In my humble opinion, Mark Richt’s biggest task this afternoon is to find the right button to push.
Georgia’s played its best in four games this season: Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. What all those games had in common is that Richt’s team found a way to channel its emotions into focused effort. But unlike Alabama, every one of those teams faces Georgia season after season. And every one of those teams had created conditions that got Georgia players’ blood up. Georgia’s not angry at Alabama, so where does Richt find the motivational lever that gets his team playing maximally? Damned if I know, but he’d better figure that out.
I’ve been trying to get a handle on how to explain the difference between the two defenses. Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator, who saw both, has the answer I’ve been looking for.
Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner, whose Rebels were among the few SEC teams to play both Alabama and Georgia this season, said the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs were “by far the best teams we played defensively.”
“Against Georgia, we actually moved the ball a little bit early and they just got in a base defense and outmanned us,” Werner said of the Bulldogs, who beat Ole Miss 37-10 on Nov. 3. “Every play we called, it just looked like it was well-blocked and all the sudden the hole would close and it would end up being a 2-yard gain.”
Werner said Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who leads the SEC with nine sacks and 14½ tackles for loss, is “as good pass rusher as I’ve seen in a long time. We actually had a couple schemes put in just for him, to slow him down.”
Alabama, meanwhile, is tough to scheme against because the Crimson Tide doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses, he said. “I never had a good feeling that, ‘Man, this is something we can exploit,'” said Werner, whose Rebels fell 33-14 to the Tide on Sept. 29 . “They’re so solid, so well-coached, and they’ve got great players, too.”
That’s good. Bobo’s got to defeat a well-managed scheme. Alabama has to figure out a way around players like Jones and Ogletree (who’s been Georgia’s best defender the last two weeks). And that’s going to be a lot harder to do if Richt’s got his guys fired up and ready to go.
Richt’s second biggest job today is making sure his quarterback is on and not overly amped. As Pat Forde notes, you don’t beat Alabama without your quarterback playing well.
For anyone to beat Saban over the past five seasons, it has taken exceptional quarterback play. There have been just seven Alabama losses in that time, and the common denominator has been an opposing quarterback playing about as well as he can possibly play.
The list of quarterbacks who have beaten ‘Bama in that time includes some Heisman-quality guys: Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel. And it includes some unlikely guys who played a great game: Utah’s Bryan Johnson, South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson twice.
I think Richt does one of the best coaching jobs of his career today in that he accomplishes both. That’s why I like Georgia to cover the spread. My problem in going further with the positives is that Georgia’s offensive line is, at least on paper, the weakest unit trotting out on the field today. I’m not as freaked out about it as I was watching the mismatch between last year’s o-line and LSU’s front seven, because unlike last year, the Dawgs have a running game that Alabama is going to have to respect going in and because Alabama lacks the physical freaks on the defensive line that the Tigers kept sending.
But Alabama’s as good as I’ve seen at steadily grinding you down until you can’t hold up. I don’t expect to see much blitzing from the Bama defenders. I do think we’ll see them doing everything they can on defense to bottle up Gurley and Marshall, as well as playing physical press coverage on Georgia’s receivers in the hopes of forcing Murray to hold on to the ball too long. And honestly, that’s got a good chance of succeeding, because I question whether the o-line can stand its ground all game against that. So Bobo is going to have to stay one step ahead of Saban/Smart, much like he did in the first half of last year’s SECCG, and his players are going to have to make the plays he calls, unlike much of what they did in that same first half. They’re under more pressure, I think, than Alabama’s offense is because of that.
I’m not saying Georgia has to play perfectly to win today – who really plays a perfect game in an environment like this against an accomplished opponent like Alabama? – but it will have to play a complete game. LSU had Alabama for 58 minutes… and lost. Texas A&M jumped out to a three-TD lead… and needed a last-minute turnover to hang on for the win. So a great defensive first-half effort like we saw last year won’t get it done. And taking the foot off the gas to protect a late lead isn’t likely to work. They really do have to finish the drill today.
I’m sure the Alabama players will tell you today is just another game. And maybe it is for them. But it shouldn’t be for Georgia. Games like today’s don’t come along too often if your heart bleeds red and black. Georgia hasn’t won an SEC title in seven years. It hasn’t played for a national title in thirty. The trick today isn’t to act like you’ve been there before. It’s to take that hunger to grab the brass ring that’s been out of your grasp for so long and channel it into playing as ferociously smart as you’ve ever played. Would that be enough to overcome whatever shortcomings in the offensive line Saban might expose? Could be. Although a +2 turnover margin sure wouldn’t hurt.