The last time No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia played, things could not have gone much better for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama dropped 41 points on the Bulldogs, more than double the next-highest total they have allowed this season, in the Southeastern Conference title game on Dec. 4. Bryce Young shredded Georgia’s otherwise dominant defense for 421 yards passing, essentially locking up the Heisman Trophy.
So it’s back to the drawing board for Georgia and just run it back for ‘Bama, right?
“I don’t think you do everything the same, but I also don’t think you can make a lot of changes that the players are not going to go out and be able to play and execute with confidence,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said earlier this week.
Both teams are expecting a few new wrinkles — within reason.
“They’re not going to change up and go all Arkansas on us,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “They’re not going to do that. They’re going to be Alabama. And we’re going to be Georgia. And we’re going to see who executes better.”
Arkansas was one of four SEC teams that lost to both Georgia and Alabama this season.
Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman, along with ESPN analysts Greg McElroy and Cole Cubelic, help break down the matchups that could determine Bulldogs-Crimson Tide II.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT WILL?
Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is the best defensive player in the country. The sophomore has 17.5 sacks among 33.5 tackles for loss. Both totals lead major college football.
Georgia should feel good about its offensive tackles, especially left tackle Jamaree Salyer, who was key in shutting down Michigan star pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson in the semifinals.
But Anderson presents a different kind of challenge.
“The thing I like about Alabama is all the different things they do with him,” Pittman said.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding likes to use Anderson on stunts and slants to get him attacking different parts of the line of scrimmage.
“I think he’s best when he’s on the move,” Cubelic said.
Anderson is a game-wrecker on an Alabama defense that’s a little underrated, and it will take a team effort by Georgia to neutralize him.
ATTACKING ALABAMA’S CORNERS
The Tide have shown some vulnerabilities in their secondary all season, and then senior cornerback Josh Jobe was lost for the playoff with a foot injury.
Jalyn Armour-Davis, who had been dealing with a hip problem, returned to start against Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl but was in and out of the game.
Without them, freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry and Khyree Jackson are Alabama’s main cornerbacks.
If Georgia can hold off Anderson and the Alabama rush, it should find some holes in pass coverage, but can Bennett and the Bulldogs receivers take advantage?
Bennett, the former walk-on, has proved over and over that while he is no Heisman Trophy winner, he usually can get the job done.
Georgia’s receivers are talented, but their best weapons are tight end Brock Bowers, who had 10 catches for 139 yards in the first game against Alabama, and running back James Cook, who had four catches for 128 yards in the Orange Bowl.
The 230-pound Bowers often lines up in receiver spots.
“That guy is a problem,” McElroy said. “And there’s not really anybody that you can put on him that is going to disrupt what he can contribute to the game.”
It might not be a matter of whether Georgia has the players to attack Alabama’s secondary, but it’s in the Bulldogs’ DNA to play that way.
“Kirby likes to play physical football and get big with people and bully them, and it’s hard to bully Alabama,” said Pittman, who was Georgia’s offensive line coach for four seasons under coach Kirby Smart before taking over at Arkansas in 2020.
HOW HEALTHY IS ALABAMA’S O-LINE?
The story of the first Alabama-Georgia matchup was the Tide’s offensive line.
“Their offensive line played better in that game than they had possibly all year,” Pittman said.
The Bulldogs’ defense has 45 sacks this season and the SEC title game was the only one in which it was shut out.
Cubelic said it seemed as if Georgia didn’t have a well-thought out plan for pressuring Young the way LSU and Auburn did.
Smart was Saban’s defensive coordinator before becoming coach at Georgia, and Pittman said their defensive schemes still have a lot in common. The Bulldogs and Tide mostly play straight up on second and third down, with lots of pressures and more exotic looks on third down. Especially those twists and blitzes that attack the middle of an offensive line.
The Tide tinkered with their line this season and found a combination they liked late but could be forced to make more changes in the title game. Right guard Emil Ekyior (shoulder) and right tackle Chris Owens (ankle) both left the Cotton Bowl with injuries.
Meanwhile, All-America nose tackle Jordan Davis and the Georgia defensive front reverted back to regular-season form against Michigan.
Maybe the biggest difference between the first and second meeting when Alabama has the ball is that the Tide will be without second-leading receiver John Metchie to complement All-America deep threat Jameson Williams.
Metchie was lost for the season against Georgia with a knee injury, but not before he had six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. Alabama always has another receiver, but nobody else is as much as of a run-after-the-catch threat as Metchie.
“Now Slade Bolden can kind of be that a little bit in the slot,” McElroy said. “The young guys are great, but they’re still going to miss that presence.”
RUSSO’S PREDICTION: Picking against Saban and Alabama twice in the same season is never wise but: GEORGIA 28-24.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll