Several takeaways from the Georgia-Alabama College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Unlike the SEC championship game, this rematch was largely a defensive struggle. Field goals and more field goals; no touchdown was scored until Georgia ran the ball into the end zone with only 1:20 left in the third quarter. It was the Bulldogs’ first lead, one that they would hold for about five minutes.
A controversial fumble, a miraculous sideline recovery, and a crucial Georgia penalty gave the Tide the ball on the Georgia six-yard line. Heisman-winner Bryce Young tossed an easy touchdown pass to Cameron Latu, and Bama was up (after a failed two-point attempt) 18-13.
The Tide didn’t score again, while the Dawgs reeled off three more touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the game: a 40-yard TD pass, a 15-yard TD pass, and a 79-yard pick-six. Georgia 33, Alabama 18. The champions are toppled. We have a new champ.
Plenty of commentators have offered (and will continue to offer) their “keys to the game.” I’m analyzing the great game, sure. But I’m also looking at something else. What it takes to win a championship, something that had proven so elusive to the Georgia Bulldogs.
Since LGHL is about Ohio State sports, I can’t help but compare this year’s Buckeyes to what I saw in Georgia this year.
Ever since Kirby Smart, the Nick Saban protégé, arrived in Athens for the 2016 season, the Bulldogs have been a contender – for the SEC East, the SEC championship, the national championship. Like the Tide, and Ohio State, Georgia’s recruiting classes have been elite. In 2017 (Smart’s first full class), Georgia ranked (by 247Sports) third, behind Alabama (1) and Ohio State (2). The following year, Smart’s recruiting class ranked #1 in the nation; Ohio State’s was second, Alabama’s fifth. Georgia’s 2019 class was second to Alabama’s; Ohio State, in the year of the coaching transition, ranked 14th. The Bulldogs were back on top with their 2020 class, followed by Bama (2) and Ohio State (5). This year’s freshman class (2021) was topped by Alabama’s class, with Ohio State 2nd and Georgia 4th. The point here is a simple one: to be in a position to win it all, you have to have the talent. Georgia and Alabama have consistently harvested it, and it pays off.
Kirby Smart was a defensive back as a player; before he was a head coach, he was a defensive coach. Yeah, he recruited Justin Fields to Athens, but his five-stars are usually defensive players – and, of course, running backs. That’s his game: tough defense, ball-control offense, and a quarterback that doesn’t make mistakes. Jake Fromm, rather than Fields, as a starter.
So, when we talk about Ohio State’s personnel, or Bama’s stars, we talk about offensive players. The quarterbacks, the wide receivers, and the big plays that they make. Georgia’s stars are on the defensive line (Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt) and an abundance of fast and aggressive linebackers (Nolan Smith, Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindal, Robert Beal Jr., Quincy Walker). And, for this game, we have to include Kelee Ringo, a defensive back who picked off a pass late in the game and returned it for a touchdown, sealing the win for the Dawgs.
But it’s not just the players that make the Georgia defense great. It’s the imaginative schemes. The defensive line last night (and for the whole season) rarely comes right at their blockers. They slant, they stunt, they drop. The linebackers are all over the place; and, since they’re so fast, they get there quickly. Then, they hit hard and tackle surely. Much of the game, when Bama had possession, was played in the Tide backfield. They gained only 30 yards rushing. Even if we add the sack yardage back in to the total, we get only 73 yards. Their big running back, Brian Robinson Jr., netted only 68 yards on 22 carries, a paltry 3.1-yard average.
Georgia blitzed backers, corners, and safeties. They blitzed on nearly every third-down play and often on first down too. Bryce Young, always praised for his composure, was shaken for much of the game. He finished with 369 passing yards (a lot), but he threw the ball 57 times and averaged only 6.5 yards per passing attempt. Granted, having John Metchie III out of the game and losing Jameson Williams to injury in the second quarter hurt immensely. But even with Williams in the game, the Tide weren’t doing a lot on offense.
As we examined the Buckeyes’ games this year, we often commented on Ohio State’s coaching. Some changes were made, and there are more for next year. But there are two elements of in-game coaching that were evident in Georgia’s win: halftime adjustment and play calling (both offense and defense). The Bulldogs were a different team in the second half. Suddenly, they could move the ball on the ground, opening up their favored play-action game. For the night, Zamir White averaged 6.5 yards a carry for 84, and James Cook added 77 more rushing yards, averaging an eye-opening 12.8 (helped, of course, by his 67-yard burst). Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on and junior college transfer, was never a 5-star recruit, and he won’t win the Heisman. But against Bama in this game, he was good. He completed 17 out of 26 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t have an interception. The play calling utilized his skills and didn’t make him try what he couldn’t do.
Desire and effort
I’m putting these two qualities together because the second derives from the first. It’s a cliché, I know, but “Georgia wanted it more.” There was the championship drought, the Bama albatross, but there was something else too. Watch the Georgia players on the sideline: they were playing for each other. This was their special season. They weren’t going to waste it. Emotion? Did you see Bennett crying as it became evident that Georgia would win? And there was plenty of emotion on the field, too. The defense’s reaction to a good, hard tackle for a loss. The offensive line’s effort to stay on their blocks or to get out to the next level. They all worked hard. They wanted it. That’s not to say that Alabama, a consistently top team, was complacent. It’s just that they couldn’t match the Dawgs’ enthusiasm, their desire to win.
A lesson for next year
I think that the Buckeyes should watch this game over and over during the off season. Learn to recognize just what it was that Georgia brought to this game. And adopt it. There’s so much talk these days about college football being a business. Coaches (and now players) making millions. Facilities, special trainers, diets. All in order to build the perfect football machine. Bama may have such a machine. Seemingly, Ohio State aspires to create one. But we have to remember, too, that these are very young guys out on the field. They get excited. They get upset. They make brilliant plays. They screw up. Finally, though, it’s that intangible – the brotherhood, the passion, the will not to lose – that separates champions from the others. I think that Ohio State demonstrated that attitude in the second half of the Rose Bowl. Let’s hope that we see much more of it next year, as the Buckeyes try to head to the playoffs.