ATLANTA — As a college football player, there is nothing more important than having the chance to compete for a national championship.
After all the grueling summer workouts, all of the hot intense practices in the blistering August heat to prepare for the regular season, it all comes down to one opportunity of a lifetime.
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An opportunity that only two teams are blessed to witness in any given season, the chance to play for all the marbles and the bragging rights of being crowned college football champions.
The stage for the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game has been set, a game that could go down as one of the best championships in college football, even beyond the fact that the two teams playing in the game – No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama – represent the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
Despite Georgia going 9-0 before suffering its first blemish of the season in a 40-17 loss to Auburn on Nov. 11, many doubted the Bulldogs’ ability to sustain their success on the field and then bounce back to win the 2017 SEC Championship in Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the same Tigers’ team three weeks later.
Many felt Alabama – a team that would have been playing Georgia in the SEC Championship game had it not suffered a 26-14 loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl – did not deserve a chance to play in a CFP semifinal game on a New Year’s Day.
In typical Alabama fashion and with the help of the CFP selection committee, the Crimson Tide earned a spot. Even more, after Alabama’s 24-6 domination over the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide proved to the college football world that they are still dominant and arguably one of the best four teams in the country.
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“This (Alabama’s win over Clemson), was a little bit personal for us,” said Nick Saban at the conclusion of the Sugar Bowl.
Like with anything in life, there will always be naysayers and doubters, like those who doubted the Bulldogs when they trailed 31-17 at halftime of the Rose Bowl to Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and the explosive Oklahoma Sooners – an offense that produced 360 yards of total offense in the first half. And like the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs showed resiliency through two more quarters and a double-overtime thriller that could not have ended any better than watching Bulldogs running back Sony Michel race up the left sideline for a 27-yard touchdown run to send Georgia to the national championship for the first time in 38 years.
Alabama (12-1) owned The Trilogy and Georgia (13-1) won “The Granddaddy of Them All” in true Rose Bowl fashion. The journey, however, is not over. The fight, the grit and the determination for both teams have been raised to a new level following their CFP semifinal game performances.
“We got to get back to work, it’s not done,” said Bulldogs running back Sony Michel after Bulldogs’ Rose Bowl win. “Now, we go to finish. Let’s just finish this season off right.”
Some will disagree with this year’s all-SEC national championship game, SEC and other college football fans will get the chance to witness what they wanted to see almost a month ago in the SEC title game. The saying of “a delay is not a denial” is the perfect phrase to sum up the idea of trusting the process and looking at the bigger picture, despite the bumps and bruises faced on along the journey of a football season.
For Georgia and Alabama, only days sit between these two teams before they take the final steps of their journey to secure the most prized possession in college football.
Saban and his Crimson Tide enter their sixth national championship game in the last nine years, with Saban having the chance to match coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant’s six national championships.
This year's title game marks the first time the two teams will face each other for a national championship. Alabama leads the all-time series between Georgia 38-25-4, with the Crimson Tide winning the last three games. Georgia and Alabama last played each other in 2015 when the Crimson Tide defeated the Bulldogs 38-10. Before that, the two teams met in the unforgettable 2012 SEC title game in the Georgia Dome where the Bulldogs lost 32-28 in the final seconds of the game.
If Saban plans to win a national championship against Georgia, he will have to outcoach his former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is in his second season as the Bulldogs coach.
For an entire season, Georgia players silenced the critics and proved that this team was different from talented ones in the past. They kept winning, showed resiliency after a loss, won an SEC title and won a thriller in the Rose Bowl.
But now the Bulldogs get the chance to prove on the biggest stage that they can surpass the final hump – beating Saban’s Crimson Tide – to win it all. However, it will not be an easy task.
Georgia enters the national title game ranked 31st in total offense (averaging 440 yards per game) and eighth in rush offense (267) behind the play of star-studded running backs Michel and Nick Chubb as the two combined for 326 yards against the Sooners in the Rose Bowl, putting them at 8,259 career rushing yards, surpassing Eric Dickerson and Craig James’ FBS record.
