Top-ranked Alabama and No. 3 Georgia began the college football season considered two of the best teams, and there they remain heading into the national championship game on Monday night, set to face each other in another high-stakes bout with plenty of dramatic story lines.
The College Football Playoff title game, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time, and will be televised on ESPN. It will result either in Coach Nick Saban’s seventh national title at Alabama, tightening the Crimson Tide’s already firm grip on the sport, or it will be the moment that Georgia Coach Kirby Smart, once an assistant coach on Saban’s staff, finally gets the win over his former boss that has long eluded him.
Saban’s team dominated the Bulldogs in the Southeastern Conference championship game, a 41-24 blowout.
Georgia (13-1) reached the national title game with a dominant win over Michigan in the semifinal, while Alabama (13-1) breezed past Cincinnati.
Here are some things to watch that could play into this rematch.
The Quarterback Matchup
Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on, will start at quarterback for Georgia. Bennett, who is a senior, has shared quarterback duties with the junior JT Daniels in the past but has secured his role as the Bulldogs’ starter.
Daniels was Georgia’s starter to begin the season but has been sidelined several times with injuries, and the status of his health is unclear. Amid questions about who is the team’s true No. 1 quarterback, Smart has emphasized the team’s commitment to Bennett as its starter.
Bryce Young has been Alabama’s unquestioned starting quarterback all season. He is a former five-star high school recruit who in November became the first Crimson Tide quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. (Alabama’s previous winners were wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running backs Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram.)
When Georgia and Alabama met in December, Young and Bennett tossed three touchdowns each (Young also rushed for one) and Bennett threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Young sealed his Heisman Trophy case in that game, torching the Georgia defense for 421 yards — an SEC championship game record.
While Bennett wasn’t bad in the conference title game, completing 60 percent of his passes for over 300 yards, Young’s ability to fit the ball into small windows is rivaled by few in the conference. Bennett’s success Monday may depend on how well he is protected from pressure and whether the Bulldogs’ defense can do its part to keep Georgia from playing from behind.
Alabama’s Offensive Line vs. Georgia’s Defensive Front
After the Crimson Tide’s offensive line struggled to protect Young in Alabama’s regular-season finale, it gave up zero sacks against the Bulldogs in the conference title game. Repeating that success up front may not be easy.
Two of Alabama’s offensive linemen, guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. and tackle Chris Owens, were injured in the semifinal win against Cincinnati. Saban has said that he is hopeful they can be ready to play Monday night.
Alabama’s front unit had fielded criticism all season for appearing uncharacteristically overmatched against some of its SEC opponents. (Young was sacked seven times against Auburn.) Against Louisiana State, the Crimson Tide rushed for just 6 yards, averaging 0.2 yards per carry.
Georgia’s defensive line bedeviled opposing quarterbacks in nearly every game of the regular season, mostly with just a four-man rush. Jordan Davis, Georgia’s dominant defensive tackle, is considered a potential first-round N.F.L. draft pick with two sacks and 12 quarterback hurries this season.
While Alabama neutralized the Georgia pass rush in the teams’ first meeting, the strategy this time may be to generate pressure with more players. The Crimson Tide offensive line may expect to see more of linebacker Nakobe Dean, who won the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. His timing at the snap and explosiveness make him an elite blitzer (he had six sacks and 25 quarterback hurries this season), and he is the heart of one of the nation’s best defenses. He broke up two passes and recorded two quarterback hurries when Georgia and Alabama last played.
Establishing the Run
Alabama’s semifinal matchup against the Bearcats was a breakout game for running back Brian Robinson. He was the focal point of Alabama’s offense, which made clear its plan to establish the run early, with a career-high 204 rushing yards and over 7 yards per carry.
Robinson’s solid season has been somewhat overshadowed by Alabama’s dominant passing game, but Georgia is unlikely to give up over 400 yards to Alabama’s receivers again, especially since the Crimson Tide will be without one of their top receiving threats, John Metchie III, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the conference title game.
If Alabama uses Robinson early, that could open passing lanes for another big-play threat, wide receiver Jameson Williams, and the rest of the Crimson Tide receivers against Georgia’s talented secondary.
Much of Georgia’s offensive success resulted from its rushing attack. The Bulldogs, consistent with what they have done in recent years, use a rotation of running backs, led by Zamir White and James Cook. Both averaged over 5 yards per carry this season.
Georgia’s ability to wear down its opponents with the run is, in part, why the Bulldogs did not lose before the conference championship game.