Because 2020 has to have an element of surreality at all times, the biggest game of this college football season to date will take place without the most successful active coach in the game. With Nick Saban testing positive for COVID-19, No. 2 Alabama's battle with No. 3 Georgia on Saturday evening will pit his former right-hand man (UGA's Kirby Smart) against his current right-hand man, offensive coordinator and acting Bama head coach Steve Sarkisian.
It will be titanic either way. After surviving a test from yet another former Saban assistant (Lane Kiffin) last week -- Bama 63, Ole Miss 48 -- Saban's current team will face a Bulldogs squad that basically represents the Ghost of Bama's Past. The Crimson Tide have the No. 1 offense in the country per SP+, and Smart's Dawgs have the No. 1 defense.
We obviously don't know where these teams will finish, but the teams with the best year-end offense and defense have played only six times in the past 70 years. The team with the best defense won five of six ... the lone exception last year when Georgia lost to Joe Burrow and LSU in the 2019 SEC championship game.
Let's walk through what makes these two top-ranked units so special and what might decide this massive football game.
2020 Georgia vs. 2011 Bama
Georgia finished an easy first in defensive SP+ last year, then returned almost all of last year's two-deep in 2020. Among the 76 teams that have played so far, its defensive SP+ rating of 7.1 adjusted points per game is 8.3 points ahead of second-place Clemson. That's about the same distance as what stands between Clemson's and Florida State's defenses.
It's been 21 games since a team topped its full-season yards-per-play average against the Dawgs -- thanks to All-America receiver Andy Isabella, UMass averaged 7.2 yards per play against UGA in 2018, when it averaged 6.4 per play for the season.
It's been 25 games since someone topped Georgia's season scoring average -- LSU averaged 32.4 points per game in 2018 and scored 36 on UGA. In the span since these games, only two teams have averaged more than 5.5 yards per play on the Dawgs, and only one has topped 21 points.
Over the past 10 years, only 2011 Alabama and 2017 Alabama top Georgia's current defensive SP+ rating. Smart, of course, was the defensive coordinator for that 2011 unit, and it remains the gold standard for what Smart wants to accomplish.
The Tide that year ranked not only first in success rate, but first in every primary iteration of success rate (rushing, passing, standard downs and passing downs), and they did so without a ton of disruption -- they were 107th in sack rate and 61st in passing downs sack rate. They could play the pressure card when they wanted, but they didn't need to; they simply let you declare what you were doing, swarmed to the ball with alarming speed and dogpiled 245-pound tacklers on top of the guy with the ball. We always think of high-tempo offenses as exhausting for opposing defenses, but Bama was exhausting for offenses. The Tide knocked your wind out on every play, and because they weren't overcommitting to invading the backfield, and they were smart and fast as hell, they didn't allow big plays, either. Their finishing move wasn't a flying elbow drop; it was a bear hug.
In part because it has played two SP+ top-25 teams in three games (No. 14 Auburn, No. 24 Tennessee), Georgia's raw stats aren't quite as dominant after three games. The Dawgs are merely second in success rate (behind an Air Force team that has played one game) -- fourth against the run and pass, third on standard downs, ninth on passing downs. Like 2011 Bama, though, they are a distant first in yards allowed per drive, and they don't allow big plays: They've allowed just two gains of 30-plus yards in three games. Only Baylor (none in two) has averaged fewer.
Like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and company nine years ago, Georgia's linebackers swarm with abandon. Azeez Ojulari (6-foot-3, 240) has been involved in a tackle on 16% of his snaps so far, Monty Rice (6-1, 235) 14%, Quay Walker (6-4, 240) 14% and Nolan Smith (6-3, 235) 14%. And with Ojulari leading the way, they can also ramp up the pressure when they need to. They sacked Tennessee's poor Jarrett Guarantano five times, and they rank third overall in pressure rate.
