It felt like a down season for the SEC, and yet Monday night will feature the second all-SEC national championship game in seven years.
The last one, a 21-0 Alabama win over LSU in the 2011 season, was a rematch of a regular-season game and occurred in the BCS title game, helping to lead to the creation of the College Football Playoff. This time, Alabama dismantled Clemson 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl and Georgia beat Oklahoma 54-48 in double-OT in one of the greatest Rose Bowls ever, and now Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will meet former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Georgia for the championship.
How will Monday's game play out? Here's what to watch.
How to watch
The game is scheduled to kick off around 8:17 p.m. ET at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the main broadcast on ESPN featuring Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Tom Rinaldi and Maria Taylor on the call. ESPN will also have a "Megacast" broadcast with numerous other viewing options, including the "Film Room" with coaches breaking down the game live on ESPNews.
What to read and listen to
When Alabama has the ball
Take away sacks as running plays, and Alabama has run the ball 62.9 percent of the time this season. Under new coordinator Brian Daboll, the Crimson Tide look similar to the offense in Lane Kiffin's final season in 2016: They're built around the running game, with a quarterback in sophomore Jalen Hurts who leans heavily on his legs.
Hurts is second on the team with 808 rushing yards. He's 218 pounds with impressive acceleration -- as we saw on his 30-yard touchdown that nearly beat Clemson with two minutes left a year ago -- and he has provided a different element to Alabama than we've typically seen from Nick Saban's offenses. What's not different is that Hurts is joined by a deep cast of tailbacks who were five-star recruits. Damien Harris is the top rusher, with 983 yards and an average of 7.6 yards per carry. Bo Scarbrough hasn't had the big year that many expected after his playoff breakthrough a year ago, but he's still a talented and physical presence. Harris and Scarbrough are backed up by five-star freshman Najee Harris and the more versatile Josh Jacobs. They all run behind a line, led by left tackle Jonah Williams, that isn't quite as dominant as the best Alabama lines but has still been an asset compared to most, although it did suffer a blow with right guard Lester Cotton now sidelined by an injury he suffered in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama's biggest concern on offense is the same as it was a year ago: Has Hurts progressed as a passer? He's a talented playmaker, and his skill set has been more than enough for Alabama to go 26-2 over the past two seasons. His flaws can be exaggerated. Still, there's no doubt that the Crimson Tide passing game lacks diversity. With ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard gone, Calvin Ridley is the only consistent star receiver. A likely first-round draft pick, Ridley has 59 catches for 935 yards; nobody else on the team has more than 16 catches (Scarbrough) or 244 yards (Jerry Jeudy). Hurts ranks 11th in passer rating, with 17 touchdowns and just one interception, and he's an excellent point guard for the offense, but if the running game gets bottled up, he can be put in dicey situations. We saw that in the national championship game loss last season, when Alabama converted just 2 of 15 third downs, allowing Clemson to rack up its own play count and stage a comeback victory.
Hurts has, at times, shown off clear progress, including several impressive plays to lead Alabama from behind at Mississippi State in November. But Monday night presents one of the most formidable challenges this offense has seen. Georgia returned 17 of its top 19 tacklers from a year ago, and it's shown. The unit has jumped from good (36th in yards per play allowed) to great (eighth). The centerpiece is Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith, who's arguably the best player on either team. This is a smart and fast unit that is difficult to run on sideline-to-sideline. Although the front hasn't necessarily generated as much pressure as expected, players like Lorenzo Carter, D'Andre Walker and Davin Bellamy are dangerous off the edge. Georgia showed off its experience and ability to adapt in the second half of the Rose Bowl, when it went from getting burned by Baker Mayfield to largely shutting down the Sooners. While Alabama has as much talent as anybody, Georgia has already shown that it can slow the nation's best and most explosive offense. This Georgia defense hasn't been as great as Smart's championship-winners at Alabama, but few ever have been. There's no question that the Bulldogs are championship-caliber defensively.
When Georgia has the ball
This was supposed to be Jacob Eason's breakthrough season at quarterback. A coveted five-star recruit in the class of 2016, Eason started 12 games in Kirby Smart's debut season as a true freshman, showing off high upside with a huge arm, but also up-and-down play and inconsistent accuracy behind an inconsistent offensive line. The line made a leap forward this year, but it's done so protecting Jake Fromm rather than Eason. Eason was injured in the opener against Appalachian State, and by the time he was ready to return, there was no taking the job back from Fromm, who has a chance to become the first true freshman quarterback since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985 to lead a team to a national championship. Fromm has been terrific for a rookie: He's fourth nationally in passer rating, completing 63.7 percent for 2,383 yards, 23 TDs and five INTs with an average of 9.2 yards per attempt. Beyond the loss to Auburn, he's been well-protected, and he's effectively managed games and mixed things up by successfully pushing the ball downfield.
The Georgia offense, however, revolves around the running game. Unlike Alabama, it does not feature a running quarterback, but Georgia's talented backfield has actually trumped Alabama's. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both returned for their senior season, and both have been stars, with over 1,000 yards each. They carved up the Oklahoma defense for a combined 326 yards. They're joined by five-star freshman D'Andre Swift, a rising star who averages 7.8 yards per carry. I already pointed out that Alabama runs the ball on 62.9 percent of its plays; Georgia runs the ball on 67.6 percent of its plays. Fromm has been terrific, especially for a freshman, but he's also not been asked to carry the offense in most situations. The offensive line has mostly held up, allowing Chubb, Michel and Swift to shoulder the load and keep the offense moving. The one game when Georgia's running game was shut down was the regular-season loss to Auburn, and Auburn's defensive front both contained the ground attack and got pressure on Fromm that knocked the entire Georgia offense out of sync.
Few teams are capable of slowing down the Georgia running game. Oklahoma certainly wasn't one of them, but Alabama is. Alabama allows 2.7 yards per rush and hasn't allowed more than 168 rushing yards or 3.6 yards per carry in any game. There have been times when the Crimson Tide defense has felt more vulnerable than usual, particularly in November, and yet the numbers continue to be fantastic. Last week, with concerns about injuries at linebacker, Alabama held Clemson to six points, 188 total yards and 2.7 yards per play in one of the most dominant defensive performances of the season. In recent years, the offenses that have given Alabama the most problems have spread the field and had mobile quarterbacks. Teams don't beat Alabama at its own game, at least not since LSU in their first 2011 meeting, putting significant pressure on Georgia to buck trends. Injuries are still a big issue for Alabama -- linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton, Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings are all hurt -- but nobody has more blue-chip depth than the Tide, who also boast arguably the nation's top secondary led by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts vs. Georgia LB Roquan Smith. It's really Alabama's entire backfield against Georgia's entire defensive front, but the key to taking away Hurts' running ability is Smith, the MVP of the SEC championship game, the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl and arguably the best defensive player in college football this season. Smith has excellent instincts and sideline-to-sideline range with a relentless style of play, making runs to the outside difficult for anybody against this Georgia defense.
Alabama P J.K. Scott vs. Georgia P Cameron Nizialek. Maybe this won't be quite as much of a defense-heavy battle as many think, but it's hard to imagine this turning into any sort of shootout. It's Saban vs. Smart, with two loaded defenses. Field position is going to be a big factor. Scott is one of the three or so best punters in college football, and he put 25 of his 48 punts inside the 20-yard line this season. Nizialek is a Columbia transfer who averages 44.9 yards per punt and had a stellar performance against Oklahoma. Hidden yardage will play a big role.
Georgia WRs Javon Wims and Terry Godwin vs. Alabama CBs Levi Wallace and Anthony Averett. Georgia is not going to be able to line up and run the ball down Alabama's throat, as it has done against most opponents this season. It is going to need Fromm to be on top of his game and ready to step up, which means he needs protection from his line, and he also needs help on the perimeter. Wims and Godwin are Georgia's top two receiving targets, and they'll be charged with getting open against a pair of excellent cornerbacks in Wallace and Averett and, really, an excellent secondary as a whole. Georgia needs Wims and Godwin to get separation and make life easier for Fromm and, subsequently, life easier for the running backs.
National Championship Prediction
After a forgettable debut season under Kirby Smart, Georgia is rapidly emerging as a worthy long-term adversary for Alabama in the SEC and nationally. The Bulldogs are located in a talent-rich state, and Smart and his staff are doing a masterful job on the recruiting trail to unlock the potential of Georgia football, which has been somewhat of an underachiever. In Smart's second season, a veteran roster around a freshman quarterback has a chance to win Georgia's first national championship since 1980, and that chance will come in Atlanta, just up the road from Athens. As Will Leitch wrote last week, a true dream season is on the line.
Of course, despite what happened against Clemson last year, no college football program lives to crush the dreams of others quite like Alabama has under Saban. Alabama is seeking its fifth national title in nine years. It didn't even win the SEC West, because of its loss to Auburn, and yet Alabama is in position to win the ultimate prize anyway. Even when Alabama fell short in the SEC, everybody knew the truth: This roster is as talented as any in college football, yet again, and it has arguably the greatest coach in college football history, still at the top of his game.
Maybe Monday night will represent a changing of the guard of sorts from mentor to protégé, from the past decade's SEC power to a rising one. Maybe Smart will finally become the first former Saban assistant to beat Saban head-to-head. Maybe Fromm will join an exclusive club of true freshman quarterbacks to win national championships. All is on the table, all is plausible.
But despite the occasional slip-up, there is still no statement that can be made with more confidence in college football than: I'm picking Alabama.
Alabama 24, Georgia 20