By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
College Bowl Recap
The SEC’s performance during bowl season overall was less than ideal, but the conference’s bowl record will be the last thing anyone talks about heading into Monday’s national championship game. For the second time since 2011, the national title game will be an all-SEC affair as Georgia takes on Alabama. The location couldn’t be any better for the league, as the two powers will square off in Atlanta.
Georgia won the SEC Championship in the same stadium in Atlanta last month against Auburn, and Georgia head coach and former UA defensive coordinator Kirby Smart must take down his former boss, Nick Saban, to bring home the program’s first national title since 1980.
The Bulldogs advanced to the title game after quite possibly the best Rose Bowl in history. Georgia defeated Oklahoma, 54-48, in double overtime despite trailing by 17 points late in the second quarter. Sony Michel rushed 11 times for 181 yards and three touchdowns, while Nick Chubb carried the ball 14 times for 145 yards and two scores. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm tossed two touchdowns and threw for 210 yards as the Bulldogs shredded the Oklahoma defense.
Oklahoma’s offense had its way with Georgia’s defense in the first half as it carried a 31-17 lead into halftime. But Kirby Smart made the right adjustments at halftime, and the Oklahoma offense only scored one touchdown in the second half. The Georgia defense didn’t allow a touchdown in either overtime, and a blocked field goal in the second overtime helped clinch the game.
In the other semifinal, Alabama met Clemson for the third straight season with a championship at stake, and the Crimson Tide avenged last year’s loss in the championship game. Alabama shut down the Clemson offense en route to a 24-6 victory, and the Tide defense dominated the entire game.
Alabama only gained 261 yards of offense but held Clemson to 188 yards, most of which came on the Tigers’ final drive when the game was out of hand. Jalen Hurts threw for 120 yards and two touchdowns and Damien Harris carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards.
The player of the game for Alabama was defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. Clemson trailed 10-6 in the third quarter and was driving to possibly take the lead when Payne intercepted a pass and returned the ball into Tiger territory. A few players later, Payne entered the game on offense on the goal line to presumably block, but instead he caught a one-yard touchdown from Hurts to give the Tide a 17-6 lead.
Mack Wilson intercepted Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant on the ensuing drive, and the Tide cruised to a 24-6 win to advance to the championship game for the third straight season.
The non-playoff games didn’t go so well for the SEC. Auburn was upset by undefeated Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, with the Knights holding on for a 34-27 win. The Tigers struggled to run the ball, and Kerryon Johnson still didn’t look healthy as he carried the ball 22 times for 71 yards and a touchdown in his final game in an Auburn uniform. Johnson announced a day after the game that he was leaving for the NFL.
Jarrett Stidham threw for 331 yards and a touchdown but he also threw two interceptions and fumbled. Auburn finished the season at 10-4 but the year ended on a sour note as the Tigers lost two straight games.
LSU lost to Notre Dame, 21-17, in the Citrus Bowl and finished the year at 9-4 in Ed Orgeron’s first full season.
Wake Forest beat Texas A&M in a shootout, 55-52, in the Belk Bowl, leaving the Aggies 7-6 on the year.
Kentucky lost to Northwestern, 24-23, after the Wildcats scored late but missed a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead. The Wildcats finished 7-6.
Missouri’s six-game winning streak came to an end in the Texas Bowl as the Wildcats lost to Texas, 33-16. Barry Odom’s team finished 7-6, a successful season considering Missouri started 1-6.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the SEC outside of the playoffs, however. Mississippi State had one of the most surprising bowl wins of any team in knocking off Louisville, 31-27, in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Bulldogs were without quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and head coach Dan Mullen yet they still managed to upset former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals to finish 8-5 on the season.
Will Muschamp’s South Carolina team was the biggest surprise in the SEC this season. The Gamecocks were projected near the bottom of the SEC East Division but Muschamp led the team to a 9-4 record and an upset win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The Wolverines led 19-3 in the second half but the Gamecocks stormed back to beat Michigan, 26-19.
National Championship Preview and Prediction
Season record: 110-41
No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 4 Alabama (-4.5)
When Kirby Smart took over at his alma mater in 2016, he began building the team exactly the way his mentor Nick Saban built Alabama in 2007. It started with recruiting elite defensive players, and Saban helped a create a physical style of football on both sides of the ball.
In Nick Saban’s second year at Alabama, he had the Crimson Tide undefeated entering the SEC title game in what was a de facto semifinal game against Florida. Alabama lost to the Gators but the groundwork was laid for the beginning of a dynasty that has lasted a decade and is still going strong.
In Kirby Smart’s second year, he has the Bulldogs playing for their first national title since 1980. The 2017 team is built exactly the way Saban built Alabama, and Smart has a chance to dethrone his former boss on Monday in Atlanta.
A Georgia win would signify that a new dynasty has begun in Athens. Even if they lose on Monday, the Bulldogs are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future. Smart is bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class for 2018, and the balance of power might be shifting from Tuscaloosa to Athens.
That doesn’t mean Saban is finished just yet at Alabama. Despite not winning the SEC and looking rather pedestrian in the final month of the season, Saban has the Tide playing for another national title. The defense looked as dominant as ever against Clemson, and while the offense still wasn’t sharp, Jalen Hurts and Company made enough plays to advance to another championship game.
When the two SEC teams square off on Monday, it will almost be like they’re looking into the mirror. Both have elite defenses and great running backs. The quarterbacks on each side are closer to being game managers than they are superstars, but each has proven they can make plays when necessary. They’re both excellent on special teams, and they’re both more physical than just about anyone.
The defenses will dictate the flow of the game, and field position will be incredibly important for both teams. Both defensives have a knack for forcing turnovers, and that could be the difference in the game.
The Alabama defense looked as healthy as it’s been all year against Clemson, and Jake Fromm will need to play the game of his life if Georgia is going to score on Monday.
Kirby Smart looks like he’s building the next great dynasty in college football, but Nick Saban’s team will put Smart’s championship aspirations on hold for at least another year as Saban wins his sixth championship as a head coach.
Prediction: Alabama 24, Georgia 17.