You've been beaten senseless with reminders about the stakes in the SEC Championship Game. Barring a banana republic-quality rigged vote, the victor will face Notre Dame for the national title. But no matter which team punches its ticket to South Florida, the real winner will be obvious on Saturday.
It's the 3-4 defense.
Each team will bring to the Georgia Dome an odd-front look designed to confound the opposing quarterback. Alabama's defense, originally designed by head coach Nick Saban and currently administered by coordinator Kirby Smart, leads the nation in total defense and scoring defense. Georgia's defense, led by former Saban assistant Todd Grantham, doesn't rate as high statistically because of a rough patch early in the season, but the Bulldogs have allowed only 43 points in their last five games.
While almost every college defense has packages that provide for an even or odd look, most teams still choose the 4-3 as a base defense. For the life of him, Grantham can't understand why.
Grantham figured out he was a 3-4 guy during a stint with the Indianapolis Colts from 1999-2001. At the time, Peyton Manning was maturing into one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. In practice every week, Grantham watched Manning diagnose and pick apart even-front defenses. As soon as the defenders lined up, Manning recognized the coverage and could spot any weaknesses. That wasn't the case in 2000 when the Colts faced the New England Patriots and first-year coach Bill Belichick. "When [Manning] went against an even front, he knew the coverage and what you were doing based on the alignment on the front," Grantham said. "But when he went against the New England Patriots and everything was balanced, he had a much tougher time. You could mentally and physically see the stress during practice of where the fourth rusher was coming from."
What bothered Manning -- and what bothers the quarterbacks who play Alabama and Georgia -- is that a 3-4 defense only declares three rushers in a non-blitz situation. A 4-3 declares all four. Against a 4-3, a quarterback can face unexpected pressure when the opponent blitzes. Against a 3-4, he can face unexpected pressure on every play. And because he doesn't know exactly who is rushing, he also doesn't know who is dropping into coverage. That makes it easier to throw an interception.
Hybrid outside linebackers such as Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Alabama's Adrian Hubbard thrive in a 3-4 scheme. They can come from a different spot on the field every play, or they can fake a rush and drop into coverage -- allowing another linebacker to bring pressure from an entirely different area. Or they might line up off the line of scrimmage and stay in coverage. A great example of the last option is Jones' interception in the fourth quarter against Missouri (6:54 mark). After spending most of the game lined up on the outside eye of an offensive tackle, Jones hung back off the line of scrimmage. Georgia rushed three, leaving Missouri quarterback James Franklin to assume Jones would be the fourth rusher. But Jones never moved. Instead, he stayed planted in a passing lane and snagged Franklin's throw before it reached its intended target. "When you play a 4-3, that right defensive end is going to be on the right," Grantham said. "We have the flexibility, because of our backers, that we can move [Jones] around. We can put him right, left, in the middle and do those things. That way, you can't get a bead on exactly where he's coming from."
The 3-4 is not without its vulnerabilities, though. If the nose tackle allows himself to be blocked by only the center, an offense can run wild. It was no accident that Alabama's return to prominence coincided with the signing of Terrence Cody in 2008. The 360-pound Cody occupied multiple blockers on nearly every running play opponents attempted against the Crimson Tide in 2008 and 2009 -- something the Bulldogs learned the hard way during the ill-fated Blackout game of 2008. Georgia nose tackles John Jenkins (358 pounds) and Kwame Geathers (355 pounds) must make sure they don't allow Alabama center Barrett Jones -- the 2011 Outland Trophy winner -- to block them one-on-one. That would allow guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen to smother Georgia's inside linebackers. "It starts with the nose," Grantham said. "If that guy commands double-teams, then it's going to free other people up. If they can single-block him and get guys up on your backers, then that creates issues for you. So having a guy who can command that is really important."
Alabama has a guy who commands extra attention. Jesse Williams, a 320-pound Australian who played defensive end last year, has scouts drooling with his blend of power and quickness. To make room for star freshman backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, Georgia center David Andrews will have to handle Williams by himself, or guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette will have to combine with Andrews for perfect combo blocks. Otherwise, Williams will clog the A gaps long enough to allow the linebackers behind him to stuff the ballcarriers at the line of scrimmage.
The team whose nose tackle clogs the middle best and whose hybrid outside linebacker confuses the quarterback best will win the SEC title and advance to the national title game. There it will play Notre Dame -- which also has a defense that believes odd beats even any time.
• Northern Illinois vs. Kent State in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit (Friday): Could the winner of this game crash the BCS? It's possible. The winner of this game will be ranked higher than Big East champ Louisville. That covers one prong of the BCS rules regarding automatic qualification. The other prong states that a team must be ranked in the top 16 the BCS standings. Kent State is No. 17, and Northern Illinois is No. 21. It would be easier for Kent State to climb to No. 16, but it wouldn't be impossible for Northern Illinois to do it. Either way, the MAC champ would need UCLA to lose to Stanford -- heck, it did that last week -- and Texas to lose to Kansas State to secure the No. 16 spot.
