SEC title game breakdown: Georgia vs. Alabama

FIVE KEYS FOR THE BULLDOGS

Richard Hamm/Staff
Aaron Murray must stay protected by his offensive line against Alabama’s defense.

1. Don’t press

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo felt the Bulldogs pressed too much against LSU in the SEC championship game last year. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but had several dropped passes in the first half and were held scoreless in the second half. Players need to block out the surroundings and make the routine plays they made to get to Atlanta. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

2. Protect Murray

Georgia is fifth in the SEC in sacks allowed. In the Bulldogs’ only loss of the season, South Carolina pressured Murray throughout on a night he completed just 11 of 31 passes. Will Georgia spread the field and give Murray more options to get rid of the ball quicker like against Ole Miss after the Rebels rang up five first-half sacks?

3. Make big plays

Alabama leads the nation in red-zone defense with opponents scoring 61 percent of the time. One way to combat that is to get into the end zone off of big plays. That’s something that Georgia has done quite well this season. Alabama’s longest run given up this season is 32 yards. Cornerback Dee Milliner leads all active SEC players with 32 pass deflections.

4. Be the best quarterback

Aaron Murray’s 40th career start at Georgia comes in the biggest game of his career. He’s playing as well as he has during any stretch, but he has yet to shine in these major moments. Murray begged off media obligations this week. He’s focused for his moment. Will he make the most of it? Alabama’s AJ McCarron is 23-2 as a starter. Murray is 27-12.

5. Force turnovers

Georgia has forced at least two turnovers in each of its last five games and has gotten 15 total during that stretch. Alabama has lost 11 fumbles this season, which is tied for the third most in the SEC behind Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Against a Crimson Tide defense that gives up the fewest first downs in the conference at 13 per game, Georgia’s defense needs to provide good field position to take the pressure off the offense.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

OFFENSE

This category could be a toss-up, but the selection here is based on the past month for Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs’ offense, not on past performance in big games.

Murray leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 177.2 rating, just ahead of AJ McCarron’s 176.26 rating. Murray has 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions while McCarron has a school-record 25 touchdowns with two interceptions—both against Texas A&M.

Georgia is third in the SEC in scoring (38.0) and total offense (463.7) while Alabama is second (39.0) and fourth (433.0) in those categories. Both teams have effective duos in the backfield.

Freshman Todd Gurley is second in the SEC with 1,138 rushing yards and has 14 touchdowns. He’s just the 12th Georgia player to top 1,000 yards in a season. Keith Marshall has rushed for 740 yards and eight touchdowns.

Eddie Lacy (1,001 yards, 14 touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (847, 10 touchdowns) provide the 1-2 punch for the Crimson tide. True freshman Amari Cooper (45 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns) is Albama’s the top receiving threat.

True freshman Amari Cooper (45 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns) is Albama’s the top receiving threat.
“He’s a very difficult mismatch for anybody,” Richt said.

Sophomore Malcolm Mitchell has 10 catches for 174 and two touchdowns in the last three games for Georgia.

Edge: Georgia

DEFENSE

Georgia may have the hottest defense in the country. The Bulldogs gave up 8.6 points per game in its final five regular seasons against Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech.

Alabama tops the nation in total defense (233.7 yards per game) and scoring defense (9.25 points per game), but looked vulnerable in back-to-back weeks against LSU and Texas A&M when it gave up 435 and 418 yards, respectively.

Alabama doesn’t have a star pass-rusher like Georgia does in Jarvis Jones but has threats in linebackers Adrian Hubbard (five sacks) and C.J. Mosley (four sacks). The Bulldogs could go after Alabama cornerback Deion Belue. Junior corner Dee Milliner is an All-American (two interceptions, 16 passbreakups).

Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo’s next interception will make him the school’s all-time leader. He’s tied with Jake Scott with 16. Alabama safety Robert Lester has 13 career picks. Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree has 87 tackles in eight games.

Edge: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

Alabama’s Jeremy Shelley is 10 of 10 on field goals, all from 38 yards or closer and has made all 60 extra points. Cade Foster handles the kicks from 40 and beyond. He’s 4 of 8 with the long of 52. Christian Jones is 27th in the nation on punt returns at 10.7. Georgia is 12th in the SEC in punt returns at 6.7. Cody Mandell is fifth in the SEC in punting with a 44.1-yard average. Georgia’s Collin Barber is 11th at 41.2. Kicker Marshall Morgan is 8 of 12 on field goals.

Edge: Alabama

COACHING

Nick Saban is 152-55-1 in 17 seasons as a college coach, including 61-13 at Alabama. He has won three national titles and is 3-1 in SEC championship games. Mark Richt is 117-39 and is 2-2 in SEC championship games. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart won the 2009 Broyles Award as nation’s top assistant. Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is one of five finalists this year.

Edge: Alabama

INTANGIBLES

The Bulldogs players seem confident and not intimidated by Alabama despite the Crimson Tide winning the national title two of the last three years. Georgia returns to the Georgia Dome for the second straight season and third game in the last two seasons (it opened the season there last year against Boise State). Alabama is used to the big stage, but Georgia players have pointed to this moment.

Edge: Georgia

OVERALL:

Critics have mentioned how Georgia has avoided the Crimson Tide on their schedule the last couple of seasons, but the Bulldogs get them with so much on the line. Alabama has looked more vulnerable in the last month after needing a game-winning drive against LSU and losing to Texas A&M. Georgia is playing its best football heading to Atlanta with its offense and defense clicking. In its biggest test, Georgia’s offensive firepower may be the difference. The pick here is for the Bulldogs to find a way to win the SEC and get to its first BCS title game.

Edge: Georgia

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Alabama offensive line vs. Georgia front seven

Alabama’s offensive line has 155 career starts. The group includes 2012 All-American guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy last year.

AJ McCarron operates behind an offensive line that has given up 1.7 sacks per game, fourth best in the SEC.

“He’s got that line in front of him protecting him finding time and space for him to feel comfortable in the pocket,” Richt said. “He’s very accurate. … They run the ball, but when they throw it, a lot of play-action pass.”

The Crimson Tide’s tackles — Cyrus Kouandkio and D.J. Fluker — will have to contend with All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, who could be unleashed after two games against triple-option teams.

“Everybody has flaws,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera. “We’ve just got to exploit those flaws.”

Jones has 10½ tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.

“For us, it’s about discipline, and understanding our game plan and understanding what we’re doing,” Jarvis Jones said. “We’ve got to make plays and get off the field and give our offense a chance to score the ball.”

Georgia has handled the run the last two weeks relatively well against a triple-option offense and held Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn to an average of 59.3 yards rushing. But will Eddie Lacy and T.J Yeldon and an Alabama team that averages 214.2 yards per game rushing be able to open up holes against a defense that gave up 206 yards to Kentucky?

“Pretty much their entire line is NFL caliber,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “We’ve got some guys on our line that are NFL caliber, too. A lot of people are going to be looking at those matchups.”

“They’re big and they’re physical,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “The reason their running backs have had success is their running backs are talented, but their offensive line makes some holes for them, they do a good job giving them running lanes and they keep the quarterback clean in the pocket.”

Georgia’s 6-3, 358-pound nose guard John Jenkins, who has played end as well, leads the defensive front. His matchup against Barrett Jones will be worth watching.

“I guess that can be the clash of the titans,” defensive end Garrison Smith said.

“Their entire defensive team plays extremely well, they play well together,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They have a good scheme, lots of experience. It obviously starts with him playing and clogging up the middle. That always is a good starting point.”

Alabama leads the SEC in red-zone offense, getting points on 91 percent of its trips. Georgia is second in the SEC in red-zone defense with opponents scoring 71.1 percent of the time. The Bulldogs have forced five turnovers in the red zone.

Fast Facts

Alabama

The Crimson Tide are playing in the eighth SEC championship game. The other seven times the opponent was Florida. The two teams played four times between 1992-96 after the title game’s inception. They last met in 2009 when the Crimson Tide won 32-13 with quarterback Greg McElroy the game MVP.

Alabama is 13-5-1 all-time in domes, including a 4-0 mark since 2009. The Crimson Tide opened the season in a dome in the season opener at Cowboys Stadium, a 41-14 win against Michigan.

Georgia

Aaron Murray is tied for second in the SEC career list with 89 touchdowns passes, ninth in passing yards with 9,399, fifth in touchdown responsibility with 98 and 10th in total offense with 968. He’s the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in three straight seasons.

The Bulldogs are 3-1 against Alabama under Mark Richt, but lost their last meeting 41-30 in 2008. No. 22 Georgia beat No. 16 Alabama 26-23 in overtime in 2007 and the Bulldogs won in 2002 and 2003. Alabama holds a 36-25-4 all-time lead over Georgia.

Talking Points

“It’s not about me, it’s about Georgia, it’s about this program, this team, these young men, this coaching staff.  I don’t worry too much about all the personal stuff. But it is great to be in this position at this point. —Georgia coach Mark Richt on the Bulldogs’ a win away from the national title game.

“I think that is an outstanding team because of the balance that is created by their ability to run the ball effectively with good runners, as well as having a good quarterback and good skill guys to make plays outside in the passing game.—Alabama coach Nick Saban on Georgia’s offense.

“When you’re able to run the ball and do play action and you have the skill guys outside, that’s dangerous.  Everybody has to do their job, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since the South Carolina game.  –Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson on Alabama offense.

“Both teams have confidence. Our guys have confidence. It’s going to come down to who executes and plays on the field. We understand that. It’s going to be a battle. They’re a talented team. We all understand that.—Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

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@WilQuick5 Don’t think South Carolina week.

4 hours ago