Down 21-17 to Tennessee at the half, thanks to a fumble recovery score and a short-field touchdown drive, Georgia's linebackers completely changed the game. Ojulari sacked and stripped Guarantano on the opening drive of the second half, then recovered the fumble to boot. After Georgia's offense settled for a field goal, a heavily pressured Guarantano threw a foolish pass, which corner Eric Stokes picked off. Ojulari forced another Guarantano fumble later in the quarter, and after allowing 143 yards in the first half, the Dawgs allowed a paltry 71 in the second.
ESPN Daily podcast: Connelly joins the show to talk everything Alabama-Georgia.
What scoring drives against Georgia look like
In three games, Georgia has allowed six scoring drives: three touchdowns and three field goals. (Tennessee scored a defensive touchdown early in last Saturday's game, as well.)
Two of those drives began with great field position -- one Arkansas drive began at midfield, and Tennessee's first TD drive last week began at the Georgia 36 after a turnover on downs.
Within these drives were four 15-yard Georgia penalties -- two pass interference flags and two personal fouls (including one, strangely enough, on George Pickens, an offensive player).
These six drives also included nearly half of all third-down conversions Georgia has allowed this year -- opponents converted six third downs in these drives and seven in all other possessions.
Basically, you need Georgia's help to score, either via good field position or penalty. And if or when the Dawgs are benevolent enough to allow you to convert a third down, you absolutely, positively must turn that into points. They aren't going to be that generous very often.
Mac vs. Tua (and present Bama vs. past Bama)
Saban has had plenty of good offenses through the years; between 2010 and 2014, his Crimson Tide ranked in the top 10 in offensive SP+ four times, and they haven't ranked outside of the top 25 since 2007, his first year in Tuscaloosa.
With Tua Tagovailoa taking control of the offense in 2018, however, the Tide rose to second. They remained second in 2019 despite Tagovailoa's midseason injury and are currently first in 2020. After ranking higher on offense than defense, per SP+, only once in Saban's first 11 seasons, they're well on their way to doing so for a third consecutive year.
Despite a total lack of nonconference warm-up games, quarterback Mac Jones' stats are absurd: 80% completion rate, 16.7 yards per completion, only one interception and two sacks in over 100 dropbacks, and a Total QBR that ranks second in the country.
Jones never seemed to get the credit he deserved for his performance last fall. He started four games in place of the injured Tagovailoa and produced stats that were directly in line with what Tagovailoa produced in 2018 as a first-time starter. He had a passer rating better than Burrow's against Auburn and Ohio State's Justin Fields' against Michigan.
Jones really made only two rookie-level mistakes last fall, but both were punished severely -- he threw two pick-sixes against Auburn that potentially kept the Tide out of the College Football Playoff.
Many in both the recruiting and fan communities thought incoming blue-chipper Bryce Young had a good shot at overtaking Jones as starter, and while the coronavirus-related loss of spring practice likely cost Young any chance of that, Jones had shown no inkling of giving up his job, either. Compared to Tagovailoa, Jones threw more easy passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2019 and thrived on passes 11-plus yards downfield (18.3 yards per pass). He had a bit of a blind spot on the shorter, more timing-based passes, completing just 59% of throws between zero and 10 yards downfield with a 26.1 QBR.
Mac Jones' 2020 QBR grid. Like a puzzle with one missing piece.— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 13, 2020
(He's 3-for-7 for 42 yards in that 27.8 box. You can live with that when you're also 9-for-12 for 443 yards throwing 20+ yards downfield.) pic.twitter.com/CixlgbAl0Z
The shorter passes are still a bit of a blind spot, especially when throwing to his right -- a problem for a lot of right-handed QBs. But who needs intermediate throws when you're hitting short passes for quick, easy yards (33% of Bama's passes have been to or behind the line of scrimmage, seventh-most in the country) and you're throwing the prettiest, most effective deep ball in the game? On passes 11-plus yards downfield, Jones is 26-for-36 for 760 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. That's downright unfair.
