Game of the Week: Alabama at Georgia

BY: BRENNAN MARKS, SZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER

     vs.    

TV: ESPN, 7:45 PM ET

Last Week: Georgia defeated Arizona State, Alabama beat Arkansas

     Ray Charles once had Georgia on his mind. This week, the entire scope of the college football nation will have Georgia on their mind because of a top 10 conference match-up between traditional college football powerhouses (so-to-speak), Alabama and Georgia. For the two people who actually read this column: yes, I did say that I would probably write about an SEC game for consecutive weeks, and yes, I already wrote about Alabama in their first game versus Clemson in an unpublished column (which obviously doesn’t mean anything to the readers because it was never published, but I have alluded to it in my previous columns). Also, I must now admit that I actually am an Alabama football fan. Despite my biases, however, it is clear that this is THE game of the week. For example, CBSSports.com has a countdown clock to the game on its college football section of the website (http://www.sportsline.com/collegefootball ), and the game is not even on CBS. Of course, it is necessary to mention that the program which can arguably claim to be the primary indicator for magnitudes of games will be in Athens on Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday.

     Now that I have established that this game does indeed merit “game of the week” status, it is important to note why this game is so big. Well for starters, it is a match-up between the # 3 (Georgia) and # 8 (Alabama) ranked teams in the country (who are both undefeated, by the way) and a conference game. But, beyond that, both teams can make a statement by winning this game. Georgia began the season ranked # 1 in the preseason polls but fell to # 3 from a combination of lackluster game performances (despite winning all of their games) and impressive victories by the current # 1 -2 teams, USC and Oklahoma. If Georgia wins an a monumental fashion, it strengthens their case for a chance to move up in the polls, which has a direct effect on whether or not they will play in the BCS title game and will obviously keep the Bulldogs undefeated, which is even more important for Georgia’s ability to play for the championship.

     If Alabama wins, they obviously will be able to realistically continue to compete to play in the national championship, but perhaps more profoundly, they will reveal how good of a team they truly are at this point in the season. No one is truly sure what to make of them right now. They began the season at the bottom of the top 25, destroyed preseason top 10 team Clemson in the first game and have essentially dominated the other opponents on the schedule. Theoretically, it can be argued that Alabama deserves its current # 8 AP ranking based on their performance in their first four games. However, observers might question the strength of each opponent on the schedule, even Clemson, especially in comparison to Georgia and other SEC competition. Georgia figures to be the Crimson Tide’s first true test on the schedule, and the outcome of this game will say a lot about the progress Alabama is making under second year head coach Nick Saban.

     The game itself has many interesting storylines as well in addition to the underlying importance of the outcome of the game to each team. Alabama’s defense has surprised many football fans so far. It has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season and has allowed 3 touchdowns total (all, coincidentally, on 4th down attempts). Many believed the defense was too young and inexperienced to pose a serious threat to top tier SEC teams, but perhaps they underestimated the newcomers in the secondary, the speed of the defense overall, and undeniable impact of 365 pound JC transfer nose tackle, Terrence Cody, affectionately called Mt. Cody by many Alabama fans. In the previous games, Cody has been able to consistently take on two blockers which has allowed other players on the defense to pressure the quarterback and make plays, and he has clogged the middle which has hurt the opponents inside running game. Of course, it is unfair to say that Cody has been solely responsible for the reemergence of the Tide’s defense this season. The 10 other men on the field have made big plays when needed (four timely interceptions by the secondary against Arkansas was crucial to the victory), and Cody cannot play on every play for conditioning reasons. Still, his impact has been profound, and this week, he will be lined up against a freshman center (Ben Jones).

     Perhaps that will be the most intriguing battle within the game: Will Alabama’s defensive line be able to beat Georgia’s young but talented offensive line? Of course, the line of scrimmage battle always has an effect on the outcome of the game, and if, hypothetically, Alabama’s defensive line can get pass the offensive line, can Georgia’s skill players find a way to win the game? It will depend on just how well Alabama’s d-line plays. For instance, if their performance can be described as “dominating,” then Georgia’s skill players will likely have had a rough day. But if not, even if Alabama “wins” the battle, Georgia’s offensive skill players are among the best in the country and can make plays in open and sometimes closed space.

