It’s the end of the road for college football, this season, and we’ve landed at our final destination: the National Championship. Can you guess who’s made this year’s big game? That’s right, two SEC teams.
Alabama Crimson Tide will meet the Georgia Bulldogs later today in Atlanta for the end of the year bash. There’s a lot of fans and analysts who are anything but excited for the matchup, and it’s not hard to understand why. SEC Championship games can be rather boring, simply because the conference routinely spits out top contenders, which doesn’t leave room for other conferences or Cinderella stories.
Despite the SEC haters committee’s groans, there’s a very real chance that tonight’s game could be a nail-biter. Both teams have striking similarities in the way their defense is run. Both teams have a 3-4 scheme that can look like a 4-3 with outside linebackers providing pass rush like defensive ends, which will provide tough play against offenses that will need to rely on the run. Both defenses also feature tight coverage on outside receivers and a mix of hard-to-read blitzes that can be tricky for a quarterback.
There’s plenty of matchups to watch during this game, but let’s focus on four that could make or break the outcome for either team.
Atlanta QB Jalen Hurts vs. Georgia LB Roquan Smith
Hurts is a dual-threat dynamo for Alabama. He’s a powerful runner who ranks second on his team with 945 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Georgia’s defense will need to move focus to the rush stop tonight if they expect to win.
Who better to help with the rush stop than Smith? It could be said that Smith is the best defensive player in the country this season. The All-American has instincts that most players don’t, and it’s guaranteed that Georgia will take advantage of them by moving around in the tackle box for the majority of the game.
Smith was a force against Oklahoma, proving to be important in third down stops.
“He doesn’t miss many tackles,” said Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, whose team lost to the Bulldogs to open the 20017 season.
Hurts and his offense will need to find new ways to push through small openings.
Georgia C Lamont Gaillard vs. Alabama NG Da’Ron Payne
Payne is hands down one of the best lineman in college football, today. At 308 pounds, he’s hardly easy to move, and he excels at overpowering his opponents. He’s an important part in a defense that allows only 2.7 yards per carry, which will be needed against an offense that is ranked sixth in the nation for average per carry with 5.99 yards.
“That’s their offense. It is stopping those guys and then you just got to be sound,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “If you make mistakes and let other people score on you, let other people make big plays against you, that’s where it gets really hard to beat them.”
Gaillard is another giant of the game at 301 pounds. The fourth-year junior gives Georgia a chance with a one-on-one matchup against Payne, but he still might need help from guards Kendall Baker and Ben Cleveland.
Georgia uses a lot of formations and some motion, but doesn’t have the threat of a running quarterback. They’ll need to move large bodies like Payne and Raekown Davis out of the way to jump-start the offense. The key will rest on Georgia’s patience with small run gains. They’ll need to be okay with short gains to convert third downs and claim the prize.
Georgia QB Jake Fromm vs. Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick
Fromm is not necessarily a huge running threat. Most analysts will say he’s definitely not a running threat. The challenge for Fromm tonight, will be identifying where Fitzpatrick is lined up from play-to-play.
All-American Fitzpatrick is the definition of a utility player. He’s been used as a safety, cornerback, linebacker, and even an edge rusher. When defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt does call for a blitz, Fitzpatrick is often the guy to finish the job.
Fromm has been pretty poised all season, but Saban’s defenses have proven to fluster even the most stone cold quarterbacks.
Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Georgia CB Deandre Baker
To say Ridley is leaned on heavily in the passing game would be an understatement. At 59 catches for 935 yards, he’s the top receiver on his team. The junior bypasses other receivers by a huge margin; no other receiver has more than 16 receptions of 244 yards. He’s not the only talent on the offense, though, so be sure to watch Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, as well.
Baker is Georgia’s best coverage player. He’s likely to spend most of the game shadowing Ridley. Star safeties Dominick Sanders and J.R. Reed will also be around to provide support.
If a weakness exists in Georgia’s defense, it’s centered in the secondary. They’ll need to shake off doubts and poor play if they expect to stop Ridley from running the field.
The amount of talent, dedication, skill and heart in college football is unparalleled in any sport. Even if you’re not a fan of either team, you won’t want to miss the showcase the SEC is about to walk across the stage. Coverage and game starts at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
(featured image courtesy of Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Kristen Ashly is a senior contributor and editor for Nuts & Bolts Sports. Follow her on Twitter @KristenAshly, where she welcomes quote wars and movie recommendations.