(Saturday, 6:45 pm, ESPN)
When Alabama has the ball
The reason these backs are so dangerous is because the offensive line is playing like five bulldozers. Left tackle Andre Smith is a blue chipper if there ever was one and heady center Antoine Caldwell has been a key component on the line for all of his four seasons on campus. This unit has paved the way for the Crimson Tide to roll up 236.8 yards rushing per game (5.9 yards per carry).
They haven’t faced a unit like Georgia yet this year though. The Bulldogs run defense has been outstanding, holding opponents to fewer than 50 yards rushing per game and an average of 2.0 yards per carry. Georgia’s quickness and depth along the defensive line will allow them to make some big stops, but I’ll give Alabama a slight advantage overall here. Although the Georgia D-Line is deep, you can’t lose players like DT Jeff Owens and DE Roderick Battle (both out with injuries) without suffering a little. Plus, Alabama’s running game is PHYSICAL and they’ll beat up on the Georgia line a little bit.
Georgia has a definite advantage when Alabama decides to throw the ball. Personally, I like John Parker Wilson as a quarterback, but he has proven to be inconsistent when you can put pressure on him. Georgia has the tools to bring plenty of heat. The Georgia front seven is one of the fastest and most athletic units in the nation. You’ll hear linebacker Rennie Curran’s name called a lot. The sophomore is by far the leader in tackles on the team (29), and has already posted 3 sacks on this young season. If Wilson has a bad day it will probably be because of Curran. Keep an eye on backup defensive end Justin Houston too. He’s a pass rushing specialist who could play a factor.
Another reason Wilson might have a rough game is because Georgia’s linebackers will make it very difficult to find his safety valve, tight end Nick Walker (team high 12 receptions). Dannell Ellerbe and Darryl Gamble are more than capable of hanging with Walker and taking him out of the game.
That means uber-recruit Julio Jones will need to step up. Jones clearly has all the talent and big play ability in the world, but is he accomplished enough on the intricacies of route running and beating bump coverage at the line to get open and bail Wilson out when he’s in trouble? We’ll find out. Jones will need to play well enough to make Georgia take that extra guy out of the box (and out of Wilson’s grill) in order to double-team him.
When Georgia has the ball
Moreno hasn’t gotten as much help from his blockers as you might think either. The offensive line lost its best player when left tackle Trinton Sturdivant tore up his knee in preseason drills. Mark Richt has been forced to shuffle the lineup every week in an attempt to find the right chemistry. There is plenty of talent, but the line clearly hasn’t gelled yet.
Another missing cog in the blocking scheme was fullback Brannan Southerland. The senior is arguably the best blocking fullback in the nation and he hasn’t played yet this year due to a foot injury. However, his status has been upgraded to probable for this game. Don’t underestimate his presence – Georgia is a much better team with Sutherland in the lineup.
The questions up front mean that “Mount Cody” and his friends on the Alabama defense might be able to wreak some havoc. Junior defensive tackle Terrence Cody is the 365-pound beast in the middle of the defensive line that Nick Saban needs to execute his 3-4 defense to perfection. Cody has done nothing but produce this year, taking up plenty of space in the middle and managing to post 12 tackles, including 3 for loss.
Mount Cody’s play has freed up outside linebackers Brandon Fanney and Cory Reamer to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The duo has combined for 6½ tackles for loss this year. Inside backer Rolando McClain doesn’t need any help to make plays. The sophomore is already one of the best linebackers in the SEC, which automatically puts him near the top of the list nationally. McClain leads the Tide in tackles (29) and will be in charge of containing Knowshon Moreno.
The wildcard here is Matthew Stafford. Stafford has the talent to be the best quarterback in the nation, but he hasn’t quite put it all together yet. He was responsible for the game winning touchdown pass in overtime against Alabama last year though, so he’ll definitely up to the big game challenge more than J.P. Wilson.
Stafford has formed an immediate connection with true freshman wide receiver A.J. Green. While Green doesn’t have quite the raw talent of Bama’s freshman phenom Julio Jones, he has managed to out-produce Jones by a considerable margin so far this year (16 receptions for 300 yards, 2 tds). Green will play a big role in this game. Even if he only notches three receptions, they will all be important plays.
The Alabama secondary is good. Safety Rashad Johnson is the leader of the unit and a certified ball-hawk. You’ll hear his name a lot because he’s always around the ball - whether it’s a run or a pass, Johnson will be there. Kareem Jackson will probably be tasked with keeping up with Green, so that will be a key matchup. Jackson is a solid corner, but he hasn’t faced a receiver with the size and speed of Green yet this year. The other cornerback, Javier Arenas, is a dynamo that is capable of scoring anytime he’s on the field. Arenas has already taken an interception (63 yard return) and a punt (87 yard return) to the end zone this year.
Even against Bama’s solid secondary, I think Georgia will be able to get enough yards through the air to maintain balance offensively.
Georgia will get to Wilson. If he can stay focused in the pocket and make good throws despite the pressure Alabama will have a very good shot at winning.
Even though it appears on first glance that Alabama might have a slight edge in the trenches, Knowshon Moreno is a beast. Moreno flat out knows how to pick up the yards he needs to get to keep drives alive, and with the return of his fullback Brannan Southerland he’ll have even more opportunities to make the big play. Moreno is a fighter and a leader in every sense of the word and he won’t back down Saturday night until he’s led Georgia to victory.
J.Pike’s Pick: Georgia 24, Alabama 20