While most attention goes to the Bulldogs rushing attack, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm –other than facing Auburn in the regular season-- has proven all season that he is ready for spotlight in big-game situations. Fromm, who has thrown for 2,383 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions this season, threw for 210 yards, two touchdowns and completed 69 percent of his passes. His wide receivers – Javon Wims and Terry Godwin – stepped up in the Rose Bowl with clutch receptions and combining for 124 yards.
Offensively, Fromm’s contribution in conjunction with the Bulldogs ground game will be important if Georgia hopes to win the championship. The Bulldogs cannot be one dimensional against an Alabama defense that enters the title game ranked first in total defense (limiting its opponents to 252 yards per game), third in pass defense (161), first in rush defense (92), 26th in third-down conversion percentage defense (.338) and 13th in red zone defense as the Crimson Tide allowed their opponents 22 scores but only 14 of them were touchdowns and only eight of the 14 were on the ground.
Despite Alabama dealing with injuries on defense, one can bet the Crimson Tide will be ready to clog the running lanes against the Bulldogs rushing attack and put lots of pressure on Fromm, similar to how they stopped Clemson, limiting the Tigers to 64 yards on 33 attempts in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson’s dual threat quarterback Kelly Bryant, who threw for 2,678 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions going into the Sugar Bowl, threw for 124 yards, two interceptions and was sacked five times.
Alabama's defense features Chuck Bednarik (defensive player of the year) and Jim Thorpe (best defensive back) safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, linebackers Rashaan Evans, Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings, defensive backs Levi Wallace and Deionte Thompson and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis to name a few. The Crimson Tide, however, will be without Jennings who is recovering from a knee injury.
The Bulldogs 66 yards of rushing against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium showed the college football world what could happen if the run game was their only source of offense. Georgia lost 40-17, and the Bulldogs suffered from self-inflicted wounds like turnovers (1), penalties (7), struggling to convert in third-down situations (3-for-14) and recording only 13 first downs in comparison to Auburn’s 25.
It is clear that Auburn is not Alabama but the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide. Even more, if there is another team in college football that could challenge the Bulldogs rushing attack, it is Alabama.
The Crimson Tide enter Monday’s game ranked 27th in total offense (averaging 450 yards per game) 10th in rush offense (256), 12th in scoring offense (38) and 43rd in red zone offense.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts – who is not the most prolific at the position -- gets the job done for the Crimson Tide, compiling 2,060 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception with his arm and eight rushing touchdowns. Like Georgia, much of Alabama’s offensive production comes through the legs of its running backs and Hurts. Running back Damien Harris has rushed for 983 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Bo Scarbrough has rushed for 573 yards and eight touchdowns. The two backs, along with Hurts, combined for 141 yards on the ground against a solid defensive unit in Clemson.
If this bodes anything for Georgia before Monday night’s championship game, the Bulldogs must be prepared to stop Alabama’s running attack. Although winning consistently, the Bulldogs gave up 104 yards and a touchdown to Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, 94 yards and a touchdown to Kentucky running back Benny Snell and a whopping, unexpected 201 yards and two touchdowns to Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson in the Rose Bowl.
Not to mention, the Bulldogs allowed Oklahoma 531 yards of total offense.
Georgia's defense, one that features linebacker and Dick Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith, linebacker Lorenzo Carter, defensive linemen Trenton Thompson, defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, defensive back J.R. Reed and safety Dominick Sanders to name a few, will need to play their absolute best game when it comes to stopping Alabama’s run game and limiting clutch throws from Hurts down the field.
As a defensive unit, the Bulldogs enter the championship game ranked sixth in total defense (giving up 290 yards of total offense to their opponents), eighth in pass defense (168), 20th in rush defense (122) and tied for 34th in red zone defense (.800).
Those numbers will be tested when the Crimson Tide take the field on offense. The game will come down to whether Alabama stifles Georgia's rushing attack like it has done other teams in the past and this season and whether Georgia can throw the ball and remain resilient when comes in the face of some adversity.
Georgia, which will be playing roughly 70 miles from its campus in Athens, will be the first team to play a national championship game in its home state since LSU played in New Orleans in 2012, when it lost to Alabama. That game also marked the last time two teams from the same conference competed for a national championship.
Can Saban get his sixth ring or will the Bulldogs earn their first in 38 years to start a new chapter of becoming an elite force in the SEC East in the years to come?
Monday’s game will reveal all of the answers. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.
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