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National Championship Game Preview

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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B.J. Bennett shares a preview and prediction for Monday night's national championship game: Alabama vs Georgia.

Game: Alabama vs Georgia (College Football Playoff Final)

Overview -- A national title is on the line and those playing for it are clearly college football's two best teams. Top-ranked, defending national champion Alabama has won eight games in a row, while Georgia, number one for much of the season, has lost only to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama controlled a fascinating Cotton Bowl pairing with Group of Five history-maker Cincinnati, winning 27-6 and limiting the Bearcats to just 218 total yards. The Bulldogs overwhelmed Michigan, holding a 24-point halftime advantage en route to a 36-11 victory. Just over a month ago, the Crimson Tide clinched their spot in the final four, and quarterback Bryce Young likely claimed the Heisman Trophy, with a 41-24 triumph over Georgia in Atlanta. This is a rematch of that pairing and, famously, the iconic 2017 College Football Playoff Final, an Alabama walk-off overtime win. Kirby Smart, Nick Saban's long-time defensive coordinator before coming to Athens, has built a program emerging alongside the Crimson Tide, though without a head-to-head win as of yet. 

Why to Watch -- From the coaching storylines, to an all-time great pairing of offense-vs-defense, to recent results, this, beyond just the obvious stakes, is a true college football showcase. On the sidelines, this is the G.O.A.T versus his new high-profile protege. On the field, there are too many stars to count. Monday night will feature, among others, the Heisman Trophy, Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Award winner, Bednarik and Outland Award winner, Nagurski Trophy winner, Butkus Award winner and, at the other quarterback position, one of the game's best stories. Alabama enters ranked third nationally in scoring offense at 41.4 points per contest, while Georgia leads in nation in allowing just 9.6 points per outing. Two of the previous Nick Saban-Kirby Smart matchups were historically memorable. There was, of course, the unfathomable Tua Tagovailoa-to-Devonta Smith storybook finish, but also the Jalen Hurts-led comeback in 2018 in Atlanta. This edition will come with either the Crimson Tide's seventh national championship in 13 years or the Bulldogs' first title since 1980.

Keys for Alabama
1. Offensive Success Must Start Up Front -- A big reason why Alabama was able to score 41 points and compile 536 yards of total offense in the SEC Championship Game was because the Crimson Tide offensive line played, far and away, their best game of the season. It was, quite frankly, an all-time effort against a generationally-good front seven. Alabama held the ever-attacking Bulldogs without a sack for the first time in 31 games. Tackles Evan Neal, a projected top five pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and Chris Owens were extraordinary in blitz recognition and pick-up. Center Seth McLaughlin made his first-ever start and, along with guards Javion Cohen and Emil Ekiyor, did a tremendous job against Georgia's heralded nose tackle Jordan Davis. From there, everything, for the Crimson Tide, fell into place: Bryce Young set an SEC Championship Game record with 421 passing yards, Alabama averaged 4.4 yards per rush, converted 50% of all third down tries and did not turn the football over once. The Crimson Tide finished with six different drives of 60 yards or more. In the Cotton Bowl, the Alabama front five then paved the way for a season-high 301 yards rushing, with Brian Robinson going for a career-high 204 yards. If the Crimson Tide can turn the tables in the trenches against again Georgia, it will very likely set the offense up for more productivity and proficiency.

2. Feature Williams, Limit Bowers -- Two of college football's best receivers will be on display in Alabama wideout Jameson Williams and Georgia tight end Brock Bowers. The game's top big-play receiver, Williams was one of Alabama's catalysts in the win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. With the Bulldogs up 10-0, he flipped promptly momentum with a 67-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown early in the second quarter. Williams finished the afternoon with seven receptions for 184 yards and two scores against the nation's best defense. The sport simply hasn't seen many players quite like Williams; he is one of just three receivers this millennium with 75 total catches, 20 yards per reception and 15 touchdowns. Especially with John Metchie out due to injury, it will be critical that Bryce Young and Williams get on the same page and develop a downfield rhythm early. The Crimson need to prevent Stetson Bennett and Bowers from having similar results. Georgia's true freshman tight end has been an absolute revelation, with 52 catches for 846 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had a career-high ten grabs for 139 yards and a score versus Alabama in Atlanta. Bowers, more than any other option, can be the catalyst for much of what the Bulldogs want to do offensively; he had three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown on Georgia's opening drive against Michigan. Simply put, the Crimson Tide have to get the football to their go-to guy and can't allow Georgia to do the same.