On what Sports Info Solutions defines as "inside rushes," Alabama ranks a distant first in FBS in success rate (64%) and sixth in yards per carry (6.5). The 230-pound Harris has always been a load to bring down, and now he's getting a running start -- among running backs with at least 50 rushes, Harris is both eighth in yards per carry before contact (3.1) and third in yards per carry after contact (3.6). He's never going to be the most explosive back in the world, but he was a man possessed last week against Ole Miss. With the Bama defense struggling to make stops and the Ole Miss defense wearing down, the Tide leaned on Harris. In the second half, he rushed 12 times for 160 yards and added a 24-yard reception.
Sarkisian has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and he has called some perfect games so far. Alabama is first in points scored per drive, first in success rate (second in rushing, first in passing), fourth in marginal explosiveness (a measure of the magnitude of your successful plays, adjusted for field position), sixth in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40 or touchdowns from outside the 40) and even fourth in sack rate.
What unsuccessful Bama drives look like
With Jones at quarterback, Alabama has gone scoreless on only seven drives in three games. One involved a fumble at the opponent's 1-yard line.
Of the other six scoreless possessions, four were three-and-outs, squashed before momentum could build, and a fifth came from an interception thrown on third-and-10. Alabama's long-ball ability has distracted us from the fact that the Tide can be pushed into third-and-long situations, especially at the beginning of a drive.
The Tide have gone three-and-out on 19% of their drives so far -- not bad by any means, but 14th in FBS (as opposed to all those categories for which they're in the top five), and 45% of their third downs have involved seven or more yards to go (23rd). This is what constitutes a weakness for such a great offense, but it's one that Georgia could theoretically take advantage of.
What happens when a nearly perfect offense faces a nearly perfect defense?
Against Georgia's top-ranked defense last year, LSU scored 37 points and averaged 6.5 yards per play. Those are excellent totals, but LSU averaged 48.4 points per game and 7.9 yards per play for the season -- the Dawgs held the Tigers far below their otherworldly season averages, and they might have fared even better had the game state not gotten away from them.
Georgia had forced three-and-outs on two of LSU's first four possessions, but the Bulldogs' offense drove more than 21 yards only once in its first five drives, and the score was 14-0 LSU after the first quarter. Things snowballed in the second half as the Georgia defense was forced to take more risks, but it still performed better than almost anyone else against that devastating Tigers attack.
Here are the biggest questions I have regarding whether Bama's amazing offense or Georgia's amazing defense end up deriving more advantages:
1. Is Najee Harris gaining 2-3 yards or 4-5? One of the most telling things to watch early in any game is who is getting a push up front. We know Harris is excellent at generating yards after contact, but when is that contact showing up? At the line of scrimmage? A couple of yards downfield? Georgia's defensive line has been immovable so far, but the Bama O-line is pretty fantastic, too. How Harris fares early might say a lot about how Bama fares late.
2a. What happens on third-and-long? The Bama offense stays on schedule well and starts bombing the ball downfield when it's behind the chains. It has worked beautifully so far and should work against most of the teams on the schedule. But if any defense can prevent those vertical looks, both with the pressure it can create and with the talent it has in the secondary, it's Georgia's.
2b. What happens when Jones gets pressured? Despite waiting in the pocket to get receivers open deep, he hasn't faced a ton of pressure this year, and while he also made some incredible throws under duress last season, by far his worst moment of 2019 was the goal line interception he threw against Auburn -- he faced immediate pressure, made a panic throw to Harris (who wasn't looking) and Zakoby McClain plucked it off of Harris' back and took it the length of the field for a TD. Tennessee's Guarantano looked pretty good until Ojulari and company got a hold of him last week. Does Jones make a few bad decisions? Does Georgia punish him for them?
3. What do we know about Will Reichard? Alabama's place kicker hasn't been asked to do much yet. He has made all 21 of his PAT attempts, but he has tried only two garbage-time field goals (a 34-yarder against Missouri and a 27-yarder against Texas A&M), and he was just 4-for-7 on FG tries last year. Place-kicking mishaps have beset Saban's Tide on many occasions through the years, even in 2017's national title game against Georgia -- Andy Pappanastos missed a 36-yarder at the buzzer, which sent the game to OT and set the table for Tua-to-DeVonta. It's fair to assume Georgia will stop a few scoring chances short of the end zone, and it's fair to wonder if Reichard is ready for a moment that has tripped up many a Bama kicker.
