I have no idea what America as a whole is going to think of tonight's college football national championship game, but if I'm concocting the perfect football LIVE EVENT for January 8 in Atlanta, Georgia, I don't know that I could come up with anything better than Georgia versus Alabama for the college football title of the 2017 season.
The two teams haven't played each other this season, so it's not a rematch of any sort. The head coach of Georgia spent more than a decade apprenticing at the hand of the head coach of Alabama, so we have a "teacher versus pupil" storyline. The game is basically driving distance for both rabid fan bases, so virtually no travel costs means the price of tickets STARTS at $1,500 for nose bleed seats.
If you're a true college football fan, it should be incredible. If you're sick of the SEC, it will feel like you're tied to your chair and being tortured with a propaganda video. In other words, I'm in! (Because I'm a true college football fan, not because I like torturing myself.) For what it's worth, I'm very skeptical the non-SEC part of America shares my enthusiasm, as there doesn't feel like a ton of nationwide buzz for this game. (More on that in a minute.)
Let's look at a few things to watch for tonight....
4. Chubb and Michel, LLC
The biggest upgrade in competition level for any unit involved in this game will be Georgia's running game now going against a Nick Saban-coached defense after slicing through Oklahoma's butter-soft run defense for 317 yards on 34 carries (9.3 yards per carry) in the Rose Bowl. Sony Michel (11 carries, 181 yards) and Nick Chubb (14 carries, 145 yards) were a two-headed diesel engine in that semifinal, which allowed freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to be just efficient enough (20-29, 210 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) to move the ball through the air, when necessary. Nobody is expecting nine yards a carry against Alabama obviously, but Michel and Chubb (and the Georgia offensive line) need to be efficient enough running the ball to keep play-action in the game plan for Fromm. Clemson got swallowed by Alabama's defense because there was zero threat of Tiger QB Kelly Bryant passing the football for anything beyond a dump pass. Georgia has to have the THREAT of their whole playbook available, and the key to that rests in the legs of Chubb and Michel.
3. Hurts in the pocket
On the other side of the football, things should be easier for the Georgia defense than they were on New Year's Day against the Sooners. After chasing Baker Mayfield around and trying to find a way to counter his darts down field (at least until overtime, when OU head coach Lincoln Riley inexplicably took the ball out of Mayfield's hands), the Alabama offense poses a much poorer man's version of a similar challenge. Where Jalen Hurts does the most damage is when plays break down and he can beat you with his legs. His only real threat in the passing game is future first round pick Calvin Ridley down the field. Hurts has been really good at protecting the football this season (17 TD, 1 INT), and the running game features a stable of every type of back (Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, to name a couple), so Alabama has weapons. The 24-6 final score of the semifinal, though, masked just how much the Crimson Tide struggled offensively in that game. Hell, they struggled late in the season against Auburn, as well. If Georgia can keep Hurts in the pocket and win on first and second down, it's going to be awfully hard for Alabama to generate offense. There won't be any 10 or 12 play drives against this Georgia defense, which is led by.....
2. Roquan Smith
If you're looking to spotlight one player to keep an eye on in this game (because for the first time in three postseasons, there is no Deshaun Watson to watch), make it the Georgia Bulldogs' defensive heart and soul and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith was fantastic all season long, and is a likely high draft pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Smith was outstanding in the semifinal against Oklahoma, including a gigantic tackle on 3rd and 2 in the first overtime to force a field goal attempt. He can pretty much do anything — go sideline to sideline, cover, play in a 4-3 or a 3-4 — and it should be fun watching where he fits in the game plan to contain Hurts' running the football, if they have him spy on Hurts a little bit in certain situations.
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1. TV ratings
While the geographic ties between these two teams and the venue for the game should make for an incredible spectacle live in the stadium, it will be interesting to see how it resonates with America on television. If you're an advocate of the eight team playoff format (and there are millions of you out there, I know it), the best thing you could do (especially if you have a Nielsen meter), oddly enough, is NOT watch this game. If the overall ratings are lower on this game, and if key markets show a BIG decrease, then perhaps the powers that be for the playoff go into a reevaluation mode and begin to entertain an expanded format, less likely to yield such a geographic proximity in the finals. To be clear, if and when the day comes where this thing goes from four to eight teams, it won't be because of any ONE thing. However, if there is the inkling that this four team format is somehow slightly broken, then at least the door gets cracked for an eight team playoff.
I do think this one will be a true "slobber knocker," as my friend WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross would say. Lots of hitting, a tight defensive struggle, perhaps decided by a play on special teams in the return game, which favors Georgia, by the way.
SPREAD: Alabama -4
PREDICTION: Georgia 20, Alabama 19
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.