     Which players am I talking about? Analysts consider quarterback Matthew Stafford one of the best, if not the best, NFL prospect in the country and arguably the best pure quarterback in the SEC (ranks 1st in pass efficiency within the conference and 2nd in passing yards per game). Heisman candidate Running back Knowshon Moreno leads the SEC in touchdowns and is 2nd in rushing yard per game. Freshman WR AJ Green has made a case for SEC offensive freshman of the year through the first few games. So, yeah, Georgia has some pretty skilled skill players on the offensive side of the ball.

     Alabama has some talented offensive players as well, most importantly the offensive line and running backs. The Tide currently leads the SEC in rushing. Georgia, however, appears to be the team to stop the Crimson Tide, as they lead the SEC in rushing defense. This game will be a measuring stick for the quality of Bama’s rushing offense and Georgia’s rushing defense. One might argue that Georgia has played against opponents who do not utilize the running game often or effectively, and Alabama has not played against a team who was poised to stop their power running game. If Georgia can stop Alabama’s running game, it will be interesting to see what senior quarterback John Parker Wilson can do.

     Despite breaking multiple passing records at Alabama, Wilson’s career has been defined by crucial mistakes in games and a mediocre overall record. So far this year, he has been mistake free and has won all his games, but his passing numbers are down. This, of course, is because of the emergence of the running game, but if Georgia can force Alabama to pass the ball, it’s nearly impossible to foresee what Wilson will do. Luckily, he is facing the 11th ranked pass defense in the SEC (albeit the numbers are inflated because Georgia has played pass-happy teams, just like the numbers for Georgia’s rushing defense are possibly inflated in the opposite direction) and is helped by talented receivers including two senior tight ends, and freshmen sensation Julio Jones (Julio was typically ranked # 1 by recruiting services, AJ Green was # 2). If , and a big if at that, Wilson makes the right decisions and makes accurate throws, Georgia could be in for a long day, even if they stop the run.

     As always, special teams and intangibles can have a huge impact on the game. As far as special teams goes, I don’t have much to say. Both teams have poor kickoff coverage units, but I’d give the edge to Alabama in the return game, with electrifying return man Javier Arenas fielding kickoffs and punts. As far as intangibles, basically all are in Georgia’s favor. (The only one not in their favor is penalties, as Alabama is among tops in the SEC in fewest penalties and penalty yards, whereas Georgia is a cellar-dweller in that statistical category). First of all, Georgia plays at home, which always has an effect on the game. Secondly, their legendary radio broadcaster, Larry Munson, retired earlier this week, meaning he called Georgia’s last game vs. Arizona State but abruptly decided to call it quits before the Bama game. Perhaps his retirement will lead to an even more emotionally charged Bulldog team. Lastly and most intriguingly, Georgia will don black jerseys for the third time in school history. Coach Mark Richt called for a “blackout” asking the fans to wear black while the team wears black as well. The previous occasions where Georgia has worn black include two blow-out victories versus Auburn and Hawaii last year, so theoretically, history is on their side. Now, I don’t think Alabama’s players will be extremely affected by Georgia’s fashion statements, but it is another interesting aspect of this monumental early season college football game.

 

Prediction: I really, really, really, want to pick Alabama to win this game. I do think they can because of the strength of their offensive and defensive lines. I’m not really sure how well they can play against Georgia, but I expect them to because they are playing with a ton of confidence and swagger. However, Georgia is an extremely talented team- there’s a reason they were ranked # 1 in the preseason. I’ll pick Georgia to win 24-17. Not only are they the safe pick and the home team, but also, I don’t want to be seen as an “Alabama homer,” even though I’m a fan. I still seriously considered picking them.

Look Back: Well it wasn’t the defensive struggle I projected, but it was an entertaining game and I got the winning team right. Auburn will need a lot of help to get back into the SEC championship picture, while LSU looks like they might have a quarterback.

 

BY: BRENNAN MARKS, SZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER

IMAGES COURTESY OF YAHOOSPORTS.COM

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