3. Attack Defensively -- The last five teams to beat Georgia, including Alabama twice, have all recorded multiple interceptions. Especially given the groove he is currently in, fresh off 313 yards and three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl, the Crimson Tide will have to attack Stetson Bennett in an attempt to disrupt his timing, rush his throws and force mistakes. Even with all-world edge defenders like Will Anderson, that will be a challenge. The Bulldogs have allowed the fewest sacks in Power Five football this season with just eleven. Tackles Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon just held Michigan's dynamic duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to zero sacks. Anderson, obviously, 33.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks, truly historic numbers, is the x-factor. Though he had a sack and two tackles for loss against Georgia in Atlanta, Anderson is capable of more, like completely taking over a game. Even if he doesn't get to Bennett, Alabama needs he and the front seven make the quarterback uncomfortable. Relatively-quietly, Phidarian Mathis has been a great front-line rusher in the Crimson Tide's 3-4 scheme and can impact the game on passing downs. However they do it, Alabama has to put the pressure on Georgia.

Keys for Georgia
1. Offensive Balance and Upredictability -- Georgia's offense needs to keep Alabama guessing. Though the Bulldogs understandably get most of the defensive attention, the Crimson Tide rank sixth nationally in total defense. It's likely that Georgia will have to be more even offensively on Monday night. If the Bulldogs can force Alabama to play somewhat off-balanced, it would likely decrease the impact made by the nation's best pass rusher Will Anderson and decrease the likelihood of turnovers as well. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was able to throw the football downfield in the SEC Championship Game; his 340 passing yards were the most against the Crimson Tide this season. Tight End Brock Bowers had a career game: ten catches, 139 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs, whether Jermaine Burton, Ladd McConkey or George Pickens, who combined for only seven receptions in Atlanta, will need to get others more frequently involved. Georgia, previously running for 109 yards on 30 carries, will probably need more rushing production as well. It won't just be the total yardage gained that matters, here, but also the circumstances. Despite some overall success, Georgia, a month ago, was only 3-of-12 on third down tries and turned five redzone trips into just two touchdowns. Proficiency will be critical as the College Football Playoff national champions have scored 52, 42, 44, 26 (in overtime), 35, 45 and 42 points, respectively.    

2. Make Alabama Earn it Offensively -- In the SEC Championship Game, the Crimson Tide had seven plays of 20 yards or more and three plays of 40 yards or more. Here's how atypical that is for Georgia's defense; the Bulldogs allowed just nine plays of at least 20 yards during the entire month of November. Though it's easier said than done against Bryce Young, Jameson Williams and company, Georgia must prevent the big plays that often define games. Williams, sixth nationally at 20.1 yards per grab, will be especially key. With seven receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game, Williams was a big reason why Alabama won in Atlanta. Remarkably, Williams leads the nation with nine receptions of 50 yards or more, six of at least 60 yards and four of at least 70 yards. Even for the Crimson Tide, the idea of mounting consistently long drives against the best defense in college football stands as an immense challenge. As the old football adage goes, "nothing cheap, nothing deep". One big key for safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith will be keeping the Crimson Tide's playmakers, Williams, especially, in front of them. Home run plays might as well come with a momentum multiplier beyond just the yardage they gain. The goal, for the Bulldogs, has to be to make the Crimson Tide be deliberate on offense.

3. Pressure Bryce Young -- There aren't many great options when it comes to defending Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Young, with 46 touchdown passes compared to just five interceptions, has been exceptional. He promptly set a new SEC Championship  Game record with 421 passing yards in Atlanta. Georgia didn't really seem to come after Young, or wasn't effective, that afternoon in doing it. The Bulldogs can't allow Young to sit comfortably in the pocket. Though he had 40 yards and a touchdown rushing in game one, that may be a risk you have to take in trying to disrupt his poise as a passer. With a number of future NFL Draft picks on the front seven, Georgia, with the likes of Jalen Carter, Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith, Channing Tindall and Travon Walker, has the potential to rush the passer from all over the field. Not only did the Bulldogs not record a sack in the conference title game, there wasn't mush consistent pressure. Simply put, Georgia has to bring the game to Young. Expect defensive coordinator Dan Lannning to be more aggressive in getting after college football's best signal caller.

Players to Watch
Alabama: Jameson Williams, WR/RS -- With John Metchie out due to injury, Williams becomes an even more important player. His production was absolutely critical against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and has been, for the Crimson Tide, all season. Williams can change a game in an instant and that rare playmaking ability, especially against a top defense, will come with a bright spotlight on Monday night.

Georgia: Stetson Bennett, QB -- Bennett actually enters Monday night with a higher passer rating than Bryce Young. Simply put, Bennett has been great for the Bulldogs and has the wins and the stats to prove it. Though he threw for a season-high 340 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama in Atlanta, he also had two interceptions. Maximizing efficiency and minimizing mistakes will be key.

Summary
This Game Will Come Down to ... which heralded side side, and what clear team strength, can dictate the flow of the game, Alabama's offense or Georgia's defense, thus forcing the other to adjust and respond. Who can dictate tempo?

Prediction
Alabama -- 34, Georgia -- 30

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports