Alabama-Georgia II: 3 early questions for the College Football Playoff title game

Alabama and Georgia are playing in the national title game for the second time in five seasons.

The No. 1 Crimson Tide easily beat No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl on Friday and No. 3 Georgia blitzed No. 2 Michigan