Who's best defensive player in SEC Championship? Our experts discuss Alabama, Georgia football
There will be a direct answer when the Bulldogs (12-0) face the Crimson Tide (11-1) on Saturday (3 p.m. CT, CBS) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in the SEC Championship game.
Before the game, Georgia writer Marc Weiszer of The Athens Banner-Herald and Nick Kelly of The Tuscaloosa News discussed the matchup.
Nick Kelly, Tuscaloosa News: Well, Marc, the matchup it feels like we’ve been talking about all year is finally here. In Tuscaloosa, it seems like most have always had one eye on this likely game throughout the season. What’s the buildup to this week been like in Athens?
Marc Weiszer, Athens Banner-Herald: I mean it’s a big-game week since Stetson Bennett made his first Monday appearance with the media for availability, but that may have been because he had to do the SEC teleconference right after. I mean I’m sure Georgia players and coaches would love to finally beat Bama, but they are sort of on a mission from God, as the Blues Brothers used to say, so I think truly the Tide is just the next obstacle in the way. One that may be more formidable than anyone they’ve played this season. Does Alabama have anything left in the tank after 4 OTs on the Plains?
Is Alabama at a disadvantage after a 4-OT game?
Nick: These close calls are nothing new for Alabama, but it will be interesting to see if there’s any kind of hangover from the Iron Bowl. Not necessarily in the sense of celebrating too much but more from the standpoint of, how much did that game take out of Alabama? I don’t think it will be a significant issue because of the new overtime rules with two-point conversions.
To me, an injury to a top player, running back Brian Robinson Jr., is of more concern. He was hurt late and his status is unclear for the game. Without him, Alabama would be down to one healthy scholarship running back. And of course, that’s not good news against Georgia’s stout defense. You’ve covered plenty of Georgia teams. How dominant is this defense compared to others you’ve seen in Athens?
Marc: Other worldly. I’m not sure I’ve seen it in college football in my years covering the sport. Certainly, not the week-by-week dominance and ability to just blow open so many games. Robinson’s injury could drop Alabama’s explosive ability with one other playmaker out of the picture if he can’t go. Ohio State losing and likely getting knocked out of the playoff makes the path for Georgia look even better, especially if it doesn’t have to see Alabama a second time.
Has the move from Steve Sarkisian to Bill O’Brien been pretty seamless?
Nick: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. O’Brien didn’t take over the exact offense that Sark left, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison. Along with Sark leaving, Alabama also lost quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and left tackle Alex Leatherwood to the first round of the NFL Draft. Sark had some serious pieces with which to work. O’Brien has done well at times with the talent he has, other times not as much.
The moment that stands out the most is when Alabama had a first-and-goal from the 4-yard line and it passed three times against Texas A&M and had to kick a field goal. He’s had good moments, though. Is there any kind of small area of Georgia’s defense that O’Brien can try to exploit?
Are there any weakness on Georgia's defense?
Marc: The thinking was that the secondary was the most vulnerable with first rounder Eric Stokes and early second rounder Tyson Campbell gone at cornerback, but Tennessee couldn’t make enough plays after some early success with its tempo. The problem is Georgia’s front seven is so good and the back end has been better than could have been expected. They’re playing a bit more zone and players say they can play ball more and think less this season. Worth watching will be if starting safety Christopher Smith is back after battling an injury, but walk-on Dan Jackson has been solid stepping in. What do folks in Alabama think of Georgia looking like Alabama teams of old with their No. 1 ranking and nasty defense?
Nick: I think it’s certainly familiar, and maybe that’s why so many have been focused on a matchup with Georgia for much of the season. Fans know what a defense like that can do. Many have measured each game by, “Well what does this mean for Alabama’s chances against Georgia?” mainly because of that defense. But most know about the Georgia defense and its dominance. What can folks expect from the Bulldogs’ offense in this game? Is Stetson Bennett good enough to win a championship?
Marc: Yes, he helped lead them to the SEC East championship and the Georgia state championship (also known as the Governor’s Cup for beating Georgia Tech). I think so. We’ll find out. Georgia’s offense is playing, as they say, complementary football with a stout defense. Bennett is making first downs with his feet, not throwing too many interceptions and hitting enough plays downfield to keep defenses on their toes. He showed great touch on some of his passes at Georgia Tech and tight end Brock Bowers already looks like an NFL caliber player as a freshman. Alabama did have some QBs that won national titles that weren’t Heisman type guys if my memory is correct.
Who’s the best defensive player that will be on the field Saturday?
Nick: Man, it’s going to be close between Will Anderson Jr. and Jordan Davis. Anderson just won SEC defensive player of the week for a fifth time this past week and, as Saban said, Davis is one of the most dominant players in college football.
So when it’s all said and done, how do you see this playing out? I think that Alabama quarterback Bryce Young gives the Bulldogs more than they’ve had to deal with for a while and that it could be a close one.
Marc: Seeing Georgia-Bama going back to 2008 would lead one to think that even at nearly a touchdown underdog, that the Tide will keep it close. I’m not so sure. Georgia is getting to the quarterback and Alabama seems to be having all kinds of trouble protecting Young, especially at right tackle. And an Arkansas team that Georgia shut out put up 35 on Bama. We’ve seen Alabama QBs go off on Georgia but this may not be that year.