Behind Enemy Lines: The Red and Black’s Michael Herbert’s breaks down SEC Championship

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Behind Enemy Lines: The Red and Black’s Michael Herbert’s breaks down SEC Championship

Courtesy of Michael Herbert

Courtesy of Michael Herbert

Courtesy of Michael Herbert

Courtesy of Michael Herbert

Ben Stansell, Assistant Sports Editor

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No. 1 Alabama travels to Atlanta to play Georgia in the SEC Championship. The last time the two teams matched up was in the same building they will be playing in on Saturday. Georgia’s head coach Kirby Smart was  coach Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator for nine of Saban’s 12 years at Alabama, so there are some similarities between the two teams. Ben Stansell caught up with the Red and Black’s Michael Hebert, its assistant sports editor, for an in depth look at the Bulldogs.

Q: What former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart has been able to build at Georgia is remarkable. Can you explain the magnitude of what he has accomplished in his short time in Athens?

A: I think one of the biggest things Smart has brought to Georgia is his ability as an excellent recruiter. His first season with the Bulldogs probably wasn’t exactly what he expected it to be, but since a lot of seniors returned for his second season, he was able to establish a culture, or how he puts it — “a standard” that he wants Georgia to live up to. That, coupled with bringing in a lot of talented recruits, has really allowed Georgia to have a lot of success so far, and most people seem to think it will continue.

Q:Alabama has appeared almost flawless this season. But what areas of the Crimson Tide’s team do you think Georgia will try to exploit?

A: Yeah, this is a pretty tough question and something I’ve thought about a lot after watching Alabama this season. I really think, and this might sound familiar to people that follow Alabama, that you have to be aggressive in special teams against the Crimson Tide. That’s clearly an area where Alabama struggles the most, and I think Georgia has been excellent in that area for most, if not all of this season, save a few errors. Georgia has an excellent kicker in Rodrigo Blankenship, and he will be key not just with field goals but kickoffs as well. I think if you can force Alabama to punt, which isn’t easy, the Bulldogs have to make plays in the return game. On offense, I think Georgia’s receivers are going to have make plays. There are a few times this seasons where Alabama has had a few busted coverages on defense, and if that happens again, Georgia is going to have to take full advantage.

Q: Georgia’s Deandre Baker is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Do you expect him to be assigned to Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, or will he square off against all of Alabama’s receivers?

A: This is is a good question that is often brought up most weeks when the team Georgia is playing has an elite receiver. I wouldn’t say that Deandre Baker is going to be specifically assigned to cover Jeudy, mainly because he usually covers one half of the field. I think it really just depends on what kind of coverage Georgia plays. It’s certainly a tough task to cover all of the skill players Alabama has on offense, but I think the defensive backfield has really improved, especially since redshirt freshman Eric Stoke was inserted into the lineup at the cornerback spot opposite of Baker.

Q: Georgia is second to last in the SEC in sacks with 20. How important will it be for the Bulldogs to buck that trend and put pressure on Tua?

A: That’s a good point, and we’ve asked Smart and the players about the fact they don’t have many sacks this season. They think its based off of the way teams play offense against the Bulldogs, but I certainly think its something to note. There are two seniors that have to really lead the charge in this area in my opinion. One is outside linebacker D’Andre Walker and the other is defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. Those two guys will have to get pressure on Tua and others have to follow suit. Georgia doesn’t have a linebacker like Roquan Smith that was excellent in his ability to blitz. There are guys that are capable, but I really think its up to the front four, they will have to be creative in how they get past the talented offensive line Alabama has, and they will have to be discipline in containing Tua, because he definitely can run.

Q: Georgia has two running backs in D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield who have accumulated over 800 yards. Do you expect the Bulldogs to find success on the ground against Alabama?

A: I certainly think Georgia and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will try to establish the run against Alabama, but the question is how much success they’ll have doing it. D’Andre Swift is a guy who was struggling with injuries early on in the season and in the last couple of games he seems to be healthier, and he’s really playing at a high level. Elijah Holyfield is a hard-nosed runner that has been able to get tough yards all season. I certainly think that Alabama’s defensive line, led by Quinnen Williams, will have success stopping Georgia on offense, so I think Chaney will have to be creative in how he gets his playmakers the ball. Who knows what that could be, but Georgia has had success running the football when putting freshman Justin Fields in the game, I don’t know whether or not that will be the case Saturday, but it could be an option.

Q: Georgia will defeat Alabama and claim the SEC Championship if . . . ?

A: Georgia has to limit the explosive plays from Alabama’s offense. Tua Tagovailoa is going to make his throws and he’s going to find open receivers, but teams often get beat so early in the game against Alabama’s offense because they allow receivers like Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devonta Smith and even tight end Irv Smith to make plays after the catch, often times because they don’t press the receivers on the line. I think Georgia is going to have to be aggressive on defense, but not too aggressive. The Bulldogs will have to get pressure with their front four, which will not be easy due to the talent of the Alabama offensive line. Turnovers will also be key, Georgia will have to make Tagovailoa uncomfortable and force bad throws and be aggressive with takeaways. On offense, Georgia has to create explosive plays on its own, but it also has to have success moving the ball in long, methodical drives in hopes of keeping Alabama’s offense off the field.

Q: What is your score prediction and how did you formulate it?

A: I’d have to go with Alabama to win, 27-20. There might not be another coach in college football that knows Alabama like Kirby Smart does, and that’s obvious. I really think this game will be close for four quarters, something Alabama hasn’t faced all year. Despite what they tell the media, these Georgia players want to avenge the loss from the national championship. With that being the case, I feel like they will play really solid football on defense, and the offense will find success. That being said, this game is not so much about Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart, its more about Tua Tagovailoa vs. Jake Fromm. Which quarterback can make plays down the stretch to put his team in a position to win the game? I think it will be close because Fromm is playing some of the best football of his career right now, but Tua is just that good, he wins it late, along with the Heisman trophy, and Alabama moves on.