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Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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The National Championship will be a story of unstoppable offenses and immovable defenses... but mostly immovable defenses.

There might not be two more comparable teams amongst the nation’s elite than Alabama and Georgia. In the words of Southern Pigskin contributor Ben Troupe, “it’s Alabama vs. Alabama East”. He’s not wrong.

Alabama is the betting favorite with a 57.5% win expectancy according to ESPN’s FPI, and a 55% win expectancy from SB Nation writer Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metric. Still, it’s fair to say that the projected outcome is hardly conclusive. This one’s closer to a toss-up than anything else.

One thing that could be concerning for Georgia is their offensive pace. The three teams that have beaten Alabama over the past three years are all at least in the top half of FBS teams in adjusted pace and two of the teams finished in the top ten in plays run. Georgia ranks 106th in adjusted pace this season.

However, Georgia can certainly take solace in that, regardless of how fast they go, their offense has been one of the sport’s best, most efficient groups, ranking third in offensive FEI (a Football Outsiders measure of value generated per drive, adjusted for starting field position and strength of opponent, filtering out clock kills and garbage time), and 11th in offensive S&P+ (a combined, opponent adjusted measure of five factors: explosiveness, efficiency, drive-finishing, field position, and turnovers).

Obviously, that all starts with the run game.

As a whole, the unit boasts a top 20 success rate of 47.2% (gaining at least 50% of the necessary yardage to move the chains on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down), is in the top five for IsoPPP (equivalent points per successful play; a measure of explosiveness), gains at least five yards on 43.9% of carries (9th in FBS), and is altogether 7th in rushing S&P+.

For that, Georgia first and foremost have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to thank. The pair of seniors ranked 6th and 7th in the country, among draft eligible running backs during the regular season, for missed tackles per touch, according to Pro Football Focus. The former has at least five yards on 44.9% of carries (the national average is 38.5%), while gaining and extra 6.5 yards per carry on those that do, while the latter has hit that mark on 47.9% of carries, with an average of 8.6 highlight yards per rush. Breakout freshman star D’Andre Swift has done his part to add an extra element to Georgia’s backfield, gaining five or more yards on 43.6& of runs and 9.3 highlight yards per opportunity.

They don’t do it by themselves, though. After severely underwhelming a season ago, Georgia’s offensive line has become one of the better run blocking units in the game, ranking twelfth in opponent adjusted line yards (a metric that attempts to separate what an offensive line does from what the ball carriers do, inasmuch as that’s possible), averaging 3.31 raw line yards per carry on standard downs (17th), and 3.85 on passing downs (8th), while allowing run stuffs (stops at or behind the line of scrimmage) just 17.5% of the time (35th).

Even so, Georgia has not played a run defense like Alabama’s. That’s not because they haven’t played any good, even great, rushing defenses, either; the Crimson Tide’s just happens to be the best in the country.

Nick Saban’s rush defense, ranked first in S&P+, has a 32.8% allowed success rate (2nd), the lowest allowed rushing IsoPPP in the country, and gives up five or more yards on just 29.3% of carries (3rd). Even with what, by Alabama standards, is a lesser defensive front, they rank 7th in allowed adjusted line yards, and stuff opposing runners 22.2% of the time (38th).

Da’Ron Payne spearheads the group with five stuffs, an allowed success rate of 27.7%, and a top 20 run stop percentage (percentage of tackles that constitute a ‘win’ for the defense) among interior defenders that have played at least 200 run defense snaps. Beyond Payne, even if it’s not a typically stacked defensive line, there is great depth with guys like Da’Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs, and Raekwon Davis, among others.

The linebacking corps took a big hit with the recent loss of Anfernee Jennings, the team leader in run stuffs, not to mention having been without Shaun Dion Hamilton since early November. Shed no tears, though, for Jeremy Pruitt who still trots out the likes of Rashaan Evans and Mack Wilson, both of whom boast sub-38% allowed success rates.

Nevertheless, Alabama’s front seven is, uncharacteristically, not the strength of the defense -- that would be the secondary… even against the run. Minkah Fitzpatrick, perhaps playing out of position at safety, although taking plenty of snaps as a slot corner, has been college football’s most versatile, and arguably best defender. He has six run stuffs with a 39.2% allowed success rate, which is incredible for a defensive back, while Ronnie Harrison has four, and senior Tony Brown has his own impressive allowed success rate of 37.9%.

Given the circumstances, it’s truly incredible that Alabama’s run defense is even amongst the sport’s elite, much less the absolute best. Georgia, like Alabama, is one of the most run heavy teams in college football, so there may be some level of uncomfortability if forced to throw more than usual. However, that doesn’t mean Georgia can’t still have success.

The Bulldogs’ passing offense, ranked 5th in S&P+, has a 45.2% success rate (20th), and also ranks in the top 25 for IsoPPP. Freshman Jake Fromm ranks fourth in the nation in passer rating and has been especially effective on deep balls, ranking second among power five quarterbacks with a 54% completion percentage and first in QBR, with a 13:0 touchdown to interception ratio on passes of 15+ yards downfield, the most of such scores without a turnover.

Then again, Alabama ranks second among Power 5 teams in completion percentage on balls 15+ yards downfield, and first in yards per attempt, TD:INT ratio, and total QBR allowed on those throws.

Javon Wims, Fromm’s primary target, ranks in the top 20 of draft eligible receivers for yards per route run and the top ten for deep ball catch rate, while Terry Godwin leads Georgia’s main wideouts with 12.6 yards per target, and Mecole Hardman boasts a 61.8% receiving success rate.

On the flipside, Alabama boasts the best secondary in college football, including a cornerback that allowed the SEC’s second lowest passer rating on throws into his coverage, in Levi Wallace.

Up front, while Georgia has one of the best run blocking groups in the country, and has made great strides in pass pro, relative to last season, thanks greatly due to left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s top ten pass blocking efficiency rating for his position, there’s still a lot to be desired in that respect. It’s much better than it was, but Georgia does rank only 68th in allowed adjusted sack rate, giving one up on 7.4% of dropbacks on standard downs (109th), and 6% of passing downs (44th).

Alabama isn’t quite elite in the pass rush, ranking 29th in adjusted sack rate, with a 7% rate on standard downs (22nd), and 10.2% on passing downs (18th), but they’re better at getting to opposing passers than Georgia is at preventing that.

Altogether, Alabama ranks 6th in pass defense S&P+, with a 34% allowed success rate (13th), and a top 25 IsoPPP ranking for themselves.

Despite what the outside perception about Jalen Hurts might be, Alabama’s passing attack is quite good in its own right. The sophomore ranks eleventh in the nation in passer rating and they, as a whole, are third in passing S&P+, with a 43.6% success rate (37th), and a top 15 IsoPPP ranking.

Whereas Georgia spreads the ball out to more receivers, Alabama leans very heavily on Calvin Ridley, the beneficiary of 30.7% of the team’s total targets (for a frame of reference, no other Alabama pass catcher has a target rate above 10%), and with good reason. The future first round draft pick ranks in the national top ten for yards per route run, and the top 25 for catch rate on passes 20 or more yards downfield, from which 18.3% of his targets come.

Georgia could match up Deandre Baker with him, who has played the most coverage snaps of any SEC cornerback to not allow a touchdown this year, but they may just be better off lining up Malkom Parrish with him and giving safety help over the top. No one man can stop this guy.

Yet, for as good as the Tide’s overall efficiency has been, and as good a run blocking offensive line as the Tide have, their pass protection has been abysmal, ranking 92nd in allowed adjusted sack rate, with a 9.5% rate in standard downs (123rd) and 10.5% rate on passing downs (108th).

Granted Georgia, who has done a good job, all season, of creating pressure with the pass rush, has largely struggled to finish sacks, ranking 71st in adjusted sack rate, with a 5.3% rate on standard downs (63rd) and 8.4% rate on passing downs (41st).

Even so, it can’t be disregarded how well some of Georgia’s pass rushers have created pressure. Jonathan Ledbetter, for instance, ranks in the top 30 of draft eligible interior defenders in pass rush productivity, according to Pro Football Focus, while Lorenzo Carter ranks just outside the top ten of edge rushers.

On the whole, and again contrary to the general consensus, Georgia’s pass defense may be even better than its run defense, ranking 5th in pass defense S&P+, with a 32.9% allowed success rate (7th), and a top 30 ranking in IsoPPP.

However, just as it goes for Alabama’s defense, Georgia’s principal defensive priority will be slowing the Crimson Tide run game -- one that ranks 12th in rushing S&P+, with a 48.6% success rate (11th), and the 31st highest IsoPPP, whilst gaining at least five yards on 46.3% of carries (2nd).

Alabama, again similar to Georgia, has a deep stable of ball carriers, led by Damien Harris, whose 5.3 yards per carry after contact is the best among power running backs with at least 100 attempts. The junior also gains at least five yards on 48.1% of runs with 7.5 highlight yards per carry. Aside from him, none of Alabama’s other backs are as dynamic as Georgia’s at the second level, but Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs get there on 47.3% and 46.5% of carries, respectively. Bo Scarborough’s numbers are a little less impressive, but as physically imposing as he is, who cares? There still aren't many better short yardage options out there.

One thing Georgia does not have is as dynamic a running quarterback as Alabama. Jalen Hurts, the team’s second leading rusher leads them all with a 51.2% success rate and the second most yards per carry upon reaching the second level.

It’s worth acknowledging, though, that beyond Damien Harris, that group owes a great deal of its success to the offensive line, a group that ranks 4th in allowed stuff rate and 6th in adjusted line yards, creating 3.56 line yards per carry on standard downs (3rd), and 3.79 on passing downs (9th).

