By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
After three months of regular season play, the Southeastern Conference Championship Game is finally upon us. The No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide and the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs will clash for the first time since Sept. 27, 2008, and it will be the first time these two storied programs have ever squared off in the conference title game.
Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC) is making its second consecutive trip to Atlanta as Eastern Division Champions, while Alabama is returning to the Georgia Dome for the first time since winning the SEC title in 2009. Only a few Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) players who suited up for that game remain on the roster, but Bama has its share of big-game experience, as evidenced by its national title last year.
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Eastern on Saturday afternoon, and the game can be seen nationally on CBS.
Georgia Offense vs. Alabama Offense
The Georgia attack leads the SEC in yards per play this season. Behind Aaron Murray, the nation’s most efficient passer, UGA has put up a school record 456 points this season.
Murray has put up impressive numbers in his junior campaign, throwing for 3,201 yards and 30 touchdowns with a passer rating of 177.2. He’s on pace to finish his career as one of the best statistical passers in conference history, and he will need to play a great game against an Alabama squad touting the nation’s best total defense for the second straight season.
Although Murray’s stat line is eye-popping, he has not played his best games this year when facing elite defenses. Against South Carolina (No. 13 total D) and Florida (No. 5), he completed only 23-of-55 attempts for a combined 259 yards and one touchdown while being intercepted three times.
The Dawgs went 1-1 in those contests, coming out on the losing end of a blowout against the Gamecocks. Against Florida, however, Murray overcame two picks and connected with Malcolm Mitchell for a 45-yard score in the fourth quarter to give UGA an 8-point lead it would not relinquish.
Murray has spread the ball around, as 10 different Dawgs have caught TDs through 12 games. Tavarres King has been consistent at wide out for UGA, leading the team with 704 yards and eight scores. Mitchell, a sophomore, has hauled in four touchdowns, as has senior Marlon Brown.
Alabama’s secondary, led by Nagurski and Thorpe Award finalist Dee Milliner, will play physical against UGA’s receivers and look to take away the deep middle and force short, outside passes from Murray. Bama has picked off 16 passes so far this season and currently ranks third in the country in pass defense.
The Tide has been suffocating against the run, but the Bulldogs have the personnel to challenge a Bama front that has only allowed 11 100-yard rushers since 2005.
Georgia has received incredible production from two freshman running backs this season in the form of the Gurshall boys, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley has been the number one back for the Dawgs, carrying the load for over 1,100 yards and 14 scores in his inaugural season. Together the duo has combined for 1,858 yards and 22 touchdowns with an impressive 6.56-yard per carry average.
Gurshall is the finest freshman duo the SEC has seen since Darren McFadden and Felix Jones combined for 1,739 yards and 14 scores at Arkansas in 2005.
The tandem has spearheaded an offense that routinely makes explosive plays. UGA has broken off 25 runs of 20 yards or more this year, including 18 of 30-plus yards, three of 40-plus, and two of 70-plus. Conversely, the Bama defense has allowed only six runs of 20 yards or more, and just one run has cracked the 30-yard mark. Something has to give in this regard.
It will be an absolute battle in the trenches between Kirby Smart’s defense and a solid o-line from Athens that sprung Gurley for 118 yards against Florida’s stout front on Oct. 27. Gurley remains as the only running back to crack the 100-yard plateau this year against the Gators, and UGA will look for similar success against Bama’s impressive front.
Alabama has a stable of big, physical linebackers that excel in stopping the run. The front seven of the Crimson Tide has limited opponents to just 77 rushing yards per game for the year, just five yards off its average from a season ago.
Despite losing several key players from its 2011 unit to the NFL, the Crimson Tide has been fierce on defense once again in 2012, forcing opponents into 27 total turnovers. Those turnovers have proven huge for Bama, which has manufactured 146 points off opponent miscues so far. Protecting the football against such an opportunistic team will be paramount for the Bulldogs this weekend.
UGA must also capitalize on red zone opportunities. Alabama has only allowed points on 14 of their oppinents’ 23 red zone visits this season, a national best 61 percent clip.
Alabama Offense vs. Georgia Defense
While Murray leads the country in pass efficiency for Georgia, Alabama’s AJ McCarron is right behind him at second nationally with a rating of 172.6. McCarron has been almost flawless this season, tossing only two interceptions. Those two picks proved costly in a loss to Texas A&M, but overall McCarron has been picked on only 0.7 percent of his throws this season and the Tide offense has not put its defense in tight spots.
McCarron has thrown 25 touchdown passes this season, finding chemistry with freshman receiver Amari Cooper, who leads the team with 767 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. Like Murray, McCarron has spread the wealth, divvying his 25 scores among eight different pass catchers.
The Crimson Tide will be taking on the SEC’s second best pass defense, as UGA trails only Alabama in that department. But while McCarron’s efficiency has been marvelous this year, the Tide’s attack starts on the ground behind its stellar offensive line.
Much like the Bulldogs, Bama depends heavily on two powerful running backs.
Junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon have combined to produce numbers very similar to those of the Gurshall duo of Georgia. Bama’s one-two punch has rushed for 1,848 yards and 24 scores in 2012 while touting an explosive average of 6.3 yards per tote. As a team, the Tide runs for nearly 215 yards per game and will look to take advantage of a Georgia front that has struggled against the ground game for much of the season.
The Dawgs surrendered over 100 yards on the ground in each of their first seven outings, including 200-yard performances from South Carolina and Kentucky. A switch seemed to flip on for the UGA D against Florida, however, as Jarvis Jones’ return from injury fueled an incredible performance that saw only 75 yards on 40 carries for the SEC’s strongest running team.
Jones was a monster against the Gators, recording 13 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries to spur the Bulldogs to victory. Behind the energy of the All-American ’backer, Georgia’s 3-4 front went on a tear during its final three SEC games of the season, allowing only 59 rushing yards per game and 19 total points in those contests.
Bacarri Rambo was a force in that effort as well, racking up three picks and forcing three fumbles in his last five games.
More recently, UGA was gashed for consecutive 300-yard rushing games by Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech to end the regular season. Each of those opponents featured a triple-option attack, and were still only to muster a combined 24 points despite prolific totals on the ground. The Alabama rushing attack will pose more of a downhill challenge, and the Dawgs will need to play inspired ball to slow down the likes of Lacy, Yeldon and Co. behind an all-world offensive line led by center Barrett Jones.
Stopping the run will be objective number one for Georgia, as Alabama has shown an ability to wear down opponents with a bruising rushing attack. If the Bulldogs can dictate the tempo of the game offensively, it will go a long way in taking some pressure off a UGA defense that has dominated in the second half this season, holding opponents to just 6.5 points per game in the final two quarters.
Special Teams Players to Watch
Should this game come down a field goal, Alabama will feel very confident.
Tide kicker Jeremy Shelley is the only perfect kicker in the country, having converted on all 10 of his field goal attempts and 60-of-60 extra point tries. UGA kicker Marshall Morgan has been far from automatic, hitting only 66 percent of his field goal attempts.