Before we get to the painful look back, my overall reaction is the same. Georgia gave a fantastic performance as the underdog under tremendous pressure and came up five yards short against the likely national champion. Looking at individual moments can give the impression of being critical and harsh, but none of us can ask for more from this team than we got.
But to leave it at that – good job, good effort – doesn’t do Georgia football justice. If you put stock the preseason outlook, this is exactly the position in which Georgia was supposed to be. The consensus expectations were for a team that challenged for the SEC East title, finished somewhere in the top 10, and headed into the postseason with no more than a loss or two. That the serendipity of the season turned that result into a shot at playing for the national title was a welcome surprise, but Georgia was exactly where they belonged.
I’m disappointed for these seniors after the work they put in over the past two and three seasons to get this program back in a position to compete for SEC and national titles. But this wasn’t Georgia’s first chance at a national title in the past 15 years, and it won’t be the last under Richt. Georgia missed this time, but we should expect the program to be back in this position soon. That was the point of the whole midseason crisis: was Mark Richt able to compete in an SEC where four different programs had won national titles in the past six seasons? If the answer is “yes”, recruiting, player development, and coaching should be at a level where Georgia doesn’t put all of their eggs in the basket of a single season.
That doesn’t make Saturday night any less painful. We all know Georgia was five yards from playing in a national title game in which they’d be the favorite. I admit to wondering before the game if Georgia could even compete in a game of this magnitude. Certainly they could and did. There’s still a game to go, but this team has become everything we hoped and expected of them before the season. On to the game…
- After the elation of Ogletree’s return of the blocked field goal, my first thought was for the defense. They had just been on the field for a 10-play drive and were headed right back out. Sure, they were up 11 now instead of 4, but Alabama had a much easier time from that point on. (Two 15-yard penalties didn’t help.) The offense then picked the worst possible time to have a three-and-out. The Dawgs started the second half with an impressive scoring drive but only ran three plays the rest of the third quarter. That’s asking a lot of a defense that was taking a steady pounding from a physical offense.
- The 3-4 defense is severely tested by a power running game. In its most basic form, you have three defensive linemen on five offensive linement. That leaves linebackers to take on other blockers or make the tackle. Against most teams good defensive linemen can neutralize this disadvantage by taking on multiple blockers or making things messy enough that the linebackers are relatively unimpeded. That’s not the case against a team like Alabama that features not only five outstanding offensive linemen but also sound tight ends – not to mention two backs that are very difficult to bring down. Jarvis Jones is amazing at many things, but he’s never been known as a run-stopper. Most outside linebackers aren’t, especially when they’re being specifically blocked by bigger linemen and tight ends.
- Shawn Williams’ mid-season challenge to his teammates will live on as a defining moment of the season. It could have divided the team or lit a fire under them, and fortunately it did the latter. But his “soft” line was only one part of what he had to say. He also had some more controversial and specific comments about playing time among the linebackers. That aspect of his criticism had been laregly forgotten as the linebackers finished the season as well as any unit on the defense. I admit that it popped back into my head as Georgia was desperately searching for ways to stop Alabama’s running game in the second half. Specifically, where was Herrera? We saw him force a fumble on special teams, but he was largely absent from Georgia’s defensive plan. There are trade-offs with any personnel decision, but it was puzzling not to see more of one of Georgia’s more physical inside linebackers.
- Georgia’s lack of depth along the defensive line was an issue. Geathers, Jenkins, and Smith saw much of the action with some help from Drew. As much as Jenkins was compared with Cody leading up to the game, remember that Cody was used much more situationally. Garrison Smith has filled in well for Abry Jones and was fine in this game, but this was one of the few times when the lack of depth brought on by the injury to Jones really showed.
- It’s interesting to see how many big plays in the game were made by Georgia defenders who otherwise didn’t see much playing time. Washington had the field goal block. Ramik Wilson forced a huge fumble at the goal line to set up Commings’ interception. Herrera also forced a fumble on a kick return. That’s not necessarily to argue for more playing time, but it’s a great example of guys being ready when their moment came.
- We’d be talking about many other things had Georgia won, but at the top of the list would be the goal-line stand in the second quarter highlighted by Wilson’s forced fumble and Sanders’ pick. Georgia defended the run and the pass about as perfectly as one could expect.
- As much difficulty as Georgia had against the run, their success rushing the passer was a big plus. In fact, Nick Saban credits the Georgia pass rush with Alabama’s decision to lean on the run in the second half. As much credit as Alabama’s offensive line is getting for laying down a 12-lane expressway for their tailbacks, Georgia was getting to AJ McCarron.
- Did anyone else get a flashback to the South Carolina game when Amari Cooper out-jumped Rambo for a second quarter pass?
- As much as individual plays stand out, especially those made by Cooper against Rambo and Swann, the secondary played a great game. Georgia was able to get to McCarron, but it was often because he couldn’t find anyone open.
- I’m glad to see a more thoughtful discussion of the decision whether or not to spike the ball. Steve Spurrier provided raw meat to fans who thought Georgia erred by not spiking the ball, but my opinion comes down to a single word used by Chris Brown: “defensible.” Not right or wrong, but there was a choice made with sound reasoning behind it. I can see the reasons to spike it, but the Georgia coaches made a decision to run a good play that had a fair chance of working without giving Alabama a chance to set up or substitute. The same scenario – a tipped pass caught by the underneath receiver – would have run out the clock regardless of whether Georgia had spiked it. I’m fine with the call.
- That final play will be agonized over for years, but what will keep me up at night is 3rd and 1. Up 28-25 with about 7 minutes left, Georgia’s defense forced a stop and gave the ball back to the Bulldog offense that had just driven for the go-ahead score. After an incompletion and a 9-yard Gurley run, Georgia faced a 3rd and 1 from their own 17. The Alabama defense was ready for another plunge up the middle. The Dawgs had to punt, Alabama got the ball back near midfield, and they scored the winning touchdown just a few plays later.
- Bama’s line was more than good enough to overshadow what otherwise would’ve been a good job by Georgia’s offensive line. Only two teams had managed 100 yards rushing on Alabama this year, and Gurley went for over 120. Pass protection struggled early, but as they settled down and Murray became more comfortable with the game, he was able to find opportunities. There were moments, like the 3rd and 1, where the Alabama defense got the better of the Georgia line – that comes with the territory against a defense that good. It’s fair to say though that the Georgia line played better than expected.
- Alabama did well to limit Georgia’s big plays with one exception: Tavarres King came up big with receptions of 33, 31, and 45 yards. But there was no bigger or better catch by King than the 23-yarder he hauled in on Georgia’s final drive. King took a nasty hit but was still able to secure a pass across the middle to keep Georgia’s chances alive. With 142 yards on 5 catches, he had the kind of a game you hope for from a senior starter.
- No individual rushed for more yards against Alabama this year than Todd Gurley. Only one other back broke the century mark, and it took LSU’s Jeremy Hill 29 carries to get there. Gurley posted 122 yards on 23 carries and scored twice.
- This game was so back-and-forth that even the best performances weren’t perfect. The Alabama line struggled with pass protection. McCarron threw a couple of interceptions. And even Gurley can be singled out for his role in the game’s deciding play.
- What impressed me most in the game was Georgia’s response after surrendering the lead at the start of the fourth quarter. This is where a lot of teams would have folded after giving up two touchdowns to a relentless Alabama running game. Murray hit Mitchell for a moderate gain and then found King 45 yards downfield to set up a pair of strong runs by Gurley. The Dawgs recaptured the lead and even forced a punt on Alabama’s next possession. Georgia didn’t win, but they went down fighting.