Written By | Barrett Sallee
ATLANTA — The No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs have a chance to win their first national championship since 1980 on Monday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when they take on No. 4 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Led by second-year coach Kirby Smart and a punishing running game featuring seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs topped No. 2 Oklahoma 52-48 in double overtime in the Rose Bowl last Monday to earn a trip to their home state to take on the Crimson Tide for all the marbles.
What are the five keys for the Bulldogs?
1. Dominate along the defensive front. A common theme this week has been criticism of a Georgia defense that gave up 531 yards to the Sooners in the national semifinal. Sure, that’s a big number, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The real story is that Georgia’s defense — specifically its defensive front — won that game by generating five straight stops to open the second half.
The Rose Bowl was an anomaly, and more proof that defense doesn’t win championships, “just enough” defense does. “Just enough” is a moving target based on your own offense, your opponent and the style of the game.
Georgia needs to find just enough against the Tide to get it done, and it starts with Julien Rochester, Trenton Thompson, Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and that fast and physical defensive front seven.
That looks like more of a challenge this week than it did over the holiday season, because Alabama’s offensive line flat-out owned Clemson in its Sugar Bowl win.
“Once we got beat by Auburn, we were ‘the worst offensive line in the nation,’ yada, yada, yada, and all this crap,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “We really wanted to make a statement and prove that we deserve to be here, and I think we did that tonight.”
Was that the anomaly, or a sign that “old school” Alabama football is back?
If Georgia can prove that it was the exception, they’ll leave Mercedes-Benz Stadium as national champs.
2. Come right at Jalen Hurts. It’s one thing to win the battle in the trenches. But even if Georgia’s defense does that, it still has to contain electric dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts.
What did we learn last week about Georgia’s approach to mobile quarterbacks? They need to come right at them. That’s exactly what happened in the second half when the Bulldogs abandoned their quest to contain Sooner quarterback Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, and came right at the Heisman Trophy winner. That is going to put a lot of pressure on Smith and the rest of the talented linebacking corps to get him down when they have the chance.
“I think he’s a heck of an athlete, [he] can beat you on the ground, and he has a pretty solid arm, as well, to give his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball in the air,” Smith said.
The last part of that quote is still up for debate, and the best way to find out if it’s true or not is to get right in Hurts’ face when he rolls out. Don’t give him time to look downfield. Make sure he has to make quick decisions in the passing game.
Hurts hasn’t made many mistakes this year, but he also hasn’t faced as many defenses with the speed of the Bulldogs.
3. Stay calm on offense. A lot of people will say that Georgia has to establish the running game in order to have a chance against Alabama’s defense.
That’s just not true.
Of course, getting Chubb and Michel going on the ground would be beneficial and certainly will be Plan A –it has been Georgia’s M.O. all year. But we saw true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm lead his team to the win in the Rose Bowl — a game in which he led the game-tying drive at the end of regulation with clutch throw after clutch throw.
You can’t script a bigger moment, and Fromm thrived in it.
No, it isn’t the running game that needs to get going. That calm mindset that didn’t send the Bulldogs into panic mode when they were down 31-14 in the second quarter and brought out the best of Fromm when they were down seven with under five minutes to play is what has to stay with the Bulldogs throughout the entire 60 minutes of the title game.
And I do mean “entire.”
Alabama’s defense saw an inch when it forced Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant to throw a pick to defensive lineman to Da’Ron Payne, and it took a mile. That mile included a pass from Hurts to Payne and a pick six by linebacker Mack Wilson on the very next play from scrimmage.
Blood was in the water, the the Tide swarmed like sharks.
Georgia is the more complete team. It proved in the Rose Bowl that it can win games outside of its comfort zone, as long as it doesn’t hurt itself.
Don’t get cut.
4. If the chance comes to turn the game sideways, make sure it happens: We saw Georgia play and beat Oklahoma playing the Sooners’ brand of point-per-minute football. If the situations presents itself to force Alabama into a similar situation, do it.
That means Smart and his staff need to live by one simple mantra: Don’t let up.
It can be argued — I think rather successfully — that Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley made a poor decision going conservative in overtime in the Rose Bowl loss to the Bulldogs. Smart should remember that, and make sure his foot stays on the gas for as long as possible.
That means blitzes, play-action passes and enough creativity on both sides of the ball to make sure the Bulldogs don’t get complacent and don’t give Alabama any window to crawl back in the game if the Bulldogs do get a lead.
After all, we saw Alabama dominate Clemson playing Alabama football. We saw Georgia top Oklahoma playing Oklahoma football.
Smart and the Bulldogs want to play old-school, smash-mouth football too. That has been and always will be Plan A. But they also know that their Plan B works better than Alabama’s.
5. Tempo, tempo, tempo: Alabama lost linebacker Anferenee Jennings late in the Sugar Bowl to a knee injury, after Jennings had a monster day against Clemson. That’s the latest in a long line of linebacker injuries for the Crimson Tide that also includes middle linebackers Dylan Moses and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Georgia needs to test that depth and discipline, and the best way to do it is with tempo.
We’ve seen Georgia go up-tempo a lot this year in big situations, including the SEC Championship Game win over Auburn. They don’t always snap it quickly, but they do get to the line in a hurry, often to prevent defenses from substituting. Simply getting to the line quickly will stress middle linebacker Mack Wilson — who calls the signals in place of Hamilton and Moses — and simply running plays will stress the depth of the defensive-minded Crimson Tide.