The biggest game of the college football season to date goes down on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, when Georgia meets Alabama in the SEC Championship Game (4 PM ET, CBS). The winner will go on to play Notre Dame for the national championship on January 7 and early reports are that the winner of this game will be at least a touchdown favorite to keep the SEC’s title streak going. We’ll preview this game, as well as check in another conference championship game in the south—Florida State meets Georgia Tech in Charlotte (8 PM ET, ESPN) in the ACC Championship Game.
Alabama-Georgia: If you look at the body of work each team has put together, there’s no comparison. Alabama’s is superior. The Tide have the best defense in the SEC and the second-best offense. The Tide have the scalps of Michigan, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and on the road at LSU. Their one loss was a competitive game against Texas A&M.
Georgia ranks third in both offense and defense within the league and while they’ve got the high-profile win against Florida, the non-conference slate is weak and only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are bowl-bound teams beaten by the Dawgs. And their one loss was a complete travesty, as they were blown out at South Carolina.
But we aren’t voting on who should be ranked higher, we’re deciding who the best football team on Saturday is, and that shift in thinking favors Georgia. The defense has played much better since being beat up on the ground in a narrow escape against lowly Kentucky. Aaron Murray is playing at a high level in the passing game and this is a team with a lot of momentum.
Perhaps most important, is that this matchup works for Georgia. Alabama’s pass defense has shown its vulnerability. Both Zach Mettenberg for LSU and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M threw for over 250 yards and more important, each did it with efficiency—high percentage-completions and no mistakes. Murray is a vastly better quarterback than Mettenberg and he’s at least the equal of Manziel, even if the Aggie quarterback might be on his way to the Heisman.
Furthermore, Georgia has offensive balance. This is no flash-and-dash team, but instead one that can run the ball extremely well with Todd Gurley leading the way. The Dawgs lead back has over 1,100 yards and is averaging better than six a pop. Keith Marshall provides a solid #2 back. I’m not suggesting this offense is just going to march up and down on Alabama, but they can exploit their weaknesses and having the running game to keep everyone honest.
On the Alabama side of the equation, quarterback A.J. McCarron has operated at an amazing level of efficiency for a sophomore, even allowing its his second full year at the helm. Like Murray, he makes plays down the field, but he’s been much better at avoiding interceptions, with a dazzling 25-2 TD/INT ratio. And like Murray he has two backs that can establish the run in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
Turnovers are going to be the key for Alabama—while they play mistake-free football, Murray threw three interceptions against Florida and the Dawgs lost two fumbles in a recent key win against Ole Miss.
Thus, the battle lines are drawn. Georgia needs to make plays in the passing game and there’s every reason to believe they can. Alabama needs to win the turnover battle decisively and there’s every reason to believe they can.
It probably comes across that I see this game is pretty even, and as such I find Alabama being a 7 ½ point favorite to be more about Tide mystique—be it on the field or in the betting markets—than anything that we’ve seen on the football field. There’s no doubt in mind to take Georgia with the points. And I also lean Georgia’s direction for the outright win. They’re playing better football right now and I believe Murray’s going to have his best game. The Bulldogs’ last national championship season was in 1980, and the team they beat in the Sugar Bowl that year was Notre Dame. They’ll get the chance to do it again in 2012 in Miami.
Florida State-Georgia Tech: With each of these championship games, I’ve dug through each team’s stats and reviewed the box scores of key games looking for all the possible angles. So it’s not for a lack of homework that I’m boiling the ACC Championship Game down to this—there’s no way on earth Georgia Tech is going to win this game.
Florida State is dominant on defense. They’ve given up 124 points in eight ACC games, and the conference’s second-best team has given up 219. The Seminoles are near the top in offense. They are faster on both sides of the ball. They’re lone conference loss was on the road to a pretty good N.C. State team by a single point and the only other games they were even challenged were by Clemson and on the road on a Thursday night at Virginia Tech.
E.J. Manuel has stepped up to have an excellent year, combining high-percentage passing with big plays and minimal mistakes. Even with the loss of running back Chris Thompson, the ‘Noles have gotten their rush yardage from Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. On the flip side, Georgia Tech is 6-6 and their lone claim to fame is their nice finish to the conference schedule, when they beat Maryland, North Carolina and Duke in succession. But the best team in that group was North Carolina and that game ended 68-50. What exactly does this say about the Yellow Jackets defense.
So if Florida State loses this game, somebody needs to get fired and I really wouldn’t even hesitate to lay the (-14) they come with at the window. The only scenario I can come up with for a Georgia Tech win is this—FSU does commit a lot of penalties, going into double-digits against Clemson and Miami. And Georgia Tech does run the ball well with its triple option. Maybe the Yellow Jackets get a running game going, Florida State shoots themselves in the foot, the game stays close and then…well, you never know. That seems like a pretty flimsy reed to build an upset bid on.
This game really illustrates something I wrote regarding the Big Ten Championship Game and Wisconsin following the Georgia Tech path in backing in because of two teams ahead of them on probation. There needs to be a rule allowing teams from the same division to play in the championship game if both are at least two games ahead of the best eligible team in the opposite division. In this case, that would be Clemson in this game. Wouldn’t Clemson-Florida State on a neutral field be a fun way to settle an Orange Bowl bid. At the very least least it wouldn’t have the bowl executives from Miami quaking in their boots at the thought of Georgia Tech coming to South Beach in January.