We have reached the finish line of the 2017 season. The College Football Playoff national championship game will pit Georgia against Alabama. The Bulldogs eked past Oklahoma in double overtime, 54–48, to claim an epic Rose Bowl, and the Crimson Tide topped Clemson, 24–6, in the Sugar Bowl to set up an all-SEC title bout at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Jan. 8. Alabama will be playing in its sixth championship tilt in nine seasons, while Georgia is aiming for its first title since 1980. Here are five storylines to track over the next week.
SEC! SEC! SEC!
This season marked the first time a single conference sent more than one team to the playoff, and that conference is now guaranteed to win the title: Georgia and Alabama compose the first intra-league championship tilt since the Crimson Tide beat LSU 21–0 in 2012. Entering selection Sunday, the Bulldogs were viewed as a virtual lock to make the national semifinals after winning the conference, while Alabama was a controversial selection as the No. 4 seed after falling to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which cost the Tide the West division title. But the path each team took to get here is less important than the fact that two SEC squads will square off in the most important game of the season, in the heart of SEC country.
The matchup will serve as a handy reference point for SEC partisans in the conference supremacy debates that seem to crop up every offseason, particularly in light of the Big Ten’s 7–1 showing this bowl season. The SEC placed more teams in the top eight of the final playoff rankings than any other league, it led the Football Bowl Subdivision in average S&P+ rating and, after Monday’s semifinals, its two best teams will play for college football’s ultimate prize. Whether Nick Saban adds another title to extend Alabama’s dynasty, or protégé Kirby Smart leads Georgia to its first championship in 37 years, the outcome will serve to prop up the SEC’s (arguable) status as the country’s preeminent conference.
Can Alabama slow down Nick Chubb and Sony Michel?
Georgia’s senior rushing tandem faced little resistance against the Sooners, combining for 326 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries (13 yards per carry), including Michel’s 27-yard game-winning dash in double overtime. It was a superlative showing from a sensational pair of backs, and in the immediate aftermath of the Bulldogs’ Rose Bowl triumph, it’s difficult to fathom any team shutting down those two. But it’s worth keeping in mind the subpar defense they were facing. Oklahoma entered Monday ranked 49th in the FBS in yards allowed per rush and 62nd in defensive rushing S&P+, according to Football Outsiders.
Michel and Chubb will have a much harder time picking up yards in chunks against Alabama, which ranked first (2.76 YPC) and second in those two statistics. When he didn’t call on Michel and Chubb against Oklahoma, Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was able to turn to quarterback Jake Fromm and wide receivers Javon Wims and Terry Godwin for offense. The true freshman signal-caller did not shrink in the spotlight of the sport’s biggest stage, completing 20 of his 29 attempts for 210 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions. If Chubb and Michel can’t get going on the ground against the Crimson Tide, Chaney might need to lean on Fromm a little more often to hit on big plays through the air.
Will Georgia’s defense bounce back?
It was clear from early in the Rose Bowl that the game wouldn’t hew to Georgia’s typical script. The Bulldogs won the SEC East and reached the playoff by using their fearsome defense to grind down opponents in low-scoring slugfests. Over 13 games before New Year’s Day, Georgia ranked third in the country in points allowed per drive and sixth in yards allowed per play. Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith was the leader of a unit that had smothered the opposition in most of the Bulldogs’ contests this season. Oklahoma showed that Georgia’s defense is not impenetrable. Far from it: The Sooners hung 31 first-half points and 531 yards of total offense on 6.6 yards per play on the Bulldogs.
Chubb, Michel and Fromm did enough to offset the damage, but it was staggering to watch Oklahoma carve up a Georgia D that has rarely stumbled since Week 1. The same defense should breathe a big sigh of relief: When it takes on Alabama next Monday, it won’t have to contend with an offense in the same stratosphere as the Sooners’ high-octane Air Raid attack, conducted by one of the greatest college quarterbacks of this century in Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma may have exposed some holes in Georgia’s defense, but the Crimson Tide won’t be able to take advantage of them like the Sooners did. The championship game should be waged in a more familiar scoring range for the Bulldogs.
How will Alabama’s offense attack?
The Crimson Tide weren’t really tested offensively against Clemson. A 12-yard touchdown from leading wide receiver Calvin Ridley put Alabama up by double digits in the first quarter, but a pair of defensive plays in the third quarter turned the game in its favor: An interception by junior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne followed by a one-yard touchdown pass to Payne, and an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown from sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson. Alabama made sure a comeback was off the table by forcing Clemson to punt on three consecutive drives and then turning the Tigers over on downs to close out the fourth quarter.
There’s a good chance the Crimson Tide will need more from quarterback Jalen Hurts and the rest of the offense to get past Georgia in the title game. Alabama is at its most devastating when it can use its punishing rushing attack—which came into Monday ranked fifth in the country at six yards per carry—to wear down its opponent, rip off clock-consuming drives and avoid asking Hurts to make difficult throws. Georgia has the defensive horses to force the Crimson Tide to scrap that plan. If the Bulldogs pull it off, Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will need to come up with something other than play-action tosses to Payne in the red zone.
Nick Saban’s legacy
The last time Alabama beat Clemson, it didn’t need to win another game to earn a title. Two years ago, the Crimson Tide used an onside kick in the fourth quarter to topple the Tigers, 45–40, and deliver Saban his fifth national championship, including his fourth at Alabama (he won one at LSU, in 2003, though it was split with USC). If Saban leads Alabama to a win over Georgia in Atlanta next Monday, Saban would match Crimson Tide legend Bear Bryant with six titles and further his case as one of the best coaches in college football history. Alabama’s opponent attests to Saban’s success. Georgia clearly is on an upward trajectory in its second season under Smart, who previously spent seven seasons serving as Saban’s defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa and is just one branch of an extensive coaching tree.
This could be the start of one of the most fascinating rivalries in the country, but before getting caught up in the prospect of a cross-division, mentor-pupil coaching duel dominating the SEC for the foreseeable future, let’s savor the what’s at stake in the showdown that will unfold a week from now. For Saban to ascend another rung in the all-time coaching hierarchy, he’ll need to beat a man (Smart) who was instrumental in Saban earning a spot on that hierarchy in the first place and who could represent his biggest hurdle to ascending more rungs after this season. What are Smart’s chances? Saban’s former assistants have posted an 0–11 record against him.