INDIANAPOLIS — On the day before the day, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart consented to do a virtual press conference together, and that perfunctory exercise taught us so much about why there’s every reason to believe The Crimson Tide will understand what’s necessary to win the College Football Playoff championship game.
There were 15 questions posed during the time allotted. Because it was a joint interview, it was necessary for the reporters to identify which of the two men they were addressing. Now, four of the questions requested to be answered by both, five were presented to Saban and six were for Smart.
Every one of the six reporters addressed Smart as “Kirby.”
Every one of the five reporters addressed Saban as “Coach Saban.”
BENDER: Three keys to a Georgia victory
Yes, Nick Saban has been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. And the t-shirt said, “Coach Saban” on it.
To win this game, it would seem all the Crimson Tide need to do is manage not to get lost on the six-block bus ride to Lucas Oil Stadium. Saban has coached his teams to seven national championships. That’s more than Bear Bryant, more than Woody Hayes, more than Frank Leahy, and any other coach you want to name isn’t really in the conversation.
If it were that simple, of course, Saban would have more than seven titles. There are no coaches around with his level of achievement. He’s always facing those lesser than him. But the sport is played by young men. Things happen.
So these are the things Alabama must do to make it eight championships for Saban and 13 during the poll era – from 1936 on – for the Crimson Tide:
Shut down the run
When the Bulldogs and Tide met for the SEC Championship in early December, Georgia managed only 109 rushing yards and no single player got more than 38. When the Tide handled Cincinnati in the playoff semifinals, they let star back Jerome Ford loose for 77 yards, but that was three more yards than the Bearcats managed as a team.
Georgia is going to want to run the ball. The less the Bulldogs see of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, the happier they’ll be. But Alabama is the No. 4 rushing defense in the FBS, allowing just 82.1 yards per game and only eight TDs on the ground all year.
It’s up to Phidarian Mathis and Co. to get push up front, outside linebackers Will Anderson and Dallas Turner to set the edge and inside backers Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o to maintain gap integrity. If Georgia is forced into a situation where it must throw more than 30 times, Alabama will be celebrating.
Keep Young upright
In just about every game where Alabama struggled this year, the opposing team was spending as much time in the Tide backfield as the guys wearing plain red helmets.
Auburn rang up seven sacks. Texas A&M and LSU managed four each. Know how many the Bulldogs got while getting their behinds kicked in the SEC Championship? As many as I had. Georgia went into that game with the plan to establish itself as one of history’s great defenses but exited with zero sacks and 41 points tattooed on its collective ego.
Young went down only twice in the Cincinnati game, but remember, the Tide chose to emphasize their significant advantages in size and strength along the line by running the ball on two-thirds of their offensive plays. It wasn’t dreadful for Young to be sacked just twice by the Bearcats on 30 dropbacks, but it wasn’t great.
The less pressure Young faces, the more he’ll frustrate UGa.
Win the turnover battle
When examining how a football game might develop, this is the factor that is most often overlooked. Because it’s hard to predict when a lineman might get a finger on a pass that alters its path and allows a defensive back to intercept it, or when a running back might get a poor grip on the ball and allow it to be dislodged with just the right hit.
The one moment in the second half that Cincinnati had a chance to make the Cotton Bowl competitive, though, came when Young felt pressure in front of him from lineman Curtis Brooks and rushed a throw that sailed high over his receiver’s head and was fielded by All-American corner Bryan Cook at the 50. The Tide led 17-6 at the time, with nearly 5 minutes left in the third quarter. That sort of error could be decisive against the Bulldogs.
Alabama is only plus-9 in turnovers. The team has lost six fumbles and recovered only five, and it has intercepted 15 passes to the opposition’s five. That’s not going to change many games. So Alabama must play prudently and opportunistically.
The truth is, winning the turnover battle might simply mean not losing it.
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