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Titans Versus Gods

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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The SEC Championship isn't David vs. Goliath. It's Zeus vs. Cronus.

For many fans, and especially fans of the SEC, Alabama-Georgia is the one matchup everyone has been wanting to see since, well, the epic that was last year’s National Championship bout.

Alabama is in the midst of a historically great campaign, yet to be played within 22 points, even against the 35th toughest schedule in the country, according to S&P+.

Based on the way the Tide have played thus far, there might only be two or three teams in America that have what it takes to beat them. Georgia, however, is one of those teams. The Vegas line currently sits at Alabama -13.5, and pretty much every metric favors the Tide, albeit to varying degrees, but it would be foolish to chalk this one up.

ESPN’s FPI gives Georgia a 36.3% chance to pull off the upset, while Pro Football Focus puts it between 25-30%, and S&P+ has it up at 43%. Alabama and Georgia are 1st and 4th in PFF’s ELO rankings, 1st and 3rd in overall S&P+, and 1st and 2nd in both FEI and net points per drive.

Alabama is better than it was a year ago. Georgia is not. Yet, that contest was decided by the thinnest of margins. The better team doesn’t always win in college football. The better team on a given day doesn’t even win every time. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and genuine occasional randomness are what help to make college football the best sport in the world.

David beats Goliath on a seemingly weekly basis, and this isn't even close to that. This is Titans vs. Gods. Cronus was probably favored over Zeus, too. Nevertheless, as the ruler of the football universe takes on his own son, er, former longtime defensive coordinator, it will take a Herculean effort from the usurpers.

That starts with the run game, which is one of the nation’s best, ranked 6th in S&P+, 7th in marginal efficiency and 12th in marginal explosiveness.

D’Andre Swift has been nothing short of unstoppable since he’s gotten healthy, and even including his early season play, whilst hampered by some nagging injuries, is gaining at least five yards on 54.7% of his carries, averaging a well above average 6.87 yards per opportunity upon reaching the second level, leads the team in marginal explosiveness, and is forcing a missed tackle on 19.4% of his rushes. Beyond that, despite being known as the shiftier of Georgia’s backfield duo, he’s notching a smooth 4.14 yards per carry after contact, according to PFF.

The other half of that duo, Elijah Holyfield, while not as dynamic an open field runner as the aforementioned Swift, averaging 5.81 highlight yards per opportunity, is still above the mean in that respect, and has been a little steadier over the course of the entire season, earning 5+ yards on 59.4% of his runs, leading the stable of backs in marginal efficiency, and gaining another 4.23 yards per carry after contact. He’s also forcing a missed tackle on 16.5% of his rushing attempts.

And, adhering to the federal law that Georgia must at all times have at least four awesome running backs on the roster, Brian Herrien and James Cook are both more than capable of providing any necessary relief.

Those guys aside, though, freshman quarterback Justin Fields could be the real difference maker in Georgia’s already dominant rushing attack. Albeit on a smaller sample size, he’s a tenth of a yard behind Swift in highlight yards per opportunity, forces more missed tackles per carry than Swift, gains 5+ yards at a higher rate than any of the others, actually leads the team in marginal efficiency, and has either scored or moved the chains on 54% of his runs.

His usage has been limited, and even when he plays, the full extent of his abilities constrained, having attempted all of three passes when the game was within a score. Using Fields as a running back behind center does nothing for Georgia. Giving him an occasional series -- i.e. more than one play before he goes back to the sidelines -- grants Jim Chaney’s offense an added dimension. The passing game has actually been more explosive, although far less efficient, with Fields taking the snaps (again, on a much smaller sample size than with Jake Fromm), because he forces opposing defenses to play 11-on-11. His presence, along with more creative playcalling, could also help to assuage some of Georgia’s struggles as the field shortens.

