I give Bill Connelly credit — he’s not overselling his preview of Saturday night’s game with that header.
If you’re grasping for straws on how Georgia’s defense can slow down Alabama’s offense…
Basically, you need Georgia’s help to score, either via good field position or penalty. And if or when the Dawgs are benevolent enough to allow you to convert a third down, you absolutely, positively must turn that into points. They aren’t going to be that generous very often…
The Tide have gone three-and-out on 19% of their drives so far — not bad by any means, but 14th in FBS (as opposed to all those categories for which they’re in the top five), and 45% of their third downs have involved seven or more yards to go (23rd). This is what constitutes a weakness for such a great offense, but it’s one that Georgia could theoretically take advantage of.
That’s not much to hang your red and black hat on, I’m afraid.
Strangely enough, the largest ground for optimism on this front comes from Bill’s take on last year’s SECCG. He states that Georgia’s defense played better than most of us thought it did.
Against Georgia’s top-ranked defense last year, LSU scored 37 points and averaged 6.5 yards per play. Those are excellent totals, but LSU averaged 48.4 points per game and 7.9 yards per play for the season — the Dawgs held the Tigers far below their otherworldly season averages, and they might have fared even better had the game state not gotten away from them.
Georgia had forced three-and-outs on two of LSU’s first four possessions, but the Bulldogs’ offense drove more than 21 yards only once in its first five drives, and the score was 14-0 LSU after the first quarter. Things snowballed in the second half as the Georgia defense was forced to take more risks, but it still performed better than almost anyone else against that devastating Tigers attack.
I don’t think this year’s Alabama offense is better than last year’s LSU offense and I do think Georgia’s 2020 defense has surpassed the 2019 version, so there’s that.
On the other side, like so many, Bill wonders what Ole Miss’ performance last week says about the Tide defense.
Having to survive at least one crazy track meet is becoming part of a national champion’s journey at this point, but while Alabama’s defense was first in defensive SP+ six times in nine years between 2009 and ’17, it’s an awfully mortal 22nd right now. The Tide were occasionally vulnerable against both Texas A&M and Missouri, but the defense was so definitively beaten last week that it’s worth exploring what Ole Miss did that was so devastating … and how much of it Georgia can imitate.
And the answer is… not that much. Maybe.
The Dawgs do not tend to spread defenses out formationally like Kiffin and Lebby do, UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett doesn’t have Corral’s rocket-powered arm and Smart definitely doesn’t endorse Lebby-level tempo. You still see plenty of Smart’s defense-first tendencies when it comes to run rates (Georgia runs about 3 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs, five on passing downs) and the occasional third-and-long draw play. One figures the main thing Smart likes about Bennett — a former walk-on who has taken control of the job over former blue-chippers JT Daniels and D’Wan Mathis — is not his play-making ability so much as his ability to avoid screwups. Smart is infinitely more risk-averse than Kiffin, and when you’ve got the defense he has, that makes sense. Bama should be able to crowd the box more than it could against Ole Miss.
If that space over the middle of the field becomes available, however, Georgia will try to take advantage.
“Smart is infinitely more risk-averse than Kiffin” is the understatement of the year. That only pays off if Georgia doesn’t screw up Saturday.
Bill’s model projects a 28-24 Alabama victory and I can’t say that’s unreasonable. But as he goes on to note, there are a lot of possible scenarios for this game.
There’s a lot more there, so take some time to read it.