RETURN TO THE DOME
Georgia is in the SEC Championship game for the second consecutive season. The Bulldogs hope any similarity between Saturday’s game and last year’s ends at halftime.
“We had a great first half last year, but didn’t finish like we wanted to,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “That’s been dwelling on our minds since then.”
In last year’s game, Georgia led top-ranked LSU 10-0 in the first quarter and held the Tigers to no first downs and 11 yards in the first half. But LSU dominated the Dogs in the second half and won 42-10.
Many Georgia players have said this season’s team was driven by the goal of returning to the Georgia Dome and, once there, making a better showing. They’re there, set to face Alabama at 4 p.m. Saturday with a berth in the BCS championship game at stake.
“I feel like now we know what it takes to win,” Georgia wide receiver Tavarres King said. “That game last year was a tough one, still tough to swallow because we were playing so well for a half and came out flat in the second half. We know we can’t do that. We know it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.
“Glad to have another opportunity to play in an SEC Championship (game), and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
Robinson believes the Bulldogs return to the Dome with a different mindset.
“We’re a different team than last year heading into the game,” he said. “I think we were simply excited to be there last year and didn’t realize what we could have done.
“This season, we’ve won a lot of games, but we haven’t celebrated like we want to yet, because we’re not satisfied with where we are.”
Said tight end Jay Rome: “All year we’ve wanted to get back and finish the drill.”
Saturday’s game features college football’s top two quarterbacks in
passing efficiency (Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron), two terrific tailback tandems (Georgia’s Todd Gurley-Keith Marshall and Alabama’s Eddie Lacy-T.J. Yeldon) and two injury-thinned receiving corps.
One difference is that Alabama’s offensive line is much more experienced and acclaimed.
In fact, the Crimson Tide’s offensive line — ranked the No. 1 unit in the country by several publications — has a cumulative 155 games of starting experience. Senior center Barrett Jones has started 48 games, senior left guard Chance Warmack 38, junior right tackle D.J. Fluker 34, junior right guard Anthony Steen 23 and sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio 12.
“They’ve got three All-Americans up there that are big and physical,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “The reason their running backs have had success is, one, their running backs are talented, but also their offensive line makes holes for them, does a good job of getting them running lanes.
“And they keep their quarterback clean in the pocket. That’s one of the reasons he’s only thrown two interceptions. I’m sure there’s a confidence factor there, too, with the quarterback that he can hold the ball maybe that half-second longer for guys to come open because they do such a good job in protection.”
The teams have scored points at an almost even pace, Alabama averaging 39 per game and Georgia 38. In yards, Georgia averages 463.7 and Alabama 433. Both teams have balanced offenses.
“I think that is an outstanding (offense),” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Georgia’s, “because of the balance that is created by their ability to run the ball effectively, as well as having a good quarterback and good skill guys to make plays outside in the passing game.”
Alabama’s defense has been the hardest in the nation to get points or gain yards against this season. It has allowed 9.2 points and 233.7 yards per game, ranking No. 1 among FBS teams in both categories, and has held six of 12 opponents to seven points or less.
“Defensively, they’re about as good as it gets,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, noting that Alabama has allowed only three of its past 27 opponents to reach 300 total yards. “That’s a scary thought,” Richt said.
There have been two exceptions this season, however, to the Tide’s defensive dominance: 418 yards allowed to Texas A&M and 435 to LSU.
Statistically, Georgia’s defense does not match Alabama’s. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 17.7 points (No. 16 nationally) and 337.8 yards (No. 22). But the Dogs have held their past three SEC opponents to an average of 6.3 points and 246 yards per game.
“It’s kind of a tale of two seasons,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “The first half of the season, we didn’t really live up to anybody’s expectations on defense, and now we’re playing the way people thought we should have been playing all along.”
“I haven’t seen anybody play as well as we have in the second half of the season,” Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera said.
Georgia is counting on a big game from outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has the third most sacks in the SEC (10.5) despite missing two games with injuries.
RICHT VS. SABAN
The game will be the sixth between teams coached by Nick Saban and Mark Richt. Saban’s teams hold a 3-2 edge in the previous five.
Two of Saban’s three wins against Richt-coached teams came in 2003, when his LSU team beat Georgia in the regular season and again in the SEC Championship game. Saban’s other win against Richt came in 2008, when Alabama won in Athens.
Richt’s wins against Saban-coached teams came in 2004 over LSU and 2007 over Alabama.
This is Georgia’s fifth appearance in the SEC Championship game, all under Richt. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in the previous four, winning in 2002 (over Arkansas) and 2005 (over LSU) but losing in 2003 (to LSU) and last year.
Alabama is in the conference championship game for the eighth time, the third time under Saban. The Crimson Tide is 3-4 in the previous seven, all against Florida.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
When Georgia last played Alabama on Sept. 27, 2008, the Bulldogs were undefeated, ranked No. 3 in the country (same as now) and had Matthew Stafford at quarterback, Knowshon Moreno at tailback and A.J. Green at wide receiver.
And yet they fell behind 31-0 in the first half that night and lost 41-30 to the Crimson Tide in Sanford Stadium.
The game, for which Georgia famously donned black jerseys, seemed to propel the programs in opposite directions for several seasons.
Georgia, which was ranked No. 1 at the start of the 2008 season, went on to finish a disappointing 10-3 that season, followed by 8-5 in 2009 and 6-7 in 2010 before correcting course last season. Alabama, on the other hand, went on to win two BCS championships in the next three seasons (2009 and 2011).
Georgia has five players remaining from its 2008 team: wide receiver Tavarres King, safety Bacarri Rambo, linebacker Christian Robinson, running back Richard Samuel and defensive end Cornelius Washington. All except Samuel redshirted in ’08.
AJC COLUMNIST JEFF SCHULTZ’S PREDICTION:
So three weeks ago when I wrote that Georgia looked good enough to beat Alabama, I received several loving communications from my adoring public that said something along the lines of, “I hope you’re right. But I suspect you’ll soon be counting butterflies and pink unicorns in the garden.”
To which I respond: “Hah. Everybody knows unicorns are white.”
But seriously: Georgia has a good chance to beat seemingly unbeatable Alabama, which by the way isn’t unbeatable. The Crimson Tide have the same record as the Bulldogs. They lost a home game to Texas A&M, allowing touchdowns on the Aggies’ first three possessions. They have a great defense, but that week they showed themselves to be vulnerable to a high-tempo offense (and, no, I don’t believe it was just because Heisman Trophy-favorite Johnny Manziel was the A&M quarterback).
Even with losing two starting wide receivers, Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett, the Dogs have the weapons to attack Alabama. The big question is whether quarterback Aaron Murray can avoid replicating the disastrous first half he had against Florida (three interceptions) and play more like he has since.
The other major key for the Dogs is their defensive front. Alabama has the best offensive line in the nation, and Georgia will need to get some pressure on AJ McCarron. But UGA’s best defensive players (Jarvis Jones, Bacarri Rambo, Alec Olgetree, Shawn Williams) have been their best players lately, which wasn’t the case early this season.
Call me crazy (again). I say Georgia wins its first SEC title since 2005 and moves on to the BCS Championship game.