Barring the implausible, utterly miraculous possibility of Auburn winning an SEC game, Georgia is going to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Saturday went a long way towards settling that result, as Georgia came back from an early 10-0 deficit to bury Ole Miss and Alabama came back from a late 17-14 deficit to win in Death Valley. Bama's win over LSU was interesting and notable in all sorts of ways. What do those notable aspects imply for Georgia? I'm glad you asked...
1. Alabama's greatest strength on offense is its offensive line, not A.J. McCarron.
A.J. McCarron came into the game Saturday night as a major Heisman contender by virtue of the fact that he is the quarterback of the unbeaten defending national champions, he was leading the nation in passing efficiency, and he had not thrown a pick all year. McCarron was quite pedestrian for long stretches in the game and in fact went missing for the entire second half until LSU softened its coverage (read: John Chavis blinked) and McCarron led what will surely go down as one of the more famous drives in Tide history.*
* - Noted Alabama football historian Mark May called it the greatest comeback drive in Crimson Tide history. I realize that it's too much to expect May to be able to think back a whole three years, but Bama had a pretty notable drive at the end of the 2009 Auburn game to come from behind and preserve their unbeaten season, not that Alabama fans would put significance on a winning drive against Auburn.
However, what struck me during the game was that McCarron often seemed to have an unlimited amount of time to throw. His offensive line repeatedly gave him perfect pockets for an extended period of time, despite the fact that they were blocking one of the best defensive lines in college football. By the end of the night, I had reached the conclusion that McCarron might be a cut above the Bama quarterbacks who have preceded him in recent history, but he is a product of playing in front of a truly great offensive line.
So what does this mean for Georgia? Todd Grantham is going to have to coach the game of his life for Georgia to stop the Tide. Grantham simply cannot use normal pressure schemes and expect his pass rushers from getting close to McCarron. If Bama's blockers could neutralize Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, then they will probably be able to slow down Jarvis Jones, as well. The key will be confusing the Bama line to get free rushers. Admittedly, part of the strength of Bama's line is that they are a smart, experienced collective, so it won't be easy to get free blitzers. However, Grantham did a great job against Florida of bringing new, exotic pressure packages to get his defenders free runs at Jeff Driskel early in the game. Doing the same against the Tide is a tall order, but it's necessary.
2. Alabama and LSU bring out the best in one another.
The games between Alabama and LSU in 2011 were by no means classics. The Tide and Tigers were the two best teams in the country, but when they played, the balance between offense and defense was tilted, mainly because neither team got good quarterback play. In the first game, neither team could do much in the air, so it finished 9-6. In the second game, LSU's quarterbacks were even worse, while McCarron played his best game of the season, so Bama won comfortably. On Saturday night, both teams got better quarterback play, especially LSU, who got Zach Mettenberger's best game. (Mettenberger's prior high for passer rating in an SEC game was a lowly 108.14 against Auburn; he put up a 149.52 against Bama.)
The impression I got as the game played out was that the prospect of playing the Tide brought out the best in LSU and the in turn, the challenge brought out the best in Alabama when the game was on the line. I was reminded of a passage in Ken Dryden's first book, The Game, about how playing the Boston Bruins brought out the best in a Montreal Canadiens team that, like modern-day Alabama, was a dynasty in progress:
Like a stopwatch to a sprinter, it is the reliable opponent that tells a team where it stands. The Bruins are not as good as we are, and so in Montreal we win, and in Boston we tie or win; but the difference between us is small, and by playing their best as they always do, they force us to play our best, so each time we play them, we find out what our best is. And I find out mine. It is an important thing to know, and year after year, only the Bruins do that for us.
So what does this mean for Georgia? Unlike the Tide and the Canadiens, Georgia has not had a worthy adversary over the past several years that has brought out the best in the Dawgs. To the contrary, Georgia's results against top ten opponents over the past five years has been pretty bad. Georgia broke this pattern against Florida, upsetting the #2 Gators to put themselves in the position to play Alabama. However, the Florida team that Georgia beat is a highly flawed outfit because the Gators are going through significant offensive growing pains. Alabama, needless to say, is not. The Dawgs raised their game defensively to beat Florida; they are going to have to take another quantum leap forward to hang with the Tide. The good news is that Georgia showed a sign of being able to elevate their performance in the SEC Championship Game last year, as they first half against :LSU was the best that Georgia played all season. That small shoot of green is going to have to turn into a fully-formed Venus Flytrap in four weeks.
3. Alabama-Oregon would be a fantastic contrast in styles.
Stewart Mandel nails why Alabama versus Oregon would be a fascinating national title game:
You couldn't ask for a better snapshot of the dichotomous state of college football than Saturday night's dose of dueling television drama. On FOX, there was Oregon, the poster program for everything new and different, revving the tempo and running an offense that manages to turn the inside handoff into something just as exciting and productive as the 40-yard bomb. On CBS, there was Alabama, the current standard-bearer for championship football, running much the same offense that's worked for decades upon decades of title teams before it.
You could not ask for two more stylistically opposite approaches, which is exactly why much of the country is thirsting for an Alabama-Oregon BCS championship showdown. It would be a culture clash unlike any in the event's 14-year history.
There are a lot of great things about college football and one of them is the dynamic that used to exist in baseball before interleague play. It used to be that the All-Star Game and World Series were exotic because they were the only times where teams from the two leagues - leagues that had different styles - would play one another. Fans would spend months watching their teams and players against a contained universe of teams and then, the big test would come against teams and players from a totally different universe.
We have spent the past ten Saturdays watching SEC teams play in a defensively-oriented league, battling one another for field position and field goals. (And yes, there are exceptions.) Pac Ten fans have watched a completely different form of football for the past ten Saturdays, a league where a quarter of the members are averaging over 500 yards per game. (Only one of 14 SEC teams can say the same.) For sixty minutes, it would be great fun to see the up-tempo Oregon spread - an offense that Nick Saban has derided as unfair - against an Alabama defense that had been impregnable for the better part of two seasons until showing chinks in the armor against LSU.
So what does this mean for Georgia? Unfortunately, not a whole lot that's favorable. In order to stop a potential collision between Oregon and Alabama, Georgia will not have the advantage of bringing a contrasting style to the table. The one exotic aspect of the Georgia team is the defense, a true 3-4 that can bring pressure from parts unknown. Unfortunately for the Dawgs, Alabama is also predominantly a 3-4 team. Thus, Georgia is not going to have an element of surprise when they play the Tide. Georgia has gotten by in 2012 because they have great athletes and those athletes are competently coached. Alabama has more great athletes and those athletes are more than competently coached.
But hey, as we saw at the Georgia Dome last night, there is likely to be a rich, egocentric NFL owner with a coaching vacancy and it's possible that he will covet Saban, so hope springs eternal.