Thursday, September 25
Release the houndstooth: the Alabama preview.
Hometown: Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Last season: Started a lovely 6-2, then lost a heartbreaker at home to #3 LSU and kind of tanked it from there, finishing the regular season on an 0-4 schneid that included the seppuku-inducing loss to UL-Monroe; salvaged things somewhat with a 30-24 Independence Bowl win over Colorado.
The season thus far: Doing just fine, thanks, clobbering a then-top-10 Clemson team 34-10 in the opener and taking out a trifecta of tomato cans since then. (Yes, Arkansas, you are one of said cans. Don't shoot the messenger.) Currently sitting at #8 in the AP poll, #10 in the coaches'.
Hate index, 1 being Victoria's Secret ads, 10 being those Viagra ads with the insufferable “Viva Viagra” song: Seven, a slight bump up from last year's 6.75. I want to love you, Bama, what with my familial connection and your incredible history and your geographic proximity and whatnot, but dammit, every time I tune in to Finebaum and hear one of you talk about how Saban might be distantly related to Jesus Christ or how an Auburn team that's stolen your lunch money for six straight years is insanely, obsessively jealous of every last little thing about your program, I just want to strangle you, each and every last one of you. Or at least pour some sugar in your gas tank. Please, maintain a little perspective every now and then, and try not to refer to the #3 team in the country as “sitting ducks” in their own stadium, k thx.
Associated hottie: Cristin Duren represented first Alabama and then Florida in the Miss USA pageant, winning fourth runner-up in 2006; a former Alabama cheerleader, she earned her communications degree from UA in 2003, and got name-checked in this 2005 New York Times article about pharmaceutical companies raiding the ranks of ex-college cheerleaders for their sales force. All I can say is it's a good thing that article was written by a woman, because I've been around guys in a newsroom before, and I can just picture a big sweaty group of them going, “Ohh, yeah, dude, let's do an article about cheerleaders who become drug reps and then, like, wear short skirts and flirt with doctors and stuff. Heh-heh. Killer.” We journalists really are that disgusting.
Celebrity preview: Bill O'Reilly's Talking Points Memo discusses the 2008 Crimson Tide here.
What excites me: With the spectacular emergence of A.J. Green as a catch-anything wideout, Georgia will bring as balanced and complete an array of offensive skill talent to Sanford Stadium as they've had in decades. Certainly more complete than anything Alabama has faced this year; theoretically Clemson should've provided a reasonable facsimile of the offensive balance Georgia will bring to the table, but then Tommy Bowden showed why he's Tommy Bowden and gave a grand total of eight carries to C.J. Spiller and James Davis. Knowshon Moreno will have more than that in the first half alone, and if Bama's defensive front succeeds in bottling him up, that's just an excuse to go to A.J. Green through the air. As Todd mentioned in his half of the Georgia-Alabama roundtable earlier today, Alabama's secondary has been susceptible on occasion to missed assignments and/or blown coverages, and given that Matt Stafford is easily the most talented of the QBs the Tide have gone up against this year, that could spell trouble if either Green or Massaquoi are allowed to get open.
On the other side of the ball, Georgia's run defense is currently ranked #3 in the country, having allowed only 183 yards the entire season, at a rate of just under two yards per carry; in their last two games they've allowed only 22 net yards. Alabama will bring to Athens a backfield packed with potential game-breakers, as Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, and Roy Upchurch have all averaged more than six yards a carry this season, but those statistics might be a tad bit inflated by a neverending series of lengthy TD runs hurled against Arkansas's hapless defense. Incidentally, the four run defenses Alabama has faced have been ranked 44th, 16th, 78th, and 94th in D-IA, so while Georgia shouldn't expect to shut down the Alabama attack entirely, they certainly stand a better chance than anyone else has so far this season.