As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly pointed out:

  • In open play (snaps between the offense’s 10 and the defense’s 30), Georgia’s success rate is 54.1 percent, third in FBS.
  • Between the opponent’s 21 and 30, Georgia’s success rate is 48.8 percent, 19th.
  • Between the opponent’s 11 and 20, Georgia’s success rate is 46 percent, 26th.
  • Inside the opponent’s 10, Georgia’s success rate is 40 percent, 116th.
  • Inside the opponent’s 3, Georgia’s success rate is 28.6 percent, 129th.

Yikes.

Even so, for any of those fringe ‘Dawg fans that think Fields gives Georgia a better chance than Fromm, just stop. Even after all he’s done, Fromm remains one of the most underrated players in college football.

He, yes, along with a small contribution from Fields, has Georgia 4th in the FBS in passing S&P+, 3rd in marginal efficiency, and 18th in marginal explosiveness. His current passer rating of 179.4 would rank in the top ten amongst Power Five quarterbacks over the last decade. He also takes almost half as many sacks per drop back as Fields, and if there’s anything that teams don’t want to do against Alabama, it’s get behind the sticks.

In any case, no matter who is in at quarterback, they have a bevy of pass catchers at their disposal. Georgia doesn’t have a true WR1 in a traditional sense, but in some ways that arguably makes them more difficult to defend.

Mecole Hardman has been the most targeted receiver, and leads the group in marginal explosiveness, but Riley Ridley, who tops the receiver rotation in marginal efficiency, has just two fewer looks than Hardman. Jeremiah Holloman has found a niche for himself in more of a Javon Wims-esque deep threat roll, and Terry Godwin has recovered from a slow start, regaining his 2017 form and sitting at 1st, 2nd, and 2nd, among UGA receivers in yards per target, marginal efficiency, and marginal explosiveness, respectively. And, lest it be forgotten, tight ends Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner are the two closest to Godwin in the way of yards per target, and the latter actually has a higher marginal efficiency average.

Still, as good as Georgia is at quarterback, at the skill positions, as well as Chaney has schemed since the LSU game, the true MVP, arguably of the entire team, has been the offensive line -- especially given some of the personnel attrition and lack of continuity this group has had to adjust to over the course of the season.

Ben Cleveland, who started the season at right guard, and was dominating before a fractured fibula sidelined him during week four, is probable to play against Alabama, but has reportedly not looked like his old self in practice, stemming from an ankle sprain against Auburn. There may not be a better option, though, as both of Georgia’s primary fill-ins, Cade Mays (questionable) and Kendall Baker (out), are dealing with injuries of their own.

No matter, it has to be nice for Kirby Smart to at least have the option of trotting out the same front five that kicked off the season against Austin Peay back in September.

Plus, even with Cleveland missing time, with intermittent unavailability from one of the two best tackles in college football, Andrew Thomas, this offensive line, led by one of the best centers in the game, Lamont Gaillard, ranks 9th in percentage of 5+ yard carries, 28th in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, 6th in standard down line yards per carry and 11th on passing downs, 30th in standard down sack rate allowed, and giving up the fewest QB pressures per drop back in the SEC.

Of course, given that they have played neither Alabama nor Clemson, they have yet to compete against anything close to the defensive line they’ll see on Saturday.

The threesome of Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs, and Raekwon Davis, along with some fairly substantial contributions from LaBryan Ray, has Alabama’s front ranked 3rd in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, 22nd in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, 4th in standard down line yards and 40th in passing down line yards allowed, and 1st in sack rate.

What Quinnen Williams has done, especially within the context of this particular season, is remarkable. In the year of the defensive lineman, from Houston to Ann Arbor to Clemson to Starkville and back, Williams has been the best of any of them. Quite frankly, he might be the best player in college football, regardless of position, with 16 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 31 QB pressures, and 23 run stuffs, from the interior defensive line, no less, facing double teams all the way. Meanwhile, Isaiah Buggs actually leads the team in yards per play allowed, marginal efficiency and explosiveness, although Williams is right there with him in all three and tied for the latter lead, and trails only Williams and Christian Miller’s 31 in pressures, with 26 of his own. In other words, when a 6’7, 320 lb. space alien in Davis, who himself has a solid 23 pressures, is the third best defensive lineman on the team, the only advice to give an opposing offensive line that is even marginally beneath the caliber of Georgia’s is to find a good hiding place.

Granted, Buggs has been banged up and is only probable to play, but Ray has done an admirable job stepping in this season when called upon. Regardless, with a linebacking corps that ranks 4th in havoc rate right behind them, Alabama currently sits at 5th in run defense S&P+, 5th in marginal efficiency and 33rd in explosiveness allowed.

Frighteningly, even after losing their top six tacklers from last year’s secondary, the pass defense is just as good, 5th in S&P+, 3rd in marginal efficiency and 43rd in explosiveness allowed.

Part of that is a product of the pass rush -- again, 1st in sack rate, and boasting eight players with double digit pressures -- but the defensive backfield has held up its end of the bargain. Deionte Thompson, the best safety in college football, has allowed a reception on less than half of the throws into his coverage, for a 54 passer rating, and is giving up .35 yards per coverage snap and 1.5 yards per target, according to CFB Film Room. Opposite Thompson, Xavier McKinney didn’t start the season quite as fast as his partner, but has since rounded into elite form, allowing just 4.6 yards per target, with as many passes defensed as the former.

At cornerback, with Trevon Diggs out, true freshman Patrick Surtain has been Alabama’s top cover man. His inexperience shows on occasion, but those plays are few and far between, second only to Thompson with 3.9 yards per target allowed. Shyheim Carter has also done a good job from the slot, allowing 5 yards per target and leading the team in passes defensed. However, the problem with Diggs’ injury arises with Saivion Smith having to step into that other boundary corner spot. Playmaking as he may be, first on the squad with three picks, he’s coughing up 9.3 yards per target and ranks last in SEC in yards per target allowed on throws of at least ten yards downfield.

All things considered, that lone weak spot hasn’t mattered that much. Alabama still ranks 1st in defensive FEI, 6th in defensive S&P+, 2nd in marginal efficiency and 42nd in explosiveness allowed, 25th in opposing points per scoring opportunity, and 1st in points per drive against, excluding garbage time.

Comparatively, Georgia’s offense ranks 3rd in both FEI and S&P+, 3rd in marginal efficiency and 11th in explosiveness, 23rd in drive finishing (in spite of their goal line troubles), and 3rd in points per drive.

For Georgia, the big key on offense is that big play battle. Along with the aforementioned marginal explosiveness disparity, UGA rips off a gain of 20+ yards on 12.3% of their snaps (4th in the FBS). Alabama is only good, not great, on the flipside, allowing one on 6.6% of opposing plays (35th). The Tide defense are mildly susceptible to chunk plays against both the run and the pass. When it comes to the latter, the Bulldogs should make a concerted effort to attack Saivion Smith down the field, especially with one of the best deep ball quarterbacks in the country, in Jake Fromm, who has completed 54.1% of his 15+ yard attempts.

For Alabama, aside from the atrocity that is Georgia’s unseasoned french dry bland red zone offense, one of the biggest matchup advantages is Georgia’s pass protection when they get knocked off schedule. Whereas UGA is 30th in standard down sack rate allowed, they’re 89th on passing downs and 103rd on blitz downs. ‘Bama is 1st and 12th in those respects. Now, getting Georgia into passing downs is another matter entirely, but limiting offensive efficiency has never been Alabama’s problem this season -- it’s the big plays, as highlighted above -- so this will perhaps be as important a battle to watch as any in the entire contest.

This might not be a shootout in the way that Big 12 games are shootouts because of the pace of play. Georgia is one of the slowest offensive teams in the country, and Alabama is a decent bit below the mean, too, but the ‘Dawgs aren’t that far behind Oklahoma from a points per possession standpoint. The problem is, neither is Alabama. In fact, Alabama’s the only team closer than Georgia to the Sooners’ generationally prolific unit. It won’t be a surprise if Fromm and company are able to score a little bit in this one, but that won’t phase this Alabama offense.

