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Does Defense Still Win Championships? We’ll Find out in Atlanta

The SEC Championship game features the No. 1 scoring defense in Georgia vs. the No. 5 scoring offense in Alabama.

There's the old adage in football that defense wins championships. And we've seen the truth of that at Alabama. 

In the early Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa, you could count on a Crimson Tide team having a dominating defense. 

From 2009-2012, the Crimson Tide won three national titles and two SEC championships. During that stretch, the Alabama defense was no less than No. 4 in the country in scoring defense with the fewest average points allowed in 2011 and 2012.

That 2011 defense was one of the best of all time. It featured many future NFL players like Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, Courtney Upshaw and Damion Square to name a few. 

That season, they pitched three shutouts, including the championship game against LSU, and only allowed more than 14 points in a game one time. (The most points given up were 21 in the infamous Georgia Southern game.) By the end of the year, they led the nation in scoring defense by only allowing 8.2 points per game. 

So far, the 2021 Georgia defense is even better statistically speaking than the 2011 Alabama unit. 

Through the 12 games of the regular season, the Bulldogs pitched three shutouts and are allowing 6.9 points per game. That means that teams are averaging less than a touchdown total per game against the Georgia defense. 

"It's a very, very good defense from top to bottom," said Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. "So we have to prepare. We know it has to be a great week of preparation. For us, it's just about executing the plan that Coach OB and the entire staff puts in."

It is a unit stacked with NFL-caliber players led first and foremost by Jordan Davis. It also has guys like Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith and Derrion Kendrick. 

"I think the fact that they've got like nine different players that have 4.5 tackles for a loss— one guy has 8.5," Saban said. "They've got five different players that have multiple sacks. There's nine different players that have at least two sacks. So there's a lot of issues.

"This is not a one-man wrecking crew. This is a really, really good group of players who play well together. There's multiple players that have ability to make plays."

The Bulldog defense only allowed four teams to reach double-digits with the highest scoring team being Tennessee with 17 points in the 41-17 Georgia win. Subsequently, the Volunteers are the only top-25 scoring offense that the Bulldogs faced in the regular season. Tennessee is No. 9 in scoring offense. 

In the order they were played, Georgia's opponents rank 79th, 59th, 109th, 128th, 45th, 62nd, 35th, 42nd, 56th, 9th, N/A (FCS) and 96th. 

Alabama is currently ranked fifth. The Crimson Tide will be by far the best offensive team that Georgia has faced. 

Defense used to be the way that Alabama won championships, but 2020's team showed that they can also be won on the offensive end. The 2020 Alabama team, which many consider the greatest of them all, gave up an average of 19.4 points per game, yet still blew most teams out because of the offense's scoring ability. 

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Even after losing six players from that offense in the first 37 picks of the 2021 NFL draft, Alabama has still managed to be a top five scoring offense at 42.3 PPG in 2021.

Alabama is going through a run of the most explosive and dynamic quarterback play in program history. Last season, Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns in the pandemic-shortened 13-game season. 

With very limited collegiate experience prior to the season, Young has stepped into those massive shoes with seemingly few problems. Young threw for 3,901 yards and 40 touchdowns in Alabama's 12 regular season games. 

"It's like he's composed at all times and has great presence in the pocket, great distributor of the ball," said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart about the Alabama quarterback. "Knows where all his outlets are. Can draw the defense to him and dish the ball, much like a point guard in basketball. 

"He's just one of the best I've seen as far as quick release and getting the ball out, distributing the ball really good."

At times, the Alabama offense has looked stagnant like against LSU or Auburn. But sandwiched in between those two games was a nearly 700-yard performance against Arkansas. 

With the talent and explosiveness Alabama has on offensive, they have the ability to compete with anybody. 

"I'm excited for the opportunity to play such an explosive offense," Dean said. "The opportunity to have this type of matchup, to play this type of competition, they're really talented. They've got a real good offense, and they're coached good also. So it's a great opportunity for us to play a game like this."

A potential game changer for the Alabama offense will be the availability of starting running back Brian Robinson Jr. He exited the Iron Bowl after a 37-yard run in the fourth quarter, and Saban said he has a lower body muscle pull. 

It's not just that Robinson is Alabama's leading rusher that's the big problem. The larger issue is that the Crimson Tide is already without three other scholarship running backs (Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Camar Wheaton) who are out for the season with injuries. 

If Robinson can't go, that would leave Trey Sanders as the only healthy running back, which would force Alabama to turn to its emergency running backs Demouy Kennedy and Christian Leary and severely limit what Bill O'Brien can call offensively going up against the talented Georgia front. 

Young and his duo of 1,000-yard receivers in John Metchie III and Jameson Williams will be heavily relied on in this game if Alabama has to throw more. Whether Robinson can go or not, Saban said the key to facing a defense like Georgia's is offensive balance starting with the offensive line. 

"They've been very effective with the way they play pass defense all year long," Saban said. "So it's going to be very challenging for us. It's not just about throwing the ball. It's about protecting, whether it's man to man, zone, reading it, throwing the ball to the right guys. There's a lot of things that go with that. When we play the best, we have some kind of balance on offense."

While the focus will be on the Alabama offense vs the Georgia defense, on the flip side, the Alabama defense and Georgia offense are no slouches. Both units have been coming on strong over the final few games of the regular season. 

But that's to be expected when you have a top-four matchup in Atlanta the first weekend of December with postseason positioning on the line. 

Georgia has played more of an old-school style this year with dominating defense, and Alabama has used high-powered offense to outscore opponents. The two teams will clash in the conference championship on Saturday and help determine if defense still wins championships.