By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
With the SEC Championship game almost upon us, the two head coaches sat down for one more media presser on Friday afternoon from Atlanta. Alabama’s Nick Saban kicked off the press conference and Georgia’s Mark Richt concluded it, with each coach fielding a multitude of questions for the final time before Saturday afternoon’s monumental clash.
With just over 24 hours remaining before kickoff, most of the hay is in the barn at this point. We’ve got some quick hits for you from the presser as you make the final adjustments to your game plan and call out those last pre-snap reads.
Improvement Following Losses Has Been Critical for Bama and UGA
College football has arguably the most meaningful regular season of any major American sport. A single loss can derail not only national title hopes, but in a conference as competitive as the SEC it can mean losing out of a chance to play for the league title – this year’s 11-1 Florida team is the perfect example.
But if you’re able to overcome that loss, as No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia have this season, the team may be better off because of it. Saban and Richt both talked about how each team has progressed this year and responded to tough losses.
“I guess the way I would sort of look at it, both teams responded extremely well to the difficulties of their season, which is the games that we both lost,” Saban said. “I think from that time, Georgia has really improved as a team and I think that since our A&M game, our guys have practiced, prepared, paid attention to detail and had a little bit different sort of level of intensity more like we had early in the season, which I think has affected our ability to improve as well.”
Coach Richt remarked about the way his team has improved as a unit since its 35-7 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6.
“The thing I said to the team [following the loss] is: The bad news is we got whipped pretty soundly. I said, the good news is, we got whipped together […]So, all right, well we lost together, let's go back to work together; let's go back and win together; let's stay together; let's stay unified. So that helped a lot.”
Both Teams Have Something to Prove in ATL
This Georgia team is no stranger to playing in the Georgia Dome following last year’s Eastern Division title, but the Dawgs want to give the country a better showing than they did last year against LSU. After opening the game up with a 10-0 lead, Georgia allowed LSU to rally off seven unanswered scores and run away to a 42-10 win.
Although the result was not ideal for UGA, it did give them an edge – as slight as it may be – in experience coming into this year’s title game.
“Well, I don't know if it will be an advantage over Alabama,” Richt said, “but I think it's good to have guys that have experienced this before and know a little bit about what it is about and it's more about getting excited and coming out of the gate fast. It's going to take more than that. So hopefully that will help us.”
On the other hand, Alabama will be looking to make up for lost time after missing out on last season’s conference championship game. Although Bama went on to win the National Championship, there was a clear sense of disappointment about not winning the division or league crown.
“I don't think there's any question about it,” Saban said. “It was a disappointment to our team. When you don't get in this game and you don't give yourself a chance to be successful in this game, you really can't determine your own self – you have no control of your own self-determination. So somebody else has got to beat somebody else and all of that kind of stuff. But, you know, you're here, you have an opportunity, and if you have success, you control your destiny.”
The winner of Saturday’s showdown will not only garner SEC bragging rights, but a trip to Miami to face No. 1 Notre Dame for the national title is almost imminent.
Pass Rush Will Play Crucial Role on Saturday
This game will feature a pair of experienced signal-callers with similar styles in Alabama’s AJ McCarron and UGA’s Aaron Murray.
Both quarterbacks are cerebral and excel in pre-snap reads, checking their offenses into the right play according to what they see from the defensive alignment. Both QBs can spread the field, make good reads and deliver accurate passes to exploit defenses.
When facing such efficient passers, it is critical to generate a pass rush and make things hectic in the pocket. Each coach talked about the importance of generating pressure on Saturday.
“I think that the key to being successful is that you can create pass rush with four guys,” Saban explained. “If you can't affect them with four guys rushing, when you start rushing more guys, you know, the more you rush, the more it becomes a little bit feast or famine. But I think to affect the quarterback, any quarterback, it is really, really important to disrupt the passing game.”
Coach Richt told reporters that there is a myriad of ways an offense can handle the rush, but that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the quarterback, who calls out the protection to his linemen and running backs.
“I think the main thing for the quarterback is to understand, will this protection hold up against this blitz, and if it does I should be able to drop back and step up in the pocket and throw it,” Richt said. “If it won't handle it, then I know I've got to get rid of the ball quickly and I've got to know which receiver to get it to. Aaron, he's as good as anybody I've coached doing that.”
Each offensive front will need to be prepared for fast, athletic linebackers who excel at getting to the quarterback out of the 3-4 alignment. UGA’s Jarvis Jones is a “sack artist” according to Richt, and his 10.5 sacks in 10 games this year are evidence of that fact.
While the Tide deals with Jones and Co., Georgia will have to figure out how to handle Bama’s pass rush combo of C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard, who have combined for 15 tackles for loss and nine sacks from the linebacker spot.
Jarvis Jones Sets the Tone for UGA
Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o has garnered lots of attention nationally for his play this season, and rightfully so.
Richt was asked if he believes his standout linebacker should be getting the same kind of recognition across the country that Te’o is, and he had high praise for the senior ’backer that has been the catalyst for his Bulldog defense.
“Well, I do think Jarvis is one of the best football players in America, if not the very best,” Richt said.
The coach pointed out that Jones has put up impressive numbers despite missing two games this season due to an ankle injury. He also noted that it has been tough for Jones to make the kind of eye-popping plays that make the highlight reel in recent weeks against triple-option offenses in Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech.
“So I think that probably hurt him a little bit,” Richt added. “ But Jarvis, I can tell you, is not worried about national awards. He would be honored to accept one, but he loves playing football, period, and he loves Georgia and he's just so excited about where we are right now.”
Richt also credited Jones’ decision to stick around for a final year in Athens spurred other draft-eligible Bulldogs to stay and build something special.