Three-hundred and twenty seven days after Tua Tagovailoa’s overtime heave gave Alabama a win over Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the two iconic programs will run it back in the same building. The stakes will be lower this time around, but just barely. An SEC title will be on the line, rather than a national title, when the Tide and Bulldogs clash on Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
Both teams clinched their respective halves of the conference with commanding performances this past weekend. Georgia earned its second straight win over a top-10 team away from home, physically overpowering Kentucky at the line of scrimmage for a 34–17 victory in Lexington. Alabama put forth its most impressive performance of an already remarkable season by going into Death Valley and shutting out LSU, 29–0.
Each team still has three regular season games left to play before the much-anticipated rematch—Georgia hosts Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech, whereas Bama gets Missisippi State, the Citadel and Auburn—and much will change between now and then. Still, these two teams did their part by clinching a berth in the SEC title game by the first week of November, so it’s only appropriate to do a way-too-early preview of the matchup.
Alabama could lose and still make the playoff
Last year, Alabama got into the playoff without even playing in the SEC championship game. This time around, there’s a decent shot the Tide could make the final four even with a loss to Georgia. If Bama takes care of business in its last three regular season games—which can be expected, as this team has won by at least 22 points all season—it will enter the game as a unanimous No. 1. Say Georgia beats Alabama in a close game, and Bama finishes its season 12–1 with the lone loss coming at a netural site to a top-10 team. Georgia would likely get in under that scenario, and for argument’s sake let’s also give Clemson and Notre Dame bids as undefeateds. That leaves the committee with quite the choice for the fourth and final playoff berth: do they go with a one-loss Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 champion over one-loss Bama?
Georgia is back with a new, equally effective two-headed running attack
This balanced Georgia offense is statistically quite similar to last season’s unit. A year ago, the Bulldogs featured a two-headed running back monster with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom now ply their craft on Sundays. The two new feature backs this year, Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift, have been almost equally effective. Georgia rushed for 258 yards per game last year on 5.8 yards per carry; through nine games, this year’s unit is averaging 233 yards on that same 5.8 yard average. And sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm has played largely mistake-free football, throwing 17 touchdowns against just four interceptions thus far. This Georgia offense frustrates opponents because there isn’t one specific area to hone in on. The pro-style unit can beat you a number of different ways.
Tua-led ‘Bama has blossomed into an offensive juggernaut
Tagovailoa was the difference maker in the national championship game, replacing a sputtering Jalen Hurts after halftime and throwing for 166 yards and three touchdowns to lead Bama back from a 13–0 deficit. That sparked a quarterback competition in Tuscaloosa, one which Tagovailoa won and never looked back. The Heisman frontrunner is producing one of the best quarterback seasons in college football history, throwing for 2,361 yards, 27 touchdowns and one interception despite throwing exactly one pass in the fourth quarter all season. In the process, he’s turned Alabama into an offensive juggernaut—the Tide lead the nation in scoring at 51.3 points per game, more than 14 points above last year’s average. In year’s past, Bama has relied on its defense and running game to wear teams down. This year, Nick Saban is equipped with a high-flying offense capable of outscoring anybody. It’s a new-look Tide team that, at least thus far, is more devastating than ever.
Justin Fields could be this year’s Tua
Fields, the No. 1 rated quarterback in the recruiting class of 2018, has been used sparingly thus far as he continues to get more comfortable in the offense. He’s had just 25 pass attempts all season and hasn’t thrown the ball in over a month; his workload has been largely contained to third-down, short-yardage running situations. But so much can change in a month, and Kirby Smart hinted this week that Fields could be deposed as a weapon more often moving forward. The 6’3”, 230-pound dual threat is every bit the electric, game-changing talent that Tagovailoa is, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Georgia turn to him should the offense sputter against Alabama.