What did Ole Miss do to Bama (and how much of it can Georgia do)?
Just about the sexiest matchup in college football will take place whenever Alabama has the ball, but Georgia's obviously going to have half of the game's possessions as well, and the Bulldogs are taking on a defense that is coming off maybe the worst game of Saban's head-coaching career.
Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss offense put up 689 yards and 48 points on the Crimson Tide, numbers that could have been even worse if not for a couple of late red zone stops. Matt Corral threw for 365 yards on 28 passes -- the performance placed him atop the Total QBR list, just ahead of Jones -- and Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy rushed 40 times for 248 yards and four scores.
Having to survive at least one crazy track meet is becoming part of a national champion's journey at this point, but while Alabama's defense was first in defensive SP+ six times in nine years between 2009 and '17, it's an awfully mortal 22nd right now. The Tide were occasionally vulnerable against both Texas A&M and Missouri, but the defense was so definitively beaten last week that it's worth exploring what Ole Miss did that was so devastating ... and how much of it Georgia can imitate.
The offense Kiffin and Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby currently field is a wicked combination of Kiffin's own pass principles, UCF-level tempo (Lebby was UCF's offensive coordinator before going to Oxford), and the extreme spread principles Lebby learned from the Art Briles coaching tree. In Corral, they have a rifle-armed former blue-chipper who can quickly wing the ball from sideline to sideline, and they smartly offer a lot of motion, eye candy and screens that force defenses to mind every inch of the field and open up large spaces into which receivers can run.
Ignoring the assertions of Ole Miss knowing Bama's signals and whatnot, it's fair to assume the Rebels have one of the best and most dynamic offenses in the country and that, even in Bama's vulnerable state, most teams won't be able to do Ole Miss-level damage. But new Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken has done some interesting things to open up the space over the middle that Corral bludgeoned Bama with last week.
Matt Corral's pass plot against Alabama:
The middle of the field is an area ripe for run-after-catch opportunities, and with Alabama stretched thin and having to mind so many different options, Corral completed 10 passes downfield and between the hash marks; four of them produced at least 11 yards after catch, and two produced 40-plus.
Georgia has still shown a similar preference to manipulate the middle of the field, as discussed by Richard Johnson and Brandon Boykin on the SEC Network's "Thinking Out Loud."
On Saturday, Georgia will probably try formation manipulation to rip off chunk plays. @BrandonBoykin2 shows you how dangerous the Dawgs can be with speed in space. I show you how Ole Miss created space against Bama.— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) October 13, 2020
Peep the R&B Breakdown 👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/u7L3GHgScQ
The Dawgs do not tend to spread defenses out formationally like Kiffin and Lebby do, UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett doesn't have Corral's rocket-powered arm and Smart definitely doesn't endorse Lebby-level tempo. You still see plenty of Smart's defense-first tendencies when it comes to run rates (Georgia runs about 3 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs, five on passing downs) and the occasional third-and-long draw play. One figures the main thing Smart likes about Bennett -- a former walk-on who has taken control of the job over former blue-chippers JT Daniels and D'Wan Mathis -- is not his play-making ability so much as his ability to avoid screw-ups. Smart is infinitely more risk-averse than Kiffin, and when you've got the defense he has, that makes sense. Bama should be able to crowd the box more than it could against Ole Miss.
If that space over the middle of the field becomes available, however, Georgia will try to take advantage.
Stetson Bennett's 2020 pass plot:
Among the 11 completions in that center circle, four generated at least 10 yards after catch. You can see that Smart and Monken aren't asking Bennett to do major damage with the deep ball, and Georgia's short passing game has not been nearly as dangerous as Ole Miss' -- on passes thrown behind the first-down sticks, Ole Miss has a 62% success rate to Georgia's 37%. But if you manipulate the field just well enough horizontally, you might be able to create chunk plays in another way.