It has been written about, talked about, and whatever else-ed about ad nauseum, but Tua Tagovailoa is having one of, if not the best season of any passer ever. And while it’s disingenuous to say that Alabama has never been a good passing team (they ranked 3rd in passing S&P+ just last year), they’ve never been this pass heavy, sitting at 107th and 94th in standard and passing down run rate, respectively. For context, they were 30th and 28th last season, and Georgia is 30th and 21st this season.

Yet, even on this significantly larger sample size, Tagovailoa, with some help from Jalen Hurts who has been mighty impressive himself, has Alabama ranked 1st in passing S&P+, 1st in marginal efficiency and 5th in marginal explosiveness.

His top five pass catcher, including tight end Irv Smith, comprise five of the SEC’s top six in yards per reception. Jerry Jeudy is probably the most well rounded, second amongst the group in yards per target and marginal explosiveness, behind Jaylen Waddle in the former and Irv Smith in the latter, and third in marginal efficiency, trailing Waddle and Devonta Smith. Henry Ruggs is a little more explosive than Waddle and Devonta Smith, but perhaps not quite as efficient, and yet all five are notably above the national average in both efficiency and explosiveness, save Irv Smith’s marginal efficiency number, which is only slightly above average. Basically, all of these guys are just really good. Tua makes them better, they return the favor, and everyone they run up against is worse off for it.

And, although the frequency with which they run has decreased, the efficacy with which they do so has only improved, ranking 7th in S&P+ and 3rd in marginal efficiency, despite being 89th in marginal explosiveness.

All the backs are super steady, with Najee Harris as the leader in marginal efficiency, but Damien Harris is the only one even slightly above average in highlight yards per opportunity. Because Damien Harris has take a slight step back as a second level playmaker, couple with the fact that Tua, while a very good rusher, isn’t as dynamic on the ground as Jalen Hurts was, Alabama isn’t earning as many chunk plays on the ground. However, as a result of the enhanced passing attack, and an offensive line that ranks 6th in percentage of 5+ yard carries, 1st in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, 2nd in standard down line yards, and 35th in passing down line yards, their efficiency has seen an uptick.

The great run blocking offensive line has been similarly strong in pass pro, too. Led by the other best tackle in America, Jonah Williams, and one of the other best centers as well, Ross Pierschbacher, Alabama is 16th in allowed sack rate, 11th on standard downs, 38th on passing downs, 21st on blitz downs, and 4th in the SEC in allowed pressure rate.

That’s not a great sign for a Georgia pass rush that is almost singularly reliant on D’Andre Walker, their only player with more than 13 pressures. And whereas Georgia didn’t rack up a ton of sacks last season, either, they boasted a 43.4% pressure rate against conference teams. For context, the highest pressure rate they’ve posted in a single game this season was 39.1% against Tennessee -- and for what it’s worth, Tennessee finished the season 7th in the conference in allowed pressure rate and 104th in the country in allowed sack rate.

Walker is also the only Bulldog with that even has more than 1.5 sacks, and the team as whole ranks 78th in sack rate, and 103rd on standard downs. In fairness, they’ve been able to get home at a decent rate on when they bring extra help, 60th on blitz downs and 31st on passing downs, but that’s as much a credit to the secondary as it is the front seven.

But, boy, is that secondary good. Even with a mediocre pass rush, and playing very bend-don’t-break on standard downs, Georgia ranks 3rd in pass defense S&P+, 5th in marginal efficiency and 2nd in marginal explosiveness allowed.

Deandre Baker has been the best cornerback in the nation, allowing a 47.4 catch rate and a 35.5 passer rating on throws into his coverage. To put that in perspective, if a quarterback took the snap and threw the ball out of bounds into the eighth row every time, their passer rating would be a 39.6. He also hasn’t given up a touchdown since he was born. Not really, but kind of. No one has scored on him in, like, two years.

