— By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange —
The national championship game is set: Alabama vs. Georgia. Here are five things everyone will be talking about before the big game on Monday night in Atlanta:
1. SEC! SEC! SEC!
The Southeastern Conference likes to promote itself with the advertising tag line, “It Just Means More,” but no slogan is needed for Monday night, which will be a 3 1/2-hour infomercial for the conference.
For the first time in the four years of the College Football Playoff — and the first time since Alabama played LSU in the 2012 BCS title game — the final game of the season will match two teams from the same conference.
The postseason is a generally lousy way to determine conference strength — so, too, are non-conference regular-season matchups — but it’s all we have to go on. Based on the results, SEC fans will be crowing (even louder) while the rest of the nation grumbles, having grown weary of a conference that will win its ninth national championship in the past dozen seasons.
The SEC might not have been the nation’s best conference, top to bottom, this season. But it still wins the debate because Alabama and Georgia are the final two standing.
“I don’t think the league is ever down,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said.
2. Saban vs. Smart
Georgia coach Kirby Smart spent nine seasons at Alabama under Nick Saban, including eight as the defensive coordinator. Saban initially hired Smart in 2004 when he was at LSU, and Smart followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins a year later.
“I was very impressed with him from day one,” Saban said on a media teleconference Tuesday.
“He was very bright. He learned quickly. I would hire him anytime, anywhere, on any staff, based on the body of work that he did over the nine or 10 years that he was with us. He did a fabulous job.”
Whether the familiarity with Saban and much of the Tide’s personnel will have any effect on the outcome of the title game remains to be seen, but here is one stat that will be heard often: Saban is 11-0 against his former assistants.
Saban put that in perspective.
“I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players,” Saban said. “And I think in most of those games if the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beat us.”
3. Georgia’s running game
Bulldogs senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 25 carries for 326 yards and five touchdowns in the double-overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
In doing so, they become the most prolific running back duo in college football history, surpassing SMU’s Eric Dickerson and Craig James, who ran for a combined 8,193 yards in the early 1980s.
Chubb has rushed for 4,744 yards; Michel 3,540. That’s 8,284 yards.
Michel had a 75-yard scoring burst in the second quarter against the Sooners and won the game with a 27-yard touchdown off a direct snap in the second overtime.
“We’re a downhill team, so we run the ball,” Michel said.
It won’t be as easy against Alabama, which is first in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 91.8 yards per game, making this a big-boy matchup of strength-on-strength.
4. Quarterback play
Georgia’s Jake Fromm is where Alabama’s Jalen Hurts was last season — a true freshman in the national title game. Hurts and the Tide fell just short last season, losing to Clemson on a touchdown with one second to go, so now it’s Fromm’s turn to try to become the second true freshman quarterback to win it all;
Jamelle Holieway took Oklahoma to the 1985 title.
No doubt, each defense wants to stop the run and force the quarterback into taking downfield shots, taking him out of game-manager mode.
Fromm, with calmness and defense-reading skills beyond his years, is fourth nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 166.4. Hurts is 11th at 153.7 and has been intercepted only once in 246 passes.
The twist here: Fromm was committed to Alabama before flipping to Georgia shortly after Smart became the head coach after the 2015 season.
“When he first got here, prior to him even being the starter, the way he carried himself was like a senior or something like that,” Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Just seeing what the guy has done hasn’t surprised me one bit.”
5. Chasing history
Saban is going for his sixth national title, which would tie him for the most ever with a certain houndstooth-hat wearing Alabama gentleman named Paul William Bryant.
Saban won his first title with LSU in 2003 and added four more in the past eight seasons — 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015.
If Saban hoists another trophy, it would be hard to deny that he’s the greatest coach in college history, especially given the modern challenges of navigating multiple postseason games to win the title.
Back in some of Bear Bryant’s days, the “mythical” national champion in the polls was determined before the bowl games.
On Monday, Georgia — and one of his former assistants — stands in his Saban’s way.