It’s a weird season in college football. UNC is a top-five team right now! Florida was one last week! Ohio State is ranked in the top 10 and they literally haven’t played anybody.
But through all the weirdness, we still have been handed premier matchups and rivalry games. After waxing Auburn in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, Georgia again finds itself on center stage as the No. 3 team in the country on the road against the No. 2 Crimson Tide.
Nick Saban may not be on the sideline given his recent diagnosis with COVID-19—like I said; weird season!—but there are plenty more critical matchups than just the godfather against one of his ex-assistants. Here are the three biggest head-to-heads I’ll be watching to decide the outcome on Saturday night.
UGA WR George Pickens vs. Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II
Georgia would love to be able to beat Alabama the same way it beat Tennessee: run the football, control the trenches on both sides of the ball, wait for your offense to make a mistake, then capitalize. They won’t find as much success running the football against this Alabama front, and could find themselves down in a hole to the Alabama passing attack, which is among the best in the nation. If so, Pickens becomes arguably the most important player on the team.
Pickens has been concerningly quiet in the last two weeks against Auburn and Tennessee, but if the Alabama defense forces Stetson Bennett into tough third-and-longs or takes away the intermediate play-action passing game, Bennett must turn to his star wide receiver, who only has four receptions over the last two games. Unfortunately, Pickens is hitting the best cover corner he’s seen this year in Surtain, who tends to succeed against size but can get got by quicker receivers. Pickens has both size and agility, as well as catch-point ability in the event that he can’t separate. This is a true heavyweight bout, and without a good game from Pickens, Georgia’s offense will take it on the chin.
It’s worth noting that redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kearis Jackson has exploded in the two games that Pickens has vanished. He spends more time in the slot than Pickens does, but if the Bulldogs are able to get him on the outside against Surtain, he has the movement skills to make Surtain suffer. The wisest play for Todd Monken’s offense might be forcing this matchup to both challenge Surtain and open Pickens on other cover defenders.
UGA NT Jordan Davis vs. Alabama LG Deonte Brown
I called Pickens vs. Surtain a heavyweight bout; perhaps I should have saved that title for this one. All 338 pounds of ‘Bama road-grader Deonte Brown meet all 330 pounds of George roadblock Jordan Davis; thunder will ring with each collision and the earth will quake beneath their feet. Pickens vs. Surtain might be more important, but Brown vs. Davis is gonna be a hoot of a time.
Davis is the anchor of the best run defense of college football. He’s surrounded by other future NFLers on the defensive line, including Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt, just as Brown is flanked by center Landon Dickerson and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, but Davis has been the standout among these groups through three weeks. A truly impassible interior force, Davis will make landfall in the NFL as a two-down run-stuffer, and while he is clearly ready for that role in Year 1, he can stamp his Day 2 ticket with another dominant performance against Alabama.
But whenever the Alabama offense needs it on the ground, they go behind Brown, who uproots opposing defenders as easily as any college guard in the country. Like Davis, Brown’s best plays will never come on passing downs, but he was the unsung hero behind a 200-yard, five-touchdown performance from running back Najee Harris against Ole Miss. The Rebels defense was a cakewalk compared to Georgia’s front, spearheaded by Davis.
Alabama’s offense is predicated on explosive passing plays; they don’t rely on the run like they used to. But this matchup is inevitably physical, and both teams have backs who can break off long runs and keep their relatively inexperienced quarterbacks ahead of the sticks. If Alabama is to be the team with the successful rushing attack, Brown will need to beat Davis over four quarters. Clash of the titans, folks.
Alabama WRs Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith, and John Metchie vs. Georgia CBs Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, and DJ Daniel
Through three games of the season, only Mississippi State averages more passing yards/game than Alabama’s 385 average output—and that’s on 100 more total attempts! Alabama’s yards/completion is tied with Ole Miss for the top figure in the SEC, their completion percentage is second only to BYU, and their yards/attempt is the best in the country—full stop.
So the passing game is good.
Fifty-seven of the 71 completions (80%) have gone to their wide receiver trio: DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and the thrilling true sophomore John Metchie, who leads all FBS wide receivers with a ludicrous 27.1 yards/reception through Alabama’s young season. There has not yet been a defense able to stop Alabama’s passing game when they’ve been trying to score points.
But there also has not been a secondary like Georgia’s on Alabama’s schedule—nor will there be. Georgia carries the most loaded passing defense in the country, with four future NFLers starting: safety Richard LeCounte III, nickel DJ Daniel, and outside corners Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, who have allowed exactly one (1) completion over 40 yards this season.
Expect to see Campbell, the superior athlete, over Waddle as much as possible, especially when he’s lined up outside. Stokes is a versatile defender who can work from a lot of alignments, so I imagine they’ll move him around with Daniel and safety Mark Webb to get the slot matchups they want when Waddle plays on the inside. Stokes’ biggest test will come against Smith, however, who has the route-running prowess to embarrass Stokes in man coverage.
And whoever ends up on Daniel? That’s the matchup the Tide will likely attack. Daniel is a great nickel for his short-area close and quickness filling against the run, but he doesn’t have the long speed you’d like to track a player like Metchie or Waddle. That’s where safety help will matter so much, with LeCounte’s game against a smart, eye-manipulating quarterback like Mac Jones coming onto center stage. Remember: the Alabama passing game isn’t a nickel-and-dime approach. It hunts big plays. Expect them to work flood vertical concepts from two- and three-receiver sets to force the Georgia safeties to make choices, then expose the Bulldogs corners with speed over the top.