Allow me to wander aimlessly for a moment.
If you grew up Jewish and a sports fan, as I did, every once in a while in the fall, you remember something that happened in the sixties with this guy:
Sandy Koufax – the subject of the longest chapter in the shortest book, “Jewish Sports Legends of the 20th Century”…
On October 6, 1965, Koufax refused to pitch in the first game of the World Series because it fell on the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur.
The only reason I bring this up is because this Saturday is Yom Kippur. God only knows what the media furor would be like if a key Georgia player were Jewish (don’t chuckle, Georgia fans, remember Buzy Rosenberg?) and elected not to play – it might have even outweighed the “cheating” story this week. Even better, since the holiday ends at sundown, with the game starting at 6:45 PM Tuscaloosa time, we’d be looking at a situation where the player might only miss some of the first half and then enter the game. Now there’s some drama!
But enough with the hypothetical, there’s plenty of reality to worry about with this game as it is. ‘Bama comes in 3-0, with an enormous amount of momentum from a thrilling last second (OK, eight seconds, if you want to get technical about it) win over Arkansas. The Tide has played a similar schedule to the Dawgs, with one common opponent in Western Carolina that both schools dominated, so the record is as credible as Georgia’s.
Alabama is scoring nine points per game more than Georgia, but giving up almost three points more per game. The difference can be explained to some extent by the key game that each has played. Arkansas is a very good offensive team, but near the bottom of the SEC in defense. South Carolina is middle of the pack in offense, but is one of the top teams in defense.
Alabama won its key game; Georgia lost its key game. ‘Bama may lack Georgia’s depth, but seems to be playing as a more cohesive unit so far this year.
On offense, Alabama has thrown the ball a good deal (5th in the conference in passing offense), but it also has a fine RB in Terry Grant (2nd in the SEC in rushing). I expect it to emphasize the run early, in order to exploit some mismatches on the lines – Andre Smith, for example, outweighs Marcus Howard by about 100 pounds – and to set up the passing game. Both its QB and top WR are underrated players. Alabama is also starting to utilize its TE more than in the past.
Defensively, this isn’t the LSU defense that we Dawg fans came to know and love under Saban (I bet Greene and Shockley still have nightmares about that ’03 game in Baton Rouge). ‘Bama runs a 3-4 set up primarily now, although it will vary the looks fairly regularly. It’s a solid scheme, which you’d expect from Saban, and there are some talented players, but there’s a definite problem with depth. Against Arky, ‘Bama sold out to stop the run and really wasn’t that successful (Arky had 301 yards rushing). The defense tired noticeably in the second half, although they sucked it up in the end and gave the offense a chance to pull the game out (unlike Georgia’s against South Carolina).
I suspect that Alabama will try to replicate what South Carolina did and commit heavily to press coverage on the WRs while trying to overwhelm the line of scrimmage. The lesson so far this year is that Georgia suffers on offense if Stafford isn’t comfortable throwing the ball. The game is likely to turn on who wins this battle, as I think Georgia will do a much better job holding ‘Bama’s offense in check than Arkansas did. The good thing for Georgia’s offensive line is that, to date, Alabama hasn’t had much success rushing the passer. The Tide only has four sacks in three games.
So what does Georgia need to do to win Saturday?
- Score first. Believe it or not, so far in 2007, SEC teams are 21-0 when they get on the scoreboard first. Plus, scoring first helps establish a tone for the game when a school is on the road.
- Stick with the running game. 47-24; 31-45; 34-26. That’s the run-pass ratio in each of Georgia’s first three games. Can you guess which one is the loss?
- Be patient. Georgia has more depth. Play a tough, physical game and wear ‘Bama down. It would have worked for Arkansas (which came back from 21 down) if Nutt had been a little smarter on Arky’s last offensive series in the game.
- Get kickoff coverage under control. Special teams haven’t been that bad for Georgia (4th in punt return average, 4th in kickoff return average and 1st in net punt yardage in the conference), except for kickoffs. Even Western Carolina had decent success returning kicks. In a grind-it-out type game, which favors Georgia, field position is huge, especially on the road.
What makes this game hard to pick are the intangibles. Alabama’s had a crazy week. It seems like most of the in state media already has the Tide at 8-0 and Tuberville looking for a new job at season’s end. With all of the hoopla, you have to wonder how the team reacts. Saban’s a great coach, but there’s only so much you can do with the psychology of a nineteen or twenty year old.
But Georgia’s week has been a little strange, too, with the closing of practice in the wake of the Belichick cheating scandal. I don’t think that Richt was worried about Saban spying on Georgia practices, but I do think Richt has been looking for a means to focus the staff and the players on the game and grabbed this as an excuse to do so. Let’s hope it works.
In the end, I think the intangibles favor Georgia. The Dawgs have a lot more to lose with this game and the staff knows it. And I have a hard time picking against a Mark Richt coached team in an SEC opponent’s stadium. Most folks see about 44-51 points being scored Saturday night. I believe Georgia will get the majority of ’em.