Here is what I’m NOT worried about come Saturday’s kickoff in the Georgia Dome:
1) Alabama-lite? Nope. Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way at the outset. Georgia Bulldogs Coach Kirby Smart did bring a new attitude, if not a culture change, when he came home after spending years in the wilderness. And there is no doubt he was imprinted with his time under Nick Saban (moreso, but including others), and that formed his opinion for how things should be done; how practices are run, how game prep is handled, how players are developed and coached, how time is spent, how resources are allocated, and yes, how you play the game of American football.
Yet that is more of an attest to Nick Saban than the Alabama Crimson Tide. Saban had success before coming to Tuscaloosa, it was just time for the flagship university of the Yellowhammer State to adopt and acquiesce to Saban’s wishes. The common denominator is that the University of Georgia was also receptive to such a change when Kirby landed in Athens. But make no mistake… we are not Alabama-lite. We are Georgia.
2) We can be Lucy to their Charlie Brown. Or something like that. In any case, they aren’t that great when they have to put foot to ball. Alabama is 118th in the country in net punting, averaging right at 35 yards. That is not exactly flipping the field. And that is balancing between two punters (one is right at 37 ypp, the other at 34) so it’s not like there is a backup plan. And let’s not get started on Georgia blocking a ‘Bama punt, shall we?
About 44% of their kickoffs have been returned. Now they’ve kicked off more than your Average Joe from Selma, but these aren’t just directional kicks, and that still gives our deep men a chance. And placekicking from behind center is worse: they’ve missed 8 extra points this season. Again, they’ve got a larger sample size but that is a big number no matter what. Their field goals are, as expected, worse. The #1 kicker, Joseph Bulovas, is only 12 for 16 for the season. If this comes down to the toe, we’re in pretty good shape.
3) In the Air Tonight. The Alabama secondary has given up over 200 yards through the air 5 times in 11 games (Citadel only tried twice, so I’m not counting them). Kellen Mond from aTm had the most success, and they did hold Lock and Stidham under their season averages. The pass defense is actually worse on 2nd down (58.1%) than it is on first down (46.5%). And if you can get the Elephants in 3rd and long (7+), they’re allowing pass conversions of about 51%. They are actually sub-par when opponents cross the 50, conceding over 60% completion rate… at least until you reach the red zone. Where they shut you down.
Don’t get me wrong. These guys are good. They look to rotate about 9 backs on a fairly regular basis with junior Deionte Thompson leading the way, then sophomore Xavier McKinney and junior Saivion Smith not far behind. And everyone is excited about super-frosh Patrick Surtain. But they are susceptible to an efficient passing attack. And that is an arrow we happen to have in our quiver.
Now forgive me, as I was weaned at the nipple of Larry Munson’s scratch on AM radio, so here’s what I am worried about in the SEC Championship Game:
1) Fortunate One. I could drown you with Tua Tagovailoa stats, talk about how he puts a Cam Newton towel on his head during the 4th quarter while his usurped teammate cleans up the garbage, fall in with the Heisman hype, or just opine about his seemingly perfect season.
The thing that gets me is how fortunate he is. Fortunate to be playing behind a very good offensive line, fortunate that he has escaped serious injury and seems to have quick healing powers. Fortunate that he can fall back on RPO but stick with the R because of 2 great running backs and another one not far behind. But mostly fortunate because I have seen his receivers bail him out numerous times. Whether making circus catches that inflate his scoring and yardage stats, or sometimes just because the opposing secondary is lost tracking that speed. By this I mean he throws 1-2 “no-look” passes a game… the recent Auburn game is but one example. The game-ending play in January’s CFP Championship Game is another.
He loves to read the defensive alignment, look for some man coverage, drop back with eyes on his right wide-out, then just half-pivot and heave the ball down the left hash or sideline. And more often than not, the defense has failed and he has a successful play on his hands. Good QB’s use their eyes as a weapon, looking off the defense and keeping the secondary guessing. Tua uses it too, but I swear he’s been fortunate when he’s throwing long go routes more than anyone I’ve ever seen. Campbell, Stokes, even Baker will really have to stay on their man to see if we can get some of that fortune to come our way.
2) “Watching some good friends scream ‘Let me out!’”. Yep, it’s about pressure. Pressure from a stout defensive line and some very athletic and gap-sound linebackers. These guys are big, they are strong, and they are important. As I’ve hinted at above, the secondary is probably the Crimson Tide’s weakest point. The front 3 and the middle 4 are not.
Isaiah Buggs is the big man where it all starts. Not only including a team-high 9.5 sacks, but add 6 quarterback pressures, 3 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery (“and a partridge in a pear tree”) this season. Beside him is super-soph Quinnen Williams, or “Q” (not “Cue”). Williams has 7 sacks himself. Behind them is senior Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings, the former with 7.5 sacks and the latter with 4.5. When you have 4 players with 10 or more tackles for loss, 6 with at least 5, and 12 players with at least 3 take downs in the backfield, you are indeed applying pressure on a regular basis. But can we handle it for 60 minutes?
3) The Known may be worse than the Unknown. In the School of Belichick, one learns to take away an opponent’s strength. Leaving them to attempt victory with less ammunition and weaker weapons. Find the one thing your opponent does well, focus on defending that aspect, and take your chances. Alabama is very good at this. Remember Leonard Fournette? That poor showing against Alabama likely cost Fournette a Heisman Trophy.
Need an example from the current season? Let’s review Nick Fitzgerald, the senior signal caller from Mississippi State. Prior to the Alabama game, Nick had thrown for over 200 yards 8 times in 32 career starts. But he had rushed for over 100 yards in 19 of those games. He is a running quarterback. Apparently Saban and Co. got the message that Fitzgerald was more dangerous with his legs than with his arm. His yardage against Alabama? Negative 23 yards, by far the lowest output of his college career and a goose egg on the scoreboard for the Bizarro Bulldogs.
So what do we think Alabama DC Tosh Lupoi found on his desk last Sunday morning? I’m thinking a sticky-note from the Armani Bear simply stating “THEY SHALL NOT RUN!!”. And his executive assistant probably had second half game tape from last year’s dustup ready to roll.
What worries you about facing the 1941 National Champions? Leave them in the comments below, and as always…