Georgia's ability to create gashes through the air will be key because it's hard to see the Dawgs doing it on the ground -- they rank 68th in rushing marginal explosiveness. Alabama's defense might be shakier than usual, but it's still going to be hard for Georgia to drive the length of the field 4 or 5 yards at a time. If UGA can't create field position advantages via special teams or turnovers, it will have to create some big gains.
Saban's absence will create an odd aura, but this is still Alabama-Georgia, and it's impossible to think about these two teams playing without two thoughts bubbling to the surface:
1. These teams should play far more often than they do. Their three postseason battles in the 2010s (2012, 2017, 2018) were among the most memorable games of the decade, but they've played only once in the regular season since 2008. That's a massive disservice and a reminder that we should have ditched divisions a long time ago.
2. How is Georgia going to figure out how to lose this one? Granted, this thought has been reserved mostly for Georgia fans tortured by the way the Dawgs managed to come so achingly close to a national title, or at least a shot at one, in 2012, 2017 and 2018. (They were turned away by the Tide each time.) This rivalry has taken on an existential, almost literary quality with Georgia hiring Saban's right-hand man but still struggling to get past Bama.
This might not be the only time these teams meet in 2020 -- they are favorites to win their respective divisions, after all -- but one way or another, this is the next chapter in the Saban-Smart book, even without Saban.
SP+ projects a 28-24 Alabama win, which fits pretty well with the teams' past two meetings (26-23 and 35-28 Tide victories), but the possibilities are endless. The Dawgs could dictate an old-school defense-and-field-position slog, or the pure offensive talent on display could drag these defenses into a track meet a la last year's Bama-LSU game (46-41 LSU) or the 2015 CFP title game with Clemson (45-40 Bama). What have these coaching staffs kept close to the vest so far? What might they still keep close to the vest for a possible December sequel? We'll find out.
Week 7 playlist
Here are 10 weekend games -- at least one from each time slot -- you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both informational and entertainment perspectives:
All times Eastern.
No. 17 SMU at Tulane (6 p.m., ESPN). SMU will be without star receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and starting RB TJ McDaniel the rest of the season, but the Mustangs are still unbeaten and dangerous. Tulane, meanwhile, is the streakiest team of 2020 so far. The Green Wave are capable of just about anything.
No. 14 BYU at Houston (9:30 p.m., ESPN). Houston looked tremendous in its long-awaited season debut, a 49-31 stomping of Tulane, while BYU is coming off of its shakiest performance of the season by far. Which set of Cougars still has big goals and an unbeaten record on Saturday morning?
No. 1 Clemson at Georgia Tech (noon, ABC). Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins will likely throw the kitchen sink at Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense. It probably won't work, but it should be a pretty interesting challenge for the Tigers.
Pitt at No. 13 Miami (noon, ACC Network). Miami's blowout loss to Clemson had as much as anything to do with Clemson looking amazing, but the Hurricanes have to avoid a double letdown and take care of business against a Pitt team that is flaky, but still dangerous.
Kentucky at No. 18 Tennessee (noon, SEC Network). If Georgia loses on Saturday, the winner of this one would be tied for the lead in the SEC East. Kentucky holds the advantage on the ground, Tennessee through the air.
Louisville at No. 4 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC). Louisville is a disappointing 1-3, but the Cardinals are still capable of major explosions in the run game, and an efficient Notre Dame defense has been prone to the occasional big-play lapse.
UCF at Memphis (3:30 p.m., ABC). Each of these AAC rivals' past three head-to-head games have been down-to-the-wire thrillers, and SP+ basically projects a tie (UCF by 0.1). What more could you hope for on the Georgia-Bama undercard?
No. 5 North Carolina at Florida State (7:30 p.m., ABC). This is UNC's first game as a top-five team since a loss to FSU in 1997, and the Heels are coming off a statement win over Virginia Tech. Twenty-three years isn't too long to right a wrong, right?
No. 3 Georgia at No. 2 Alabama (8:00 p.m., CBS). But you already knew that.