• UCLA at Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game (Friday): During the conference call for the excellent mock playoff selection set up by SI.com's Stewart Mandel and Pete Thamel and administrated by former NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament poobah Greg Shaheen, several athletic directors believed Stanford deserved a shot at the hypothetical four-team playoff that won't be so hypothetical in two seasons. Instead, this Stanford team will have to settle for a shot at the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal were squeezed out by Oregon in two of the last three seasons, and in 2010, they were squeezed out by a rule that required the Rose to take TCU. Stanford finally has a chance to play in the Granddaddy of Them All.
• Oklahoma at TCU: The Sooners will play this game as if it is for the Big 12 title. And as far as they'll know when it kicks off at 11 a.m. local time, it will be. If they win, the Sooners will be back in Norman by the time they learn whether they are bound for the Fiesta Bowl. But that win isn't guaranteed. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have had a respectable first season in the league.
• Texas at Kansas State: Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein finally gets his shot to bounce back from the Baylor loss. Will it be enough to sway Heisman voters away from Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel? Meanwhile, the Longhorns need to bounce back after losing at home to TCU on Thanksgiving. Case McCoy will start at quarterback against one of the nation's best defenses. If the Longhorns lose this one in embarrassing fashion, expect the calls for a coaching change to grow louder. If they win, a 10-win season remains a possibility.
• Florida State vs. Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C.: At least the ACC drew praise for taking Louisville this week. Unfortunately, the league will have to stage yet another lackluster championship game. One of these years, this game will be compelling.
• Nebraska vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis: The best team in the Big Ten will be home in Columbus while these teams duke it out for a trip to the Rose Bowl. Nebraska probably would love another crack at Ohio State to avenge an ugly loss. Instead, the Cornhuskers will have to hand Wisconsin its sixth (!) loss to book a trip to Pasadena.
"I know we're in a deep hole," Bohn said. "To heck with a shovel. We need a front-end loader."
-- Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn to the Denver Post after he fired coach Jon Embree.
Bohn has now whiffed on two football coaching hires, and the Embree firing is especially heinous because Bohn set up Embree to fail and then canned him when he did. But now that the new Pac-12 TV contract money is coming to save the day, Bohn will certainly get it right on the third try. Won't he?
Just a wild guess, but I bet if Christian Chavez still attended Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, he wouldn't have been removed from his classes this week for the spectacular Johnny Football haircut he received from San Antonio barber Rob "The Original" Ferrell. Chavez, who attended the alma mater of Manziel as a freshman and sophomore, now attends Hill Country High in Kerrville. School officials thought his haircut was a distraction. Yes, an overabundance of awesome does tend to distract just about anyone.
MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher is ticked that the NCAA granted Georgia Tech a waiver to play in a bowl game even if it loses the ACC championship and drops to 6-7. The decision will take a bowl slot away from an eligible team -- probably in a mid-major league.
Here's the statement Steinbrecher sent out on Thursday night:
"I am disappointed in the NCAA's decision to issue a waiver. I could not disagree more with the rationale provided. One of the reasons for the development of the policy covering this matter was to clearly create a selection order to manage just this situation.
"These selection orders were developed with NCAA staff input and approved unanimously by the NCAA Board of Directors last July. To suggest that that the NCAA staff or task force working on bowl policy did not contemplate such a circumstance, when this same situation occurred last year, is incorrect. The policy is clear and understandable.
"What is lacking is the willingness to enforce NCAA policy and that is regrettable. All the Mid-American Conference asks is that the rules that have been approved by the member institutions of the NCAA be enforced. That did not occur in this instance."
There are currently 71 bowl-eligible teams for 70 slots, and Pittsburgh and Connecticut could still become bowl eligible with wins. A more deserving mid-major or two was probably going to get squeezed out anyway, but the waiver decision subtracts one more opportunity.
Still, it's tough to blame the NCAA in this case. Georgia Tech is only playing in the ACC title game because 7-5 Miami self-imposed a postseason ban. So the Yellow Jackets would have been 6-6 and eligible for a bowl if not for that decision, and the Hurricanes would have been 7-6 (had they lost) and also eligible for a bowl. Even with Georgia Tech eligible, the ACC still won't fill all of its bowl tie-ins.
Those in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game should head to Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q and order the chicken-fried babybacks appetizer. If the smoked pork belly special is on the board, order that, too. You'll want the ribs or the brisket, but save room for brisket chili and Fox-a-Roni, a combination of mac and cheese and Brunswick Stew.