Can Georgia finally get past Alabama? Previewing the 2022 CFP title game

NCAAF

Ever since Alabama‘s Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith broke their hearts on second-and-26 in 2018, the Georgia Bulldogs have yearned to return to the national championship stage.

Four years later, Georgia is back. Not surprisingly, Alabama will be waiting on the other sideline.

After clobbering Michigan 34-11 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl, Georgia aims to win its first national championship since the 1980 season. The prolonged and painful drought has included several chapters and different opposing villains, but recently, Georgia’s biggest obstacle is the team it will face Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Alabama has won seven straight against Georgia, including that overtime triumph in the CFP title game, and three SEC championship game victories, the most recent coming Dec. 4. Georgia coach Kirby Smart has significantly elevated his alma mater since arriving from Alabama after the 2015 season. But his repeated failures against Saban stand out, which adds a degree of significance to a game that really needs none.

A win would absolve Smart of criticism that he can’t beat his mentor and win the biggest games. A loss, meanwhile, would set off a long and painful offseason in Athens. The Saban-lives-rent-free-in-Smart’s-head jokes would be relentless.

Remove Alabama’s past dominance of Georgia, and the title game projects as a very close matchup, even one that favors the Bulldogs. Georgia spent most of the season as the clear-cut No. 1 team, while Alabama rarely exhibited the flawless play or flash of the Tide team that cruised to a national title in 2020. Alabama dominated when it mattered, beating Georgia and Cincinnati in Friday’s CFP Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic by a combined score of 68-30.

Beating a team twice in such a short span is never easy. Head-to-head history favors Alabama, but it’s not hard at all to make a case for Georgia.

Will this be the year Georgia ends its interminable title drought? Or will Alabama extend the misery for the Bulldogs and their coach?

Here’s a look at what to expect in the CFP national championship on Jan. 10.

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T
When: Monday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: Georgia (-2)


THE COACHES

Alabama’s Nick Saban: He’s already considered by many to be the greatest coach in college football history, and has dominated the BCS and CFP eras like none other. Saban has won a record seven national championships, including six at Alabama, and aims for back-to-back titles for the second time with the Crimson Tide (2011 and 2012). He is 7-2 when playing for a national championship, with both losses coming against Clemson (2016 and 2018 seasons). Saban’s teams have made the CFP in seven of eight years and won three of the final five BCS championships. He’s 178-24 at Alabama and 269-66-1 overall in the FBS. Saban is 9-2 against Georgia, for the second-best winning percentage of any coach with at least five matchups against the Bulldogs since 1978 (Urban Meyer went 5-1 against Georgia).

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Although pleased with the overall performance of Alabama in a 27-6 dismantling of Cincinnati, Nick Saban has his eyes on a national championship.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart: The former All-SEC safety for Georgia has put his alma mater in the national spotlight both on the field and in recruiting. A Georgia program that never reached the BCS championship game has made the national title game twice in the past four seasons under Smart, who is 65-15 as head coach. He won the SEC in his second season and has captured East Division titles in four of the past five seasons. He’s also 2-0 in CFP semifinals. Smart has accomplished just about everything but beating Alabama. The former Alabama assistant from 2007 to 2015 is 0-4 against the Tide.


HOW THEY GOT HERE

Alabama

The Tide have turned it on at the perfect time after a regular season in which they weren’t nearly as dominant as usual. Alabama’s defense and offensive line repeatedly drew criticism, both before and after an Oct. 9 loss at Texas A&M. The Tide struggled to beat Florida and LSU teams that turned out to be average, allowed 35 points to Arkansas and needed a furious rally to force overtime and ultimately beat Auburn 24-22 in the Iron Bowl. But they flipped a switch in the SEC title game, lighting up a historically elite Georgia defense for 41 points and 536 yards. Alabama’s defense was the story against Cincinnati, forcing five three-and-outs and only two drives of longer than 6 yards (including the first of the game for the Bearcats).

Last national title: 2020

Georgia

The Bulldogs set the tone for their season with a 10-3 opening win over Clemson in which the only touchdown came via the defense (Christopher Smith interception return). Smart’s defense became the national story for much of the next three months, as Georgia recorded three shutouts and never allowed more than 17 points in the regular season. Bennett replaced the oft-injured J.T. Daniels and showed impressive efficiency, while Georgia’s run game bullied opponents behind Zamir White, James Cook and others. Georgia was never threatened until the SEC title game, which it led 10-0 before being outscored 41-14 in the final three quarters. But the Bulldogs responded from the disappointment to jump all over Michigan in Friday’s semifinal, surging to a 17-0 lead that swelled to 27-3 at halftime.

Last national title: 1980


KEY PLAYERS

Alabama: RB Brian Robinson Jr.

After dealing with a lower leg injury late in the season, Robinson clearly benefited from the extra rest before the CFP semifinal. He attacked Cincinnati early and often, recording 134 rush yards on 17 carries in the first half and finishing with a career-high 204 yards on 26 carries. A clearly limited Robinson had 55 rushing yards on 16 carries against Georgia in the SEC championship, but he helped protect quarterback Bryce Young. If the fifth-year senior can find more running room this time against Georgia, Alabama’s offense will be extremely tough to slow down. Although Alabama has mixed in other runners, Robinson is the team’s featured back, recording 179 more carries than any other player.

Georgia: QB Stetson Bennett IV

The former walk-on has heard the criticism for much of his career, and it reached a fever pitch following the SEC title game loss to Alabama. Bennett passed for 340 yards and three touchdowns against the Tide, but two interceptions, one in the red zone, proved costly in the loss. But he responded in a huge way Friday against Michigan, turning in a career performance with 313 passing yards and three touchdowns, while completing 67% of his attempts. Bennett showed a quick release with accuracy and smart decision-making, and perfectly placed deep passes to Jermaine Burton, James Cook and others.

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Stetson Bennett IV places a perfect ball to Jermaine Burton to give the Bulldogs a commanding 27-3 lead.


Matchup to watch: Alabama’s wide receivers vs. Georgia’s secondary

There are other, related matchups, including Georgia’s defensive front against Alabama’s offensive line, but after the SEC title game, all eyes will be on the perimeter. Young torched Georgia’s defense for 421 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 16.2 yards per completion and finding Jameson Williams for scoring strikes of 67 and 55 yards. Williams will have a bigger spotlight on him as John Metchie, who had six receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown, tore his ACL in the game and will miss the national championship. Players such as Ja’Corey Brooks and Slade Bolden, who combined for 97 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati, will become more significant. Georgia’s secondary isn’t the defense’s strength and has been hit by injuries throughout the season. Derion Kendrick, a Clemson transfer, had two interceptions against Michigan in the semifinal. Christopher Smith will be eligible after missing the second half against Michigan because of a targeting penalty.


X FACTORS

Georgia TE Brock Bowers: The freshman is a 6-foot-4, 230-pound matchup nightmare for defenses, even ones as talented as Alabama’s. He established his presence right away against Michigan with three receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive. Bowers finished with five receptions for 55 yards, remaining Bennett’s favorite target. He led Georgia with 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown in the SEC championship against Alabama, and will top the scouting report for Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding.

Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.: For Bennett to replicate his semifinal heroics, Georgia must identify Anderson and keep him away from the pocket. The phrase “lives in the backfield” is thrown out about a lot of players, but it actually applies to Anderson, who increased his nation-leading sacks total to 17.5 with two more against Cincinnati. Anderson leads the nation in tackles for loss with 34.5, and ranks second on the team with 98 total stops. The sophomore had a sack and two tackles for loss in the SEC championship. Georgia tackles Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon must find ways to contain No. 31.

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