Is Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide for the national championship, as billed, or for regional bragging rights? For the last three seasons, the two have been one and the same.
Last year’s CFP championship game between Alabama and Clemson was a rematch of the 2015 final. Those two schools are 326 miles apart. This year’s combatants are only 273 miles apart and hail from the same football-crazed corner of the country and the same powerhouse league: the vaunted Southeastern Conference. Serendipitously, Monday game will be played at Atlanta’s brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium before an audience including the president of the United States. No area of the country cares more about college football or has enjoyed more success in it than the deep south. But does the region dominate because they care more ... or do they care more because they are so dominant?
Probably a little bit of both. In 2016, the SEC unveiled “It Just Means More” as its new slogan and it was stroke of marketing genius, encapsulating in four words what had been undeniably true of the region’s feelings on college athletics for decades. America’s cultural obsession with sports has been well-documented for over a century, but one must keep in mind that professional sports is a relatively new phenomenon in the south. The Atlanta Braves of baseball’s National League, the first top-flight professional sports team in the region, didn’t throw their first pitch after re-locating from Milwaukee until April 1966. The gridiron came next with the Atlanta Falcons beginning operations in the fall of that year and the New Orleans Saints arriving in 1967.
Thus the region’s fans have historically treated their college teams with the primacy afforded to professional franchises just about anywhere else. And these fans are fervent. States like Kentucky and North Carolina adopted basketball as their sport of choice, but for the rest of the deep south, the gridiron was and remains king. Alabama claims to have won 18 national championships with the first coming in 1925. Georgia’s first claimed title would come two years later in 1927. Southern football’s dominance has been solidified over the past two decades. Over the last 20 years, Alabama has won five national championships, but conference mates Florida (two), Louisiana State (two), Tennessee and Auburn (one apiece) have also won titles. Southern schools Florida State (two) and Clemson (one, last year) have also raised banners since the unified national championship system known as the Bowl Championship Series started in 1998.
But the question remains as to whether this kind of regional dominance is good for the sport at large. Television ratings do not measure the fervor of the those watching, but the fact remains that the highest rated championship in the playoff era was the first one three years ago, when Ohio State topped Oregon, neither of whom are south-eastern schools. The highest rated title game from the BCS era, which ran from 1998-2013, was the legendary 2005 Rose Bowl game between Texas and USC, also schools from outside the region. With Alabama coach Nick Saban probably the only household name featured in this title game, it would not be surprising to see ratings dip again.
But it should be a good one.
Despite being in the same conference, this will be the first meeting between the two teams this season. Alabama smothered top-ranked Clemson on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl, while Georgia roared back from a 17-point deficit to nip Oklahoma in overtime in the Rose Bowl.
On offense, Georgia relies heavily on its running game. In the win over Oklahoma, the Bulldogs’ running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb combined for 326 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. For the season, both Michel and Chubb have tallied over 1,000 yards individually and both seniors are expected to be high draft picks in April’s NFL Draft.
But it’s the passing game that has improved greatly for the Bulldogs over the course of the season. Freshman Jake Fromm took over the reins from incumbent starter Jacob Eason after Eason was injured in season opener against Appalachian State. Eason is healthy again, but has not been able to regain his starting spot from Fromm, who threw for 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions this season. Fromm is more steady than he is electric, as he only threw for 300 yards once this season. But he was pivotal in the win against Oklahoma, throwing for two scores while not turning the ball over. If Georgia is to pull the upset – Alabama has been installed as a 4½-point favorite – Fromm is going to have to play as well as he did against the Sooners.
Fromm is a Georgia kid, as are most of the kids on the Georgia roster. Alabama, through Saban’s dominance over the past decade, recruits nationally. And their best player, the cornerback and New Jersey product Minkah Fitzpatrick, is a key cog in a defense that leads the nation in total yards allowed. (The Tide defense was also tops in the land last season.) Alabama features the best rushing defense in the country, but they have yet to face a duo as prolific as Michel and Chubb. If Georgia is able to move the ball on the ground, it could be long night for the Tide, as on offense, they are a little bit of a mess.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts is a dynamic athlete who can make big plays with his legs. But Alabama has not had to rely on him throw the ball at all this year. He has only 246 passing attempts all seasons. By comparison, Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Baker Mayfield completed 39 more passes than Hurts attempted all year. Georgia’s defense allowed the fifth fewest points on the year (Alabama was first here as well), but they were second in the country before Oklahoma put up 48 points on the Bulldogs in Pasadena. Alabama’s offense is nowhere near as prolific as that of the Sooners.
The game’s location in Atlanta and Georgia’s running backs give the edge to the Bulldogs. Georgia is coached by Kirby Smart, a Saban protégé, so neither side should be able to outwit the other. The stinginess of the two defenses would lead one to expect a defensive struggle, but in the three CFP championship games thus far, the winner has scored at least 35 points. Take Georgia and the over.