing second in the SEC (behind Alabama) with 41 sacks in 12 games. Young escapes pressure well, but he’s taken a lot of hits the past couple weeks, and no quarterback is outrunning these Georgia linebackers. The Crimson Tide may have to sacrifice some passing complexities in order to max protect.

2. Is Brian Robinson healthy?
Alabama’s star tailback limped off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium last week with a lower-body injury. Robinson’s availability and effectiveness are in doubt for Saturday. Injuries have hampered the Crimson Tide’s running back room, leaving one-time No. 4 running back Trey Sanders as the potential starter. Sanders is serviceable, but Robinson at full speed is a much more dangerous player. Without some semblance of balance, Alabama’s offense won’t fare much better against Georgia than it did against Auburn.

3. Will Stetson Bennett IV be prone to turnovers?
Bennett has been prone to an early mistake in his nine starts this season. Alabama’s 13 interceptions were second-most in the conference, including a game-changing one in the fourth quarter last week by Josh Jobe. A takeaway, short field and early points could be enough to rattle a Bulldogs team that hasn’t had any real game pressure going back to the season opener against Clemson.

4. Can Alabama’s receivers win contested catches?
If Alabama does choose to utilize a lot of max protect, a heavy burden will fall on receivers John Metchie and Jameson Williams to make plays in traffic. Metchie was outstanding a week ago after Williams was ejected for targeting in the first half, while Williams has consistently made explosive plays to help stave off upset bids during the Tide’s up-and-down last two months. Williams’ 13 receptions of 30 yards or longer are three more than any other SEC receiver. Georgia’s secondary has faced only two or three competent passing games this seasons, with Alabama being far superior to any of them. This isn’t a test Georgia is expected to fail, but one they haven’t necessarily proven with evidence that it will easily pass.

5. Will Kirby Smart have to be a head coach on Saturday?
Georgia doubters will cite Smart’s shaky record in key moments in past big games. The difference with the 2021 Bulldogs is that there haven’t really been any key moments after halftime. Alabama has stolen two championship games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium from Georgia in the Smart vs. Nick Saban era. The money is on the latter if this game is within three points in the fourth quarter. There’s still some mental baggage with Georgia, but Alabama has to play well enough for 45 minutes to bring those red and black ghosts into play.

Trivia Time (answers below)
1. Who are the only two conference championship game losers to make either the BCS Championship Game or the College Football Playoff?
2. Who is the last unbeaten team to lose in the SEC Championship Game?
3. Who was the last Heisman Trophy winner to lose his last game before votes were due?

Georgia is the clear favorite, having won every by game by at least 17 points since the season opener. Alabama has three potential game-wreckers in Young, Williams and All-American edge rusher Will Anderson. Young needs to average about eight yards per attempt, Williams needs at least two plays of 30 yards or longer, and Anderson needs to force one turnover. That’s asking a lot of them, but they are at Alabama for a reason.

With Ohio State losing last week, Alabama seems like it might be the final hurdle for Georgia to finally put 1980 behind them. Despite a secure CFP berth, there will be no looking ahead for the Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon. They can deliver a knockout blow to their vulnerable arch nemesis in a stadium that has haunted them in the past.

Say Alabama doesn’t have a chance at your own risk. It’s college football, where upsets happen all the time, but they rarely happen in this game. Despite an almost yearly matchup of great teams, the favorite almost always wins.

Georgia probably doesn’t have the offensive firepower to blow out Alabama, so we could get a clunky start similar to the Iron Bowl. Have no fear though, Bulldogs fans, Saturday will be your day, as Alabama’s ongoing issues won’t get fixed well enough to be able to steal yet another championship from the ‘Dawgs in their home state.

Prediction: Georgia 31, Alabama 19

Best Bets
Last Week: 1-4
Season: 36-28-1
Kent State -3 vs. Northern Illinois
Baylor +5.5 vs. Oklahoma State
Cincinnati -10.5 vs. Houston

Trivia Answers:
1. Oklahoma (2003) and Notre Dame (2020)
2. 2009 Florida (lost to Alabama)
3. Lamar Jackson, 2016 (lost to Kentucky)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.