college football

Georgia vs. Alabama: The 3 biggest X-Factors for the CFP National Championship

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Jason Ence

January 7th, 2022

After dominating the regular season, the Georgia Bulldogs suffered their first defeat in the 2021 SEC Championship Game, falling 41-24 to the Alabama Crimson Tide in early December. Now, the two teams square off in the 2022 CFP National Championship in a rematch of the nation’s top squads.

Let’s break down the three biggest x-factors at play to determine if Alabama will take home its seventh national crown in 13 years, or Georgia will get revenge.

1. Alabama’s passing attack

In the 2021 SEC Championship Game, Alabama did something no team had done all year—they put points on the board in the second quarter. Bryce Young threw for 421 yards and scored four touchdowns on the day, clinching his Heisman Trophy in the process. Three of those touchdowns came in the second stanza, as he hit wideouts John Metchie III and Jameson Williams each for a score, and ran one in to close out the half.

However, Metchie was injured on the final drive of the first half, and after Young found Williams deep behind the Georgia defense on the second half’s opening drive, the offense never found the end zone again. Against Cincinnati last week, Williams was held to just 62 yards on seven catches, with freshman Ja’Corey Brooks filling in for Metchie to catch four passes for 66 yards.

Alabama’s line struggled against Auburn, allowing seven sacks, and didn’t fare particularly well against Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. The Bearcats registered a pair of sacks and four hurries, and Young rarely had a clean pocket for very long. Without Metchie, Georgia might be able to load the box a bit more and bring more pressure on Young. The Tide will need their pass protection to hold up, and for Brooks to step up, if they hope to take home the title.

2. Third down conversions

In their last two meetings, the SEC Championship last month and a regular-season meeting last October, Alabama won both games by an identical 41-24 score line. In those two wins, the Tide converted a combined 13 of their 25 third-down attempts, while the Bulldogs were able to convert just 10 of its 28 attempts, including just three of 12 last month.

This was a key factor in why Alabama won both games, despite Georgia’s stellar defense both years. The Bulldogs have allowed just 34% of third-down conversions to be successful this season, while the Tide have converted better than 52% of their opportunities. Meanwhile, Alabama limits opponents to just 31% success rate, while Georgia has been converting at a 45% clip.

Georgia must run for more than the 3.6 yards-per-carry they achieved in the SEC Championship, and put quarterback Stetson Bennett in more manageable situations to limit the impact of Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. Meanwhile, Alabama must continue to convert at a strong clip and wear down the Bulldog defense over the course of 60 minutes.

If the third-down trends of the last two matchups hold true, Alabama should walk away victorious. However, should the Bulldogs find a way to reverse those trends, they will likely take home the crown for the first time in 41 years.

3. Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart

In 26 games against former assistants, only once since taking over at Alabama has head coach Nick Saban lost to one of his former protégés. That took place earlier this season, when Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M knocked off the Tide 41-38 in October. Prior to that, Saban had defeated his former assistants in 24 straight efforts, winning all but two of those by at least two touchdowns.

Saban ran his record to 25-1 when he defeated Georgia head coach Kirby Smart in the SEC Championship Game, the fourth time in as many meetings that he took down his former defensive coordinator. In addition to the matchups discussed already, Saban also claimed victory in the 2018 SEC Championship, and most notably a year earlier in the 2018 CFP National Championship. That game saw Georgia take a 13-0 halftime lead, before an Alabama comeback combined with poor late-game management by Smart allowed Alabama to claim a 26-23 overtime win.

Saban has squatters’ rights in Smart’s head right now, and the latter must find a way to evict his mentor on Monday night. The Georgia coach needs to use his knowledge of Saban’s systems, and bring a wrinkle or two of his own that he hasn’t shown yet, or he will suffer yet another heartbreaking defeat after a dominant season.