The conference that invented the conference championship game will take the main spotlight this championship weekend in college football when Alabama and Georgia square off in the SEC Championship Game with major College Football Playoff implications on the line. A season that has been expected to be a season-long collision course between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs has finally arrived as planned, and a rematch of last year’s national championship game has the look and feel of a College Football Playoff play-in game this weekend in Atlanta. For Alabama and Georgia, a win in the SEC Championship Game will allow the victors to wrap up a spot in the College Football Playoff. The SEC champion has been in the playoff each of the previous four years of the playoff, and that streak will continue this year, regardless who wins this weekend.
In the long history of the SEC Championship Game, this will be just the second time Alabama and Georgia face off in Atlanta, despite a combined 18 appearances between the two programs including this season. The last time they played on this stage in 2012, Alabama escaped with a 32-28 victory to advance to the BCS National Championship Game. The stakes this season are similar as far as the national title is hunt is concerned.
Here are a few things to be paying attention to this weekend as you watch the SEC Championship Game.
1. Tua Tagovailoa’s rise started against Georgia
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa should be well on his way to taking home the third Heisman Trophy in Alabama history next week. The highest-rated quarterback in the nation may not have quite the lofty passing stats as other potential Heisman Trophy candidates thinking about making a trip to New York, but Tagovailoa has not had to put up some passing numbers later in games on a regular basis this season. Against Georgia, that may not be the case.
The rise of Tagovailoa will come full circle with his appearance in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. It was against Georgia in the College Football Playoff national championship in January when Alabama head coach Nick Saban turned to Tagovailoa after halftime, replacing Jalen Hurts, to fuel a comeback win against the Bulldogs in overtime. That was when Tagovailoa quickly became a household name for college football fans, and he has been the runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy for much of this season. Tagovailoa has been intercepted just twice this season, so if Georgia does cause Tua to make any mistakes then they will have to find a way to capitalize on it. LSU and Mississippi State turned two interceptions of Tagovailoa into zero points, and Mississippi State also failed to score any points off a Tagovailoa fumble.
2. Georgia running game fueled by youthful stars in the making
It is no secret that Georgia likes to run the football. After losing Sony Michel and Nick Chubb from last year’s team, the Bulldogs have continued to thrive on the ground this season with sophomore D’Andre Swift and freshman Elijah Holyfield, the son of former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Swift and Holyfield are as good a 1-2 punch as you’ll find running the football in the nation with each getting an average of 11 carries per game. While not quite as productive as Chubb and Michel, the luxury of having two talented running backs as Swift and Holyfield makes playing Georgia dangerous.
How much success Georgia can have on the ground may be the key to the game, because running the ball on Alabama is a difficult task. The Crimson Tide have allowed just six rushing touchdowns this season. Alabama hasn’t allowed as many as 10 rushing touchdowns in a season since 2012, and they have only allowed that many once since 2009. Georgia scored one rushing touchdown against Alabama in the national championship last season. Alabama has allowed six rushing touchdowns in seven all-time College Football Playoff games.
3. How does Georgia keep this one within reach?
Alabama’s dominance this season has reached a historic level this season rivaled only by the Yale football team of 1888. Nobody has managed to keep a game close against Alabama through four quarters. Every time Alabama has theoretically been put in a challenging spot, the Tide have cleared the bar with relative ease. Alabama has defeated No. 22 Texas A&M by 22 and shut out No. 3 LSU and No. 16 Mississippi State in back-to-back games.
1888 Yale and 2018 Alabama are the only CFB teams ever to outscore their first 12 opponents by at least 20 points to start a season.
— Jim Dunaway (@jimdunaway) November 26, 2018
So the question is simple. How does Georgia keep this one within reach in the fourth quarter? Georgia will clearly be the best team Alabama has faced this season. The basic point of emphasis should come in the red zone, where Georgia has to step up their game on defense any time Alabama gets into the red zone. Alabama has the SEC’s second-best red zone touchdown percentage this season, scoring 44 touchdowns on 63 red zone trips. Georgia’s opponents have not left many points on the field this season when they do reach inside the 20-yard line, scoring on 25 of 28 red zone trips. However, Georgia has the SEC’s fourth-best red zone touchdown defensive percentage, allowing opponents to score a touchdown on just 50% of their red zone trips. Alabama isn’t that far behind with 53.85 percent of Alabama opponent’s red zone trips resulting in touchdowns.
If Georgia can force Alabama to settle for a few field goals instead of letting Tagovailoa and the Tide get into the endzone, they can keep this one within reach in the fourth quarter.
4. Nick Saban’s record against former assistants
Expect to hear this one a few times once again. Coming into this weekend, Alabama head coach Nick Saban continues to be the master schooling his students in head-to-head coaching matchups with former assistants. Saban is a perfect 14-0 against his former assistants, including a 1-0 mark against former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart with last season’s national title victory over Georgia. Saban has added two wins to his record this season with a victory over Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M and Jeremy Pruitt of Tennessee.
You would think at some point in time Saban will come up on the losing end of a head-to-head matchup against a former assistant, and the money may be on Smart to one day be the coach that gets that coveted win against Saban. As referenced already, Georgia will be the best team Alabama has faced this season, but you will be forgiven for thinking Saban will keep this streak going until proven otherwise first.
5. The College Football Playoff implications
This is a biggie for the College Football Playoff. The SEC Championship has some potential to make things a bit messy for the selection committee on Sunday, or things can go according to plan and lead to a pretty easy decision to make on Sunday.
Simply put, if Alabama wins on Saturday, then the decisions the committee will have to make are fairly straightforward. Alabama will be in and then the other three spots will go to Clemson (with a win vs. Pitt in the ACC Championship Game), Notre Dame (12-0), and either Oklahoma or Ohio State depending on the outcomes in the Big 12 and Big Ten championship games, respectfully. But if Georgia should happen to win, oh boy, here we go.
A Georgia win would essentially clinch a spot for the Bulldogs. Georgia is already No. 4 in the committee’s rankings this week, and a win against the clear No. 1 could vault Georgia into one of the top two seeds. But what would happen to Alabama? The consensus seems to be Alabama is already in regardless of what happens this weekend, as a one-loss Alabama would still likely be viewed as one of the top teams in the nation this season. And that’s where the argument begins. Alabama has clearly been the most dominant team in college football all season long. Would a loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game knock Alabama all the way from the runaway No. 1 spot to out of the playoff?
Would you take a one-loss Alabama over a one-loss Big 12 champion or one-loss Big Ten champion with clear defensive issues? Or would you punish Alabama for not winning their conference championship? Not having the SEC title certainly didn’t hurt Alabama last year, as the Tide got in without even playing for the SEC title last year with one loss, getting in ahead of two-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State. This scenario would be different, although at least Alabama won their division this year.
An Alabama win keeps things pretty simple. A Georgia win creates some controversy. If you embrace the chaos this time of year, then you’ll be rooting for Georgia.