The safety play has also been excellent, with Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed as two of the team’s three leading tacklers. Nobody beats Georgia over the top and they’re a big reason why.

The cornerback spot opposite Baker, though, has been a bit of a revolving door. True freshman Tyson Campbell started the season shot out of a cannon with some superb showings throughout the month of September. Since then, his play has take a step back and he has thus far, for the season, allowed a 60.9% catch rate and a 102.4 passer rating, according to PFF. Converted receiver Mark Webb also got an opportunity, but he allowed an 81% catch rate and a 115.3 passer rating. It does appear that Smart and Mel Tucker have finally settled on a combination, and probably the correct one. At the other boundary corner, Eric Stokes has been a superb sidekick, allowing a 35.3% catch rate and a 46.4 passer rating, while Tyrique McGhee has seemingly settled into the STAR role, giving up a 60.4% catch rate and 60.1 passer rating.

The run defense is a different story. Last year, their success was predicated on a playmaking linebacking corps, that ranked 5th in havoc rate, behind a solid, if statistically unimpressive defensive line, whose role was more to eat space than finish plays. This year’s group of linebackers actually does rank in the top 15 in havoc rate, but that’s largely on account of a weirdly high number of forced fumbles. Again, outside of Walker, run stuffs from the LBs are few and far between. The defensive line, despite some key losses and a lack of overall depth, relative to most of the rest of the team, has had to pick up the slack, and has done an admirable job. Jonathan Ledbetter, Tyler Clark, Malik Herring, and Jordan Davis round out the top five, behind Walker, in terms of stuffs.

Still, with limited support from the linebackers, Georgia’s run defense is 50th in S&P+, 71st in marginal efficiency and 8th in explosiveness allowed (so, so bend-don’t break), 110th in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, 91st in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, 97th in standard down line yards and 111th in passing down line yards per carry allowed.

Altogether, Georgia’s defense still ranks 9th in FEI, 14th in S&P+, 24th in marginal efficiency and 1st in explosiveness allowed, 49th in drive finishing, and 21st in points per drive allowed.

On the flipside, Alabama’s offense is 2nd in FEI and S&P+, 2nd in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness, as well, 7th in drive finishing, and, once more, 2nd in points per drive.

As highlighted above, Alabama has been far more pass-heavy than usual this year, as is obvious to anyone that has watched, and with good reason. Then again, they’ve also yet to need to lean on what is still one of the best rushing attacks in the country. This might be the game that changes.

Part of the reason for Alabama’s offensive dominance has been its explosiveness, most of which has come by way of the passing game. They rank 2nd in percentage of 20+ yard plays. However, Georgia allows the lowest percentage of such plays, and their pass defense is elite. Even as good as a Alabama’s passing offense is, if Georgia’s calling card is limiting explosiveness at the cost of some efficiency, why bother?

And at that point, if the goal is just death by a thousand cuts, why do it through the air, an inherently riskier proposition, again, versus an elite secondary, when Georgia’s run defense isn’t very good -- sure, taking away big gainers, but largely getting eaten up five yards at a time?

The only knock on Alabama’s rushing offense is the lack of explosiveness, but that doesn't matter either, given Georgia’s schematic approach. And sure, the Bulldog’s run defense has looked much improved of late, especially against Kentucky and Georgia Tech, but one of those teams is borderline incapable of throwing a forward pass and the other is, well, Georgia Tech.

And, of course, if that isn’t working, Tagovailoa and all those weapons on the outside will still be there if needed.

It seems like Georgia doesn’t have much of a choice beyond simply being more aggressive on run downs to try to knock Alabama off schedule. At that point, the pass rush has been good enough on passing downs to at least make Tagovailoa uncomfortable, and the secondary has proven that it can hold its own. It feels stupid to say that Smart and Tucker need to force the most effective passing offense in the country to pass the ball, but that truly seems like the best bet.