And if they can merely slow down that attack enough, they may be able to force the Tide to rely more heavily on a passing attack that hasn't been asked to do a whole lot the first four games. Bama's offense has been biased toward the run by more than a three-to-two margin (160 rushes to 101 passes), and while John Parker Wilson has been completing passes at a rate of just under 60 percent, his per-game average is only 135.5 yards on 14 completions. Alabama's passing attack currently sits at 106th in the nation, and I don't know how long they can continue to take it that easy on Wilson. He's become well-known for making some dramatically bad decisions under pressure, and if Georgia can pick off one or two of his passes — they didn't get any last year — that'll change the tenor of the ballgame considerably.
Rough game? Awwww, someone needs a hug.
What worries me: Will Georgia be able to get to JPW, though? They took Rudy Carpenter down four times last week, and looked pretty tough doing it, but Alabama's offensive line — currently tied for 38th in the nation in sacks allowed — is going to be the stoutest wall we've faced all year. Obviously, they've also done a pretty good job opening up some Mack-truck-sized running lanes. Georgia's run defense has been dominant against what could charitably be described as a series of lesser rushing attacks, but other than that we've struggled to control the line of scrimmage, and it's not going to get any easier against the Tide.
Bama's front seven, too, has done a pretty good job of controlling the trenches, which is particularly surprising given what a mess their linebacking corps looked like after the departure of two starters and the public embarrassment of the Jimmy Johns situation in the spring. Their run defense isn't far behind Georgia's at #8 in Division I-A (#3 versus #8 — that's an interesting coincidence), and if you're still having acid flashbacks of the way South Carolina contained Knowshon Moreno a few weeks ago, you're not gonna like the fact that Alabama is currently allowing fewer than half the rushing yards per game that the Gamecocks are. Again, Bama's ability to contain Knowshon has a lot to do with how much we force them to respect the passing game, but there's no way 'Shon's going to have an easy day.
Ergghh . . . little too much of the wrong shade of red in this picture.
Of all the players on Alabama's roster, though, the most dangerous might be Javier Arenas, the DB/PR/KR who's averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return (he also has a punt return for a TD against Tulane). It's not exactly a state secret that Georgia's kick coverage has been lacking this season, particularly against KOs; last week, for instance, Georgia's average kickoff resulted in the Sun Devils starting at their own 31. Considering that we have yet to demonstrate a consistent ability to land kickoffs within 10 yards of the end zone, there's an unpleasantly high likelihood that Alabama will be starting a lot of drives closer to the 40 than the 20, and that's not the kind of freebie we need to be handing a team who can expect a nearly six-yard gain every time one of their running backs touches the ball.
Player who needs to step up: C Ben Jones. Howdy, freshman! Welcome to Georgia, in case I haven't had the chance to tell you that yet. Nice job against Arizona State, by the way — couldn't have been easy making your first start in the middle of a freaking desert. Well, guess what: Your reward is another start back home in the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium, where you'll be tasked with defending Matt Stafford's life and limb from . . . Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody, a dreadlocked Denali of a human being who outweighs you by at least 60 pounds (give or take a Big Mac). No joke, he's 6'5”, 370 pounds when his stomach's completely empty; if you're of an age where you can remember Unicron from the “Transformers” cartoon series, you have an idea what this guy looks like and what he's capable of. How about we set some manageable goals for this weekend — just start off with keeping Stafford and Moreno out of the ICU, and we'll go from there.
Another planet consumed whole . . . just another day at the office.
What I think will happen: Am I nervous? Well, yeah. This is the biggest game that's been played at Sanford Stadium in quite a while — only the ninth meeting of top-10 teams between the hedges, as hard as that is to believe — and a prime demonstration of how the tune-up part of Georgia's schedule is well and truly over. Better get as much relaxation in on the bye weeks as you can, people, because literally every team remaining on the slate is an upset risk. And Alabama, thought by most in the preseason to be a good-but-still-not-great team shooting for eight wins and maybe a Peach Bowl, now has every reason to think they can make Georgia a notch on their belt on their way to representing the West Division in the conference-title game. Maybe a few months ago, we were hoping that Alabama would come into this one with a “Let's just play 'em close and set ourselves up for 2009” kind of attitude, but they're way past that now.