No matter, Georgia will not be intimidated. The Bulldogs run defense ranks 9th in S&P+, with a 37.9% allowed success rate (29th), and the 16th fewest IsoPPP, while allowing carries of five or more yards 35.3% of the time (40th).

This is where the best linebacker in college football comes in. If Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t the best all-around defender in the game, it’s Roquan Smith. He ranks in the top five among draft eligible linebackers in run stop percentage, the top ten in tackling efficiency, the top 20 in pass rush productivity, is elite in coverage, leads Georgia with eleven run stuffs, and boasts a 32% allowed success rate.

In front of the centerpiece, Smith, Trenton Thompson has somewhat regressed this season, but Ledbetter, John Atkins, and Tyler Clark have done their share to pick up the slack. Atkins ranks in the top 30 of draft eligible interior defenders in run stop percentage, with four stuffs, and a 33.3% allowed success rate. Ledbetter has added another six stuffs with a 25.7% allowed success rate. Tyler Clark has emerged as a breakout star, with nine stuffs and an allowed success rate of 25%. Even Thompson, playing beneath his true ability, has notched four stuffs of his own, on a 28.6% allowed success rate.

J.R. Reed, maybe Georgia’s most pleasant surprise on defense this season, too, has been significant against the run. Ranking 16th among draft eligible safeties with at least 300 run defense snaps, the redshirt sophomore has accounted for 5 run stuffs.

Clearly, there’s not much to separate the two championship contenders on offense and defense. Both incredibly well-rounded, and similarly equipped to disrupt one another’s gameplans, special teams could be the greatest advantage either team has in any matchup within the matchup. This would favor Georgia, who, according to S&P+, has the best combined special teams in college football.

Rodrigo Blankenship gives Georgia the clear advantage over Alabama and Andy Pappanastos when it comes to place kicking. The former has made 85% of his tries and ranks seventh in field goal value per kick. The latter is at 76.2% and ranks 82nd in average field goal value.

Georgia, when they kickoff, again has the advantage, ranking second in kickoff success rate on the legs of Blankenship’s 71.9% touchback percentage. ‘Bama, conversely, is 105th in kick return success rate, and has just two returns of 30+ yards (106th).

When Alabama kicks off, they would get the slight nod, ranking 18th in success rate to Georgia’ 28th ranking on kick return success rate. JK Scott again gives them a slight advantage when punting, for as as dangerous as Mecole Hardman is, Scott has Alabama in the top ten for punt success rate, whereas Georgia’s punt return success rate is 26th.

Things do flip back in Georgia’s favor with punter Cameron Nizialek. He is in the top 20 for punt success rate with 26 fair catches, 21 balls downed inside the 20-yard line, and a 44.87 yard per punt average, which is ninth in the country. Alabama, meanwhile, is more middling with a ranking of 56 for punt return success rate.

There’s not much to split these teams, but special teams is one thing. It could ultimately loom pretty large, just as it did for Georgia in the Rose Bowl. The team that wins the field position battle wins the game over 70% of the time. Both of these squads have put that to good use this season. Georgia ranks in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive average starting field position. Alabama ranks in the top three in each.

Perhaps it will come down to special teams, which would likely favor the ‘Dawgs. Perhaps it comes down to coaching and experience, which would favor the greatest college football coach of all-time, Nick Saban, and his team of players who have been there before.

It is worth noting that Kirby Smart and the Georgia coaching staff have been among the nation’s best coming out of the locker room, relative to their overall play. They rank 6th in both first and third quarter offensive S&P+, as compared to 11th and 72nd in the second and fourth quarters. On defense, they rank 5th and 1st in first and third quarter S&P+, the latter a credit to their halftime adjustments, as seen in the Rose Bowl, and all season before it, as compared to 36th and 16th in second and fourth quarters.

Then again, Alabama has generally gotten it rolling and never slowed down, regardless of where they’re at in the game, this year.

From a pure talent standpoint, Alabama has more than Georgia, and more than anyone else in college football, for that matter, but it’s not overwhelming. This is hardly one of Nick Saban’s best teams, and there’s a clear path for Smart to become the first of Saban’s students to knock off the master.

There is a reason that Alabama is ever-so-slightly favored from Vegas, to FPI, to S&P+ -- they’re ever-so-slightly better than Georgia. There’s also a reason that the key phrase there is “ever-so-slightly”  -- the differences between the two are all but indiscernible.

Monday night’s game boasts the two best, most complete defenders in college football, in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Roquan Smith. Those two will compete alongside nine of Todd McShay’s other top 50 NFL Draft prospects for 2018. It features Nick Saban, the greatest coach the game has ever seen, against his former protege, and the one most well-equipped to end his unbeaten streak against former assistants. It features two of, in my opinion, just three teams this year that possess both a top ten offense and defense. Alabama has more ability. Georgia is more complete.

What happens when unstoppable offenses meet immovable defenses? The only sure thing is that they’ll cap off what has been an incredible college football season in the fashion it deserves.

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