UGA literally ranks last in the country in average opposing third down distance. That’s worked well enough against the teams they’ve played, but it won’t against one of the top three third down offense going. Being more aggressive, after a heaping portion of conservative defense got you this far, seems counterintuitive. There’s really no other option though.

If there is one phase of the game where Georgia has a stark advantage, it’s the same one that pretty much anyone always has against ‘Bama: special teams.

Georgia ranks in the top 10 in special teams S&P+. The Tide are 92nd. Thanks to the efforts of Rodrigo Blankenship, 11th in the FBS in field goal percentage, yet to miss a PAT, and 13th in net points per attempt -- basically, based on distance, he averages .41 points per attempt more than the average college kicker’s expected output -- Georgia ranks in the top 15 in both field goal value per kick, and kickoff efficiency, with him tallying a touchback on 84.1% of his kicks.

Meanwhile, with Mecole Hardman doing the lion’s share of the damage, Georgia is in the top ten in both kick and punt return success rate, and Hardman leads the nation in yards per punt return.

The lone weak link has been freshman punter Jake Camarda. His 56.3 punting success rate is 85th in college football, but other than that Georgia is elite.

Now, Alabama’s special teams aren’t a total disaster. Josh Jacobs has them 1st in the country in kick return success rate. The kickoff coverage has been good, too, 28th in success rate, despite Joseph Bulovas’ 40.2% touchback rate, including three that have gone out of bounds. Still, kicking it out of bounds is a sound alternative to letting Hardman return it. The punt returns are only average. Jaylen Waddle does have one punt return touchdown, but his success rate is 67th.

The actual punting and place kicking are just downright bad, though. Bulovas is 50th in field goal percentage, but he’s missed five extra points (and Austin Jones has missed another three), and his -.1 net points per attempt have Alabama at 94th in field goal value per kick. Not to be outdone, Mike Bernier and Skyler DeLong have combined to average the fewest yards per punt of any tam in the FBS, and rank 105th in punting efficiency.

If Georgia is going to win this game, special teams will play a significant role in the outcome. Alabama has been able to overcome their own bad unit because everything else is so good, ranking 23rd in average starting field position on offense and 18th in average starting field position on defense. Georgia, even with their superior group, is 50th on offense and 28th on defense. The difference between Georgia’s defense and ‘Bama’s offense is negligible here, but Georgia’s own offense does not want to face too many long drives against the vaunted Crimson Tide D.

The turnover battle will also be important, as the team that wins that wins the game 73% of the time. Alabama is 9th in nation in turnover margin at + 10, which is right where they are expected to be based on turnover luck. Georgia has been a little unfortunate in this respect, ranked 44th at +3, despite having an expected margin of about +6, which is 16th in expected margin. Luck is a fickle mistress, but eventually everything returns to the mean. Alabama is right in line, but maybe this is the day that the (metaphorical) tides swing in the Bulldogs’ favor.

Alabama looks like a juggernaut, an unstoppable force, but Georgia will be the best team they’ve played. To dismiss the Red and Black out of hand would be a mistake. It’s an uphill climb, certainly, against a team that beat them, and then only got better, whereas Georgia has probably incrementally regressed, overall.

Sure, Alabama’s offense is a little better than Georgia’s offense, and Alabama’s defense is better than Georgia’s defense, but Georgia and Alabama’s offenses aren’t playing each other. Neither are the two defenses. Georgia’s offense is playing Alabama’s defense, and Georgia’s offense is probably a little bit better. By that same token, Alabama’s offense is playing a Georgia defense that is a bit more decidedly better than, but Georgia has the most significant matchup disparity in the contest, via special teams.

Sure, on a more granular level, through the prism of unit matchups or even individual matchups, the Tide may hold a few more edges, but not by some unovercomable gap.

And, no a former Saban assistant has never beaten the master.

But Zeus had never beaten Cronus until he did.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP