I hope you weren't expecting a competitive clash of SEC heavyweights on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. The first "big" game of the year in the SEC as everything it was supposed to be—for about 40 minutes. And then the wheels fell off for the Bulldogs. Georgia and Alabama both entered this October clash of playoff hopefuls with a dominant team identity. For the Crimson Tide, it was the high-flying offense and quick strike ability that has been one of the most challenging assignments in all of college football over the past few years. New quarterback, same old results: points by the bunches.
For the Bulldogs, Saturday night was all about the team's top-ranked defense and several rising prospects in the team's secondary. Cornerback Eric Stokes, cornerback Tyson Campbell, and safety Richard LeCounte were all on the rise as NFL draft prospects—so we presumed that would equate to a back and forth battle between the teams when the Tide held the ball. And it did, for a while.
But the speed and talent of Alabama's receiving duo of Jaylen Waddle (six receptions, 161 yards, and one touchdown) and DeVonta Smith (11 receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns) proved to be too much down the stretch—Waddle torched Campbell on a 90-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter to give Alabama a 27-24 lead with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Smith iced the game midway through the fourth with a leaping touchdown over the outstretched arms of Stokes, moving the score to its final margin of 41-24 in favor of the Tide.
So now that the dust has settled, the question begs to be asked: was Saturday night's flop more about the hype of the Georgia defensive backs reaching disproportionate heights? Or is it simply a matter of the Tide's receiving duo being too good to be topped, even by some of the best that college football has to offer?
In reality, it is probably a little bit of both depending on which player you're examining.
The excitement around Campbell as a prospect has always been rooted in his athletic potential and physical tools. Ball skills is not an area where he's shown a lot of development and he's still green as a player. But despite all of that he's still quite effective because he's so damn big and so damn smooth. And for certain instances against Alabama, Campbell was exactly that. He logged an impressive pass breakup on a target from the slot, ripping the ball out of John Metchie III's hands with an effective rake. But the 90-yard dagger Campbell conceded was an all-around mess.
The Tide stacked two receivers to the short side of the field and offered a switch release at the snap, offering Waddle plenty of real estate to bow his route stem into the blind-spot of Campbell in coverage, who banjo'd assignments with Tyrique Stephenson on the play to counter the switch release. Campbell, who had plenty of outside leverage initially, flipped to carry Waddle as he accelerated through Campbell's blindspot and peeled his route back inside the "red line" to align for the target but by then it was too late. Yes, Campbell showed admirable acceleration to get his strides open and be in a position to contest a poorly placed throw, but Waddle punked him with hand-fighting before the ball arrived.
Entering Saturday night's contest, Stokes was playing the most consistent ball of all the Georgia defensive backs. It's fair to say that continued against Alabama but you'd never guess it based on some of the bounces of the ball that went against him in his attempts to cover Smith. Stokes was flagged for defensive pass interference on one target against Smith on a red zone fade on 3rd-and-9—a ticky-tack call that will show up in the box score at the end of the day but frankly wasn't all that bad of an effort. Stokes squeezed Smith's fade into the boundary and did make an effort to get his eyes back to the football, but the ball was thrown outside as Stokes peeked inside, so his adjustment to the ball was a little too late to pull off contact and the penalty was thrown. It's just one example of Stokes doing everything right but not getting the desired result.
Smith's final touchdown of the game offered everything you would want from coverage. Stokes was in tight coverage. He elevated well to time his jump. He looked to break the hands of Smith while addressing the ball in the air. He attempted to push Smith out of the back of the end zone on the play. None of it worked, even as Stokes played it all by the book.
Genuinely, what else could Stokes have done differently?
So yes, Georgia's secondary proved not to be up to the task against the firepower of Alabama's passing offense this past weekend in Tuscaloosa. But there are still plenty of reasons within the context of each individual performance to be excited about the 2021 NFL Draft prospects of all involved. Because thankfully for both Campbell and Stokes, you won't run into many more impressive 1-2 punches in all of football on any given game day than Waddle and Smith—including in the NFL.