Alabama, Georgia brace for bruising national-title battle

By David Wharton | Los Angeles Times

This is the type of football game that Alabama wants.

“Grimy, hard,” linebacker Rashaan Evans says. “Physical, violent.”

This is the type of football game the Crimson Tide defense feels it was built for.

“We always try to out-physical our opponents,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “Get to the ball, make plays.”

When Alabama faces Georgia for the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday night, pretty much everyone expects the outcome to be determined by a simple equation.

Georgia likes to run the ball with the historic tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Alabama excels at stopping the run.

“We’re trying to be Georgia, and they’re trying to be Alabama,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart says. “That’s the bottom line.”

This all-Southeastern Conference matchup might not play particularly well on the West Coast or in the north, but there will be a number of intriguing elements during the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

These teams fought their way through a season marked by weekly upsets and a constant reshuffling in the national rankings.

Georgia climbed from a No. 15 start in The Associated Press poll, dropped an early November game at Auburn, then fought back to earn the third seeding in the CFP bracket.
A double-overtime victory over second-seeded Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl now gives this tradition-bound program a chance to end a long dry spell with its first national title since 1980.

“It would by huge,” said quarterback Jake Fromm, who grew up just down the road from the stadium. “Something you dream about as a little kid.”
Back in summer, Alabama seemed a more-probable candidate to reach this stage, starting the season at No. 1 and remaining there until a loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale.

The defeat kept the Crimson Tide out of the SEC title game and stirred a national debate when the CFP selection committee ultimately chose them ahead of Big Ten champion Ohio State.

The uproar quieted when Alabama manhandled top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

Now coach Nick Saban’s team has a chance to avenge last season’s championship game loss and put him in the company of Bear Bryant with a record-tying six career titles.

“It’s crazy, because people speak of Bear Bryant like he’s a _ well, he is a legend,” Fitzpatrick said.

Alabama has more than defense in its arsenal. Quarterback Jalen Hurts returns as a mobile sophomore who can change games with his legs but also shows better decision-making when he throws the ball.

His 158 passing yards per game augments a rushing attack that ranks 10th in the nation with an average of 255.8 yards.

“It starts with their offensive line,” Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “They’re big, they’re physical, they’re tough, they’re very, very well coached.”

Georgia’s defense is no slouch, ranking sixth in the nation. But this week, most of the attention has focused on the matchup between the Bulldogs’ tailbacks and the Alabama defense.

Chubb and Michel have now combined for 8,259 career yards, making them the most prolific backfield duo in NCAA history. When they get rolling, it opens things up for Fromm.

“He does a really good job of getting the ball out to his playmakers,” Fitzpatrick said. “They do a whole lot of play-action passes, trying to set you up.”

The Bulldogs found that comfort zone against Oklahoma, rushing on more than half of their plays but throwing at key moments. Fromm was able to manage the game as his running backs broke four long touchdown runs.

But that was against a Big 12 team _ all season long, people wondered about the defense played in that conference. Georgia will face a very different challenge on Monday.
Alabama ranks No. 1 in a slew of statistical categories. Much of the credit goes to the front seven, which has overcome a string of injuries among the linebackers.

“They can create pressure up front … so you’ve got to get the ball out of your hand pretty quick,” Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “It’s difficult to throw the ball downfield.”

Two players on the opposing defense stand out to Chaney, starting with nose guard Da’Ron Payne, who exhibits unusual agility for his position and even caught a touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl last week.

Fitzpatrick is the other guy that Georgia worries about, especially when he blitzes.

“You’d better have someone account for him all of the time,” Chaney said. “Just don’t let him be the wrecking ball.”

If Alabama can stop the run, the onus will shift to Fromm, a freshman who is getting his first taste of the big stage. And there’s one more thing about the Crimson Tide defense.

A last-second loss in last season’s title game still weighs on the players’ minds. So does the notion that Ohio State deserved to be in the final four instead of them.
Alabama is looking for revenge.

“We know what we’re playing for and we know what’s at stake,” Fitzpatrick said. “So we’re all locked in and ready to go.”

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