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What to watch heading into No. 3 Alabama's matchup against No. 1 Georgia

The time for hypotheticals and speculation is over. For weeks, Alabama has been evaluated by how it stacks up to a potential meeting with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Saturday, that matchup will finally come to fruition as the No. 3 Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 in the SEC) takes on the No. 1 Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0) at 3 p.m. CT inside of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Here are five things to watch heading into the game.

Underdogs vs. top Dawgs 

For the first time in 92 games, Alabama will enter a matchup as an underdog as Georgia is currently favored by 6.5 points in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game. Just don’t tell that to the Tide’s players.

“I don’t really look at it as an underdog, I feel like it is another game,” safety Jordan Battle said. “Obviously, Georgia is No. 1. Obviously, they are a great team. They have a great defense, they have a great offense. In this game, we have to make them one-dimensional, like our plan going into every other game.”

Left tackle Evan Neal admits the underdog role is a bit new to him as well, but it isn’t something he or the rest of the team is letting affect them.

“I don’t feel like us being an underdog is motivating to us,” Neal said. “I just feel like us being competitors, and us wanting to go out and win and be who we are, I feel like that’s what motivates us.”

Interestingly enough, the last time Alabama wasn’t favored in a game occurred in 2015 when it traveled to Athens, Ga., for a matchup against the Bulldogs. The Crimson Tide recorded a 38-10 win inside Sanford Stadium as part of a title-winning season.

This year’s Georgia team features one of the best defenses college football has ever seen, leading the nation in scoring defense (6.9 points allowed per game) and total defense (229.7 yards allowed per game). However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many feeling sorry for Alabama heading into the matchup.

The Tide has the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in Bryce Young at quarterback and arguably the nation’s top defender in Will Anderson Jr. at outside linebacker. Alabama is also the only team ranked in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense, coming in at No. 7 in both categories.

“I’m extremely confident,” receiver John Metchie III said. “I think we’re concerned about ourselves more and playing our best brand of football, knowing that we’re going against a really good defense, but I think for us, it’s just playing our best brand of football.”

The one who got away 

As good as Georgia’s defense is, it’s crazy to imagine what could have been. The most prolific defender in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game will be suiting up in crimson and white as Anderson leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss. However, it wasn’t too long ago that the Alabama edge rusher envisioned himself playing for his home-state Bulldogs.

Anderson grew up in Stockbridge, Ga, roughly an hour and a half away from Georgia’s campus. According to an interview with Rivals during the summer before his junior season of high school, his dream was to stay home and play for the Bulldogs.

“I grew up a fan,” Anderson said at the time. “That’s the offer I want most.”

The only problem was the offer from Georgia never came.

“I got recruited by them a little bit,” Anderson said this week. “I didn’t get too much attention from them, but it all worked out well. I’m here at Alabama, and I love it here. It’s been great so far.”

Anderson joined Alabama as the No. 1 weakside defensive end and No. 22 overall player in the 2020 class. Earlier this week, Nick Saban was asked about recruiting the five-star defender, stating that he loved what he saw from him coming out of high school.

“He had great size. You could see the initial quickness, explosive power,” Saban said. “We didn’t know for sure if he’d end up being a stand-up player or end up playing down. He kind of does both for us now and does both very well. He’s certainly been everything that we thought he would be, and I think that’s because of the kind of person he is, the kind of competitive character he has, the leadership qualities that he has. The guy’s always trying to get better.”

Ultimately, it was that same competitive approach that ended up drawing Anderson to Alabama.

“In high school, I told myself I wanted to be surrounded by people who have the same mentality as me, same expectation, same standard,” Anderson said. “When you come to a place like Alabama, everyone in the locker room has the same expectation for themselves, the same mentality and the competitiveness here. To be at Alabama, you have to be a very good competitor and you have to be able to compete every day even when you don't feel like competing. ... That's why I wanted to come here, because of the mindset and because of the men who were going to be here to help me along the way and help me get to where I want to be.”

All on the line 

This isn’t the way Alabama’s offensive line wanted to enter its biggest test of the season. After putting up inconsistent performances all year, the Tide’s front was at its worst during last week’s Iron Bowl, allowing a season-high seven sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. The inability to protect the quarterback was coupled by a failure to provide a push in crucial running situations as Brian Robinson Jr. was stuffed twice on third-and-1 runs before Trey Sanders came up short on a fourth-and-1 carry.

Those struggles don’t bode well heading into a matchup against a Georgia defense that prides itself on its front seven. The Bulldogs are tied for fourth in the nation with 41 sacks and rank fourth in run defense, holding opponents to just 78.92 yards per game on the ground. If Alabama plans on avoiding a similar fate Saturday, it knows improvements need to be made in a hurry.