Georgia does, however, have an ace in the hole in terms of intangibles in this game, and I'm not talking about the Blackout: It is that Georgia has been battle-tested this season and Alabama hasn't. After a couple of get-the-kinks-out games in weeks 1 and 2, Georgia went on the road and won a major gut-check game against one of the SEC's most experienced defenses in the stifling crucible of Williams-Brice Stadium; the very next week they flew 2,000 miles and dominated a totally unfamiliar opponent in a game where the ambient temperature at kickoff was near the triple digits. Alabama, again, was supposed to get a major early challenge from Clemson in the Georgia Dome, but even Alabama fans are admitting that most of Clemson's roster packed it in before halftime; their only other game away from Tuscaloosa was an admittedly dominant victory over an Arkansas squad that could very well go winless in conference play this year. This isn't meant as a knock on Alabama's toughness — I'm certainly not about to give anybody any “man enough” bulletin-board material — but Georgia has proven they can pull out a crucial win in trying circumstances when the opponent isn't giving them anything for free. As good as Alabama is, I'm just not sure they've done that yet.
I mean, let's be honest with ourselves -- is making Tommy Bowden look silly that hard?
I think that's particularly relevant as it pertains to John Parker Wilson. As Senator Blutarsky explains, given that both teams bring awesome running backs but also smothering run defenses to the table, there's a good chance the running games may "cancel each other out" and create a situation where the passing attacks, not Knowshon Moreno or Glen Coffee, are what win or lose the game. I think even Bama diehards will admit that that kind of situation breaks in Matt Stafford's, and Georgia's, favor. John Parker Wilson has mostly been very efficient and mistake-free through the first four games of 2008, and kudos are due to Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain — JPW's third OC in as many years — for successfully implementing a game plan that plays to Wilson's strengths and doesn't force him to put the entire game on his back. Another way of looking at it, though, is that JPW has been more sheltered from actual challenges than anyone this side of Sarah Palin. (OK, that was uncalled-for political content in a sports post, and I apologize. Don't e-mail me.) Wilson has attempted 94 passes this season, which isn't a shockingly low number, but they've mostly short, low-risk throws — his average yards per attempt (5.77) is more than three yards shorter than Matt Stafford's. Quite simply, he hasn't been asked to do much so far this year, and the Dawg defense needs to ratchet up the pressure a few notches.
That doesn't necessarily mean sacks, something that the Georgia front seven has been only intermittently good at this year. What Georgia needs to do is stack the box, contain the run and the short passing game, and trust their corners to make plays in one-on-one coverage. Alabama's receivers are good, but like their QB, they haven't been asked to do too much — their leading receiver in terms of number of catches is tight end Nick Walker (12 catches for 102 yards), while Julio Jones, the freshman phenom to whom everyone's been comparing A.J. Green all week long, is only averaging 12 yards per catch (compared to Green's 18.8). I know Georgia fans have been antsy about our pass coverage ever since entire geologic eras were taken off the collective life span of Bulldog Nation during the flag-riddled fourth quarter against South Carolina, but for all the cardiac events that took place in that game, it's important to remember that the Gamecocks came out of it with only seven points. Given that Alabama has yet to prove they're substantially superior to USC on either the quarterback or the receiving side of that equation, I think Asher Allen and Bryan Evans should be trusted to make the plays they need to make until further notice.
The last piece of the puzzle, of course, is keeping Matt Stafford upright enough to make that vertical passing game work, and that's probably my biggest worry going into this weekend; I don't think there's any way to avoid putting two guys on Terrence Cody for pretty much the entire night, for example. And I'd be lying if I denied that I'm unnerved by certain aspects of the Alabama-Clemson game, in which Clemson's dirty little secret -- to wit, the weakness of their interior O-line -- was laid bare for all the world to see. I don't think it's unfair to say that Mark Richt is a far better coach than Tommy Bowden, though, and Stacy Searels has done a mind-blowing job of making the best of suboptimal personnel situations in his first 17 games as Georgia's O-line coach. Early last year, for example, we were fairly successful in game-planning around a young and un-gelled offensive line by giving Stafford a lot of quick-release plays, with Knowshon proving himself to be a sneaky receiving threat out of the backfield; we can now add to that Israel Troupe, with whom I think we've only scratched the surface in terms of his playmaking ability, and even Tripp Chandler appeared as though he might be re-learning how to catch passes in Tempe last week.
I can only hope Nick Saban doesn't leave him horribly disfigured in an arson fire, after which point he has a psychotic break, etc. etc. etc. . . .
So what we're looking at, I think, are a couple of slow, deliberate-moving offenses and a lot of field goals, at least in the early going. Maybe Georgia pulls ahead with a long pass play at some point -- I found out this morning that Arkansas actually had more yardage than Alabama at halftime last week, and though he threw three picks, Casey Dick had what was for him a decent game yardage-wise, so there will be deep-ball opportunities if Stafford can spot them. Even if the Stafford-Green hookup does manage one long bomb early, though, I think this one still goes down to the wire, as Alabama is likely to enjoy pretty good field position most of the night and has the kind of power running attack that can keep Georgia's defense on the field and wear them down over time. The seven-point spread, I think, is generous, but if Georgia can carry a lead into the fourth quarter and put Alabama in a position late where John Parker Wilson has to become the hero, then we can come out of this with a very close win in what should be not only the best game of the weekend but one of the most exciting games of the year.
If you're trash-talking: Jean-Georges Therrinault, HJS's official trash-talk sommelier, recommends that you start off with a mild "scoreboard," a reference to Georgia's overtime win last year, followed by robust recollections of the last three games in the series (26-23, 37-23, 27-25, all Georgia wins). Should a Tide fan make the excuse that Nick Saban was the coach for only one of those losses, and it was his first year in Tuscaloosa, progress to a tart, insouciant reminder that Saban had his derriere handed to him in a 45-16 loss the last time he ventured to Sanford Stadium. And if their palates remain unsatisfied by those selections, serve them a bitter 2007 Chateau Louisiana-Monroe and send them on their way.
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: If you're an SEC fan, you should favor any outcome that precludes Alabama fans from talking about how Nick Saban is the second coming of Bear Bryant and how they're going to need to have some extra fingers surgically attached to make room for a 13th national-championship ring, if only for one week. Even if you're outside the SEC, you should want good, kind-hearted, takes-his-players-on-mission-trips-to-Third-World-Countries Mark Richt to rise victorious over evil, surly, makes-secretaries-cry-for-no-reason Nick Saban. This is good-vs.-evil, kids, freedom-vs.-tyranny, Jedi-vs.-the-Empire, it doesn't get much simpler than that -- and just because we're wearing black doesn't mean we're not the good guys.
Figs. (1)-(4): good guys wearing black.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia covers the TD and there's a tribute to Larry Munson somewhere on the Bulldogs' uniforms. Between an incredibly hectic schedule in terms of both work- and non-work-related writing and a lingering head cold that's got me feeling just shitty enough I may not make it to Athens for tailgating this weekend after all, I still haven't gotten around to writing about Larry Munson's sudden retirement, and I hope to get to that in the next few days -- but in the meantime, it'd be nice to see Georgia give him his due, not only with some kind of JumboTron video but maybe also with helmet stickers kind of like the ones they did for Erk Russell a couple years back. Larry's not dead, thank God, but we clobbered South Carolina 18-0 wearing those "ERK" stickers, so maybe an "LM" decal, combined with the Blackout, will be just the good-luck charms we need to win decisively on Saturday.
Before anyone asks: No, I would never let a head cold keep me from the game. If I actually had tickets, you wouldn't be able to keep me out of the stadium even with the Hantavirus or a massive open head wound. Not being able to pony up four or five hundred dollars for a ticket, I was planning on going just to tailgate, but my official injury-report status is now listed as "questionable"; the coaching staff hopes to make a final decision by noon tomorrow.