The best finish to a College Football Playoff National Championship game occurred nearly four years ago to this day.
The third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs and the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide went to overtime after ending regulation tied at 20. The Dawgs got a field goal out of their first possession, leaving Bama true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with a chance to win the game. After a massive sack on the first play from scrimmage, Tagovailoa found an open DeVonta Smith — who would eventually win a Heisman Trophy in 2020 — for the 41-yard game-winning touchdown.
It’s a memory implanted into the brains of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart as well as Dawgs fans from all over.
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Georgia looked like it could get closure from that heart-breaking defeat about a month ago in the SEC Championship game. Boasting one of the best defenses PFF College has ever seen, Georgia cruised through the regular season without a loss and had a chance to win the conference crown and eliminate Alabama from the CFP in the SEC Championship game. Given Bama’s inconsistencies in the regular season, including an upset loss to Texas A&M and multiple close-calls, it looked like Georgia’s time to shine.
Instead, it was heartbreak once again for the Dawgs. Despite being a 6.5-point favorite over Alabama, Georgia fell 41-24. But revenge is still on the table for Smart and Co. Both the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs dominated their competition in the CFP semifinals to get a rematch of that infamous championship game from four years ago. And while Georgia did already lose to Alabama once this season by three scores, the Bulldogs opened up as the favorite for the title, and money has been coming on them to cover. Now, the Dawgs are a field goal favorite over their conference rival.
Roughly 72% of the tickets are on Alabama to cover the number, but 56% of the cash is on Georgia to cover. The heavy money likes Georgia to avenge its SEC Championship loss and national title heartbreak from 2017-18. There’s reason to believe this should be the case even though the Bulldogs didn’t come close to winning their first matchup.
Let’s dive into what went wrong for Georgia in the SEC Championship game and why they are still the favorite to win the title.
Bryce Young Was Nearly Flawless in the SEC Title Game
Alabama is certainly capably of pulling out its second win against Georgia because the Tide has the best player in the country at the most important position in the game with quarterback Bryce Young. But the situation surrounding him at times has limited his capability, specifically the team’s pass-protection. The Crimson Tide has surrendered a 33.2% pressure rate this season, ranking 54th of the 65 Power Five programs. For reference, they were third among that group of teams in 2020 at 20.7%.
From losing one-on-ones to not getting the right protection set and allowing free rushers, this has been a consistent issue in their close calls against LSU and Auburn and even in the CFP semifinal against Cincinnati. The Bearcats got pressure on Young on 15 of his 33 dropbacks and held the Crimson Tide overall to its lowest successful pass play rate since Week 1 of the 2017 season.
Georgia got pressure on Young at a quality rate (37.5%), and the Alabama offense did see a decline in offensive efficiency on those plays, but it wasn’t nearly at the same magnitude as other teams the Tide has faced this season. That’s because of how cleanly Young played on those reps. And when the Georgia pass-rush didn’t bring the heat and he was standing free from pressure, he was nearly perfect.
When Georgia didn’t blitz, Young completed 17 of 23 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns while recording three big-time throws and a 90.8 passing grade. He had a 155.3 passer rating and averaged 13.4 yards per attempt while the offense generated 1.22 expected points added (EPA) per play and a 67.9% successful pass rate on such plays.
If you give Young time in the pocket, he’s going to shred. Take his 95.3 clean pocket passing grade and the play below as an example. With his first read taken away to the left, Young looks back over to his right, sees the open space in the corner of the end zone and helps direct his wide receiver to the void, where he delivers an absolute dime.
— Overtime (@overtime) December 4, 2021
When Georgia brought a blitz (44% of the time), Young completed eight of 20 for 104 yards en route to a 74.4 passing grade. The offense generated -0.04 expected points added per pass play and produced a 45.5% successful pass rate. That's a lot better than everyone else against Georgia’s blitz this season — Alabama's success rate against Georgia’s blitz was higher than any other passing offense against the Dawgs on all dropbacks.
A big reason why: Young didn’t produce a single turnover-worthy play on those dropbacks and didn’t take a sack. It was the first and only game this year that the true sophomore didn’t eat at least one sack.
Georgia's Uncharacteristic Mistakes
Young against Georgia was the perfect representation of his peak talent level — he minimized mistakes, displayed elite processing ability and made some plays when knocked off rhythm. If you had to choose one quarterback in the country to go make a play under pressure, it’s Young. The five-star quarterback has averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and generated a 103.3 passer rating under pressure this year. Overall, Young owns a 1.9% turnover-worthy play rate, which is among the 10 lowest in the country.
He has an unprecedented ability to see the field given his age and experience level. While Young thrives better than anyone when things don’t go according to plan, he can’t be Superman in every game. Pressure performance is unstable. The volatility those dropbacks bring is unavoidable, and we saw that with Young against LSU and Auburn. Young spent just over 37% of his dropbacks in those games under pressure, completing only nine passes for 131 yards, one touchdown and one interception across 39 dropbacks. He made zero big-time throws, recorded two turnover-worthy plays and took 10 total sacks. In turn, Alabama barely scraped by a middling LSU team by 6 points and took a subpar Auburn team to four overtimes.
Georgia got pressure on Young at a decent rate in Round 1, and there’s plenty of reason to believe they will do so again in Round 2. This Bulldogs defense has a top-five pressure rate among Power Five teams on blitzes at 41% outside of garbage time this season. They like to create havoc with blitzes with their off-ball linebackers and also with stunts up front where they are fifth in the Power Five in usage rate at 41.6%.