“I think we've got to play more physical,” Saban said. “I think we've got to be more aggressive in terms of how we come out of our hips, play with power, whatever it is. We've got to try to dictate when we're in the run game and get moving. … So pass protection was an issue at times. We've just got to do a better job of staying square. The quarterback's got to do a good job in the pocket so that the O-line knows where he's going to be. There's a lot of things that we need to work on when it comes to pressures. We've got to have a good plan for how we block them.”

“There's a lot of things that I think we're capable of improving. And I have a lot of confidence that the players will go about it the right way to try to get that done this week.”

Alabama’s offensive line is certainly capable of success. The unit helped the Tide gain a combined 1,065 total yards against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the two top-25 defenses it has faced this year. When asked earlier this week about the line’s struggles against Auburn, Neal said that mistakes needed to be acknowledged while also pointing out that there were positives in the performance as well.

“You can’t sit and dwell on the past when we have a big game this week,” he said. “We need to do everything in our power to have a good week of practice, good mental energy, good focus that we can go out there and execute this Saturday.”

Playoff possibilities for a two-loss Tide 

Alabama remained at No. 3 in the penultimate College Football Ranking released Tuesday night. The Tide can lock up its second straight SEC title as well as its second straight trip to the playoff with a win over Georgia on Saturday. However, Alabama’s postseason aspirations might not be completely snuffed out with a loss.

Here are a few possibilities that could create an interesting situation for the playoff committee.

Oklahoma State loses the Big 12 Championship Game

In this scenario, let’s assume No. 2 Michigan beats No. 13 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, No. 4 Cincinnati beats No. 21 Houston in the AAC Championship Game and No. 5 Oklahoma State loses to No. 9 Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game.

The top three is easy as Georgia, Michigan and Cincinnati would assuredly be in. From there, the teams competing for the final spot would be Alabama (11-2), Notre Dame (11-1) and Baylor (11-2). Baylor would have the conference title and the best win of the bunch, but the committee already dropped the Bears one spot to No. 9 in this week’s ranking, making their climb a bit harder. It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame would be rewarded for not playing this week, while the Irish’s coaching situation could also hurt its chances.

Michigan loses the Big Ten Championship Game

In this scenario, Cincinnati still beats Houston while Oklahoma State beats Baylor and Iowa beats Michigan.

Georgia, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State would all punch their tickets while Alabama (11-2), Michigan (11-2), Notre Dame (11-1) and possibly Iowa (11-2) would all vie for the fourth spot. First off, Iowa isn’t likely to jump from No. 12 to No. 4. It would then be difficult for Michigan to get in as the committee would have a hard time placing the Wolverines in the playoff over a conference champion with the same record that just won the head-to-head matchup. Once again, Notre Dame’s coaching situation and lack of game this week could prove costly as well.

Cincinnati loses the AAC Championship Game

In this scenario, Michigan beats Iowa, Oklahoma State beats Baylor and Cincinnati loses to Houston.

Unlike other playoff contenders, Cincinnati is completely out of contention with a loss in its conference championship game. Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma State would be in while Alabama and Notre Dame vie for the fourth spot. We’ve already gone over the possible complications for Notre Dame, so Alabama could have a real chance of holding on in this situation.

Potential milestones

— Bryce Young is four touchdown passes away from breaking Tua Tagovailoa’s school single-season mark of 43, set in 2018. Young has thrown for four or more touchdowns five times this season.

— Young is 99 passing yards away from becoming the second Alabama quarterback to reach the 4,000-yard milestone in a season. Mac Jones set the school’s record with 4,500 passing yards last season. Young has passed for 99 or more yards in each of his 12 games this year.

— John Metchie III is 16 receiving yards away from reaching 2,000 in his career. He would be the eighth Alabama player to reach the milestone, joining DeVonta Smith (3,965), Amari Cooper (3463), D.J. Hall (2,923), Calvin Ridley (2,781), Jerry Jeudy (2,742), Julio Jones (2,653) and Ozzie Newsome (2,070). Jaylen Waddle ended his Alabama career with 1,999 receiving yards. Metchie has recorded 16 or more yards through the air in all 12 games this season as well as all 13 games last season.

— Jameson Williams is 54 receiving yards away from moving into sole possession of third place on Alabama’s single-season list. He currently leads the Tide with 1,261 yards this season. He has recorded 54 or more yards in 10 of his 12 games for Alabama.

— With 3.5 sacks, Will Anderson Jr. will have 18.0 on the season, matching Derrick Thomas’ 1987 total for second on the school’s single-season list. Thomas also holds the single-season record with 27 sacks in the 1988 season. If Anderson records 3.5 sacks, he will also move into a tie with Kindal Moorehead for third on the school’s all-time list with 25. Anderson recorded four sacks during Alabama’s victory over Mississippi State on Oct. 16.

Alabama Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Photo | Getty Images
Alabama Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Photo | Getty Images