As good as Georgia is, this would be a massive upset. Apologies if that sounds like double-talk, but Alabama can have a disorienting effect.
Bama is favored by 13-1/2 points over a reigning SEC champion that was nearly the reigning national champ. The Bulldogs’ only loss this season came on a bad day against a top 10 opponent in a perilous place for visitors. We say again: If there were no Bama, Georgia would be the top choice to win it all.
Trouble is, there IS a Bama, and there’s a chance this is the best Bama of Nick Saban’s tenure -- and maybe the halcyon days of Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas, maybe even of Bear Bryant. The fear, and it’s not an irrational one, among Bulldogs fans is that the Crimson Tide possess a gear above excellence. Nobody is quite dismissing Georgia’s chances. Almost nobody is picking it to win, either.
Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, once Alabama assistant Kirby Smart, on Friday: “It’s a fabulous football team.”
Are there paths to a Georgia victory? Sure. Alabama could have an off-day, although Alabama became Alabama by having few off-days. The Bulldogs could run the ball – they’re good at that – and keep Tua Tagovailoa off the field. Tagavailoa, who was dinged in four games this season, could take a knock on his iffy knee. Georgia could get ahead – it led 13-0 at halftime Jan. 8 and 20-10 with 10 minutes left in regulation – and put Bama in the one position lately foreign to it. When you’ve trailed for 75 seconds over 12 games, you can’t claim mastery of the comeback.
That said, Tua made his reputation – as a collegian; he was a high school legend in Honolulu – via a comeback concocted against Georgia. The 2017 Bulldogs were good enough to win a national title; the 2018 team might have a slightly lower ceiling. This is, as Smart keeps saying, a work in progress, and progress has indeed been made. Georgia is much better today than it was in early October, which it seemed to be coasting.
Said Saban: “This is a complete team that we’re playing. I think they’ve made improvements from a year ago.”
Saban’s team has been great for a decade. Alabama is used to spirited underdogs seeking to shock the world. It sees that every week. It saw it here in January and won on a night when anybody else would have lost by 20. This Alabama is better than that one.
But this is college football, and sometimes the world gets shocked. Nebraska lost to Miami when Tom Osborne chose to go for two. Miami lost to Ohio State after a much-delayed flag was thrown. USC lost to Texas when Vince Young delivered the greatest single performance in the history of the sport. All of those losing teams were deemed among history’s best until they were beaten. Now they’re cautionary tales.
The contrarian in me would love to pick Georgia. It’s a good team being given little chance, which is a flashing upset alert, and it’s playing in its home state against an opponent on which it has modeled itself. What’s stopping me is that Alabama bears few red flags. It’s healthy, Tua’s knee notwithstanding. It was semi-tested last week by Auburn (up three at halftime) and won by 31. It knows from recent experience how good this opponent is. If not for a blown coverage on second-and-26, the Bulldogs would be defending their national title.
The Clemson Paradigm is intriguing. The Tigers almost beat Bama in January 2016 and did, with one second remaining, in January 2017. But the Alabama quarterbacks in those games were Jake Coker and Jalen Hurts, who were fine collegians but demonstrably not Tua. With no tangible collegiate experience, Tagovailoa torched a Georgia defense that included Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, all gracing NFL rosters. Tua is surely going to win the Heisman Trophy, but doesn’t that alleged jinx work only after being handed the trophy?
Smart on Tua: “He creates a lot of parts to an equation that makes it hard to solve that equation.”
The Bulldogs won’t be cowed. They’ve been too many places and done too many things. As Smart said, “We don’t look at it as the moment is bigger than you. We’ve been in a lot of big moments.”
The guess here is that Georgia will keep it closer than anybody has managed against Bama. The guess is that keeping it close won’t be quite enough.
As a former college coach told me this week: If Alabama plays poorly, Georgia wins; if both teams play well, Alabama wins. I can’t imagine the Tide playing poorly. Bama 31, Georgia 24.