The Alabama Crimson Tide are a four-point favorite over the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. There is reason for optimism beyond that fact for the team from the Yellowhammer State: Nick Saban has never lost to a team coached by one of his former assistant coaches.
Still, the game will be played just a couple hours down the road from Athens, so the underdogs will be fired up and in their comfort zone. UGA’s only loss came in a contest in which it laid a big egg on the road at Auburn; when the Dawgs have played their best game, they’re undefeated.
With that in mind, here is what Alabama must do to hold off Georgia and reclaim its spot atop college football.
Stop the run, stop the run, stop the run
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the best two offensive players for UGA. That’s no slight to Jake Fromm, whom I’ll get to later, but they’re one of the best career running back tandems the SEC has ever known. They provided the big-play firepower needed to edge past Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
What makes things difficult is that UGA has so many different ways it likes to run the ball. It’ll do iso and zone runs as its bread-and-butter, but it pulled out Wildcat-style direct snaps for the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation and game-winning touchdown in overtime against OU. On top of that, it’ll find ways to get D’Andre Swift to the edge to take advantage of his electrifying speed.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the only time the run game has been held in check was in the November loss to Auburn. The Tigers held Chubb to 2.45 yards per rush and Michel to 2.33. In no other game, including the SEC Championship Game rematch with AU, were either held below 4.3 yards per carry.
The good news for the Tide is that it has the nation’s best run defense through the end of the regular season according to the S&P+ system. In the Sugar Bowl, Clemson’s run game did nothing aside from a few scattered Kelly Bryant scrambles.
If anyone can slow down the Bulldog run attack, it’s Alabama. It’ll have to do it on every play, because even momentary lapses turn into explosive gains with the speed and power that Chubb and Michel have.
Stay diverse on offense
Alabama didn’t have its best offensive game in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, but that’s because the Tigers have an excellent defense. One thing that the Tide did well despite some struggles was keep the ball spread around.
In November, there were a couple of times when Brian Daboll leaned heavily on Jalen Hurts to carry the load on the ground at the expense of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Against Clemson, Hurts had just nine non-sack carries versus 19 for Harris and 12 for Scarbrough. Giving Harris a hefty share was smart despite his modest 4.1 yards per carry because he had a rushing success rate of 57.6 percent.
Hurts had a mediocre day through the air, continuing a trend of modest returns in the passing game when he faces elite defenses. One of his throws was a quick swing pass that Najee Harris took 22 yards after the ball traveled just a few feet in the air; outside that play, Hurts threw for a mere 4.3 yards per pass. That average would be lower if you wanted to put sack yardage into his passing yardage.
Nevertheless, he targeted 11 different players a combined 23 times (his 24th pass was a throwaway), with Calvin Ridley having the most with six. Hurts locked onto Ridley considerably this year, but he didn’t do that in New Orleans. The upshot was that he had a passing efficiency in the 130s rather than something in the 90s.
Georgia also has an elite defense, so Alabama will need to keep it guessing and play to its strengths, just as it did successfully against Clemson.
Get to Jake Fromm
Through the SEC Championship Game, Fromm took sacks on only 5.8 percent of his dropbacks. That’s a very low number, especially for a true freshman quarterback. Nonetheless, I would expect to see Jeremy Pruitt get creative with blitzes to go after Fromm in obvious passing situations, especially on third down.
Fromm is not really a true freshman anymore. He’ll be playing in his 15th game, and as recently as 2005 a quarterback couldn’t play in his 15th game until mid-to-late September of his sophomore year.
Fromm is excellent at what he does, throwing for a healthy 9.2 yards per pass with interceptions on under two percent of his attempts. He doesn’t have a single dominant receiver as Hurts does with Ridley, but his full cast is impressive. Javon Wims has a big frame good for boxing out defenders, Terry Godwin is a reliable second option, and Mecole Hardman brings blazing speed.
Throwing the ball downfield is necessary to beat Alabama, and Fromm can do it. The Tide will need to get in his face and harass him, because if it doesn’t, he’ll find Wims on back-shoulder throws to the sideline or Godwin on an intermediate cross or post.
It’s no coincidence that Fromm took a quarter of his regular season sacks — four of 16 — in the loss to Auburn. The Tigers bottled up the run, yes, but also kept Fromm from being comfortable in the pocket. He acquitted himself well given the circumstances, but the circumstances were very much against him. Alabama will need to do the same to make sure that, if it does slow down Chubb and Michel, Fromm won’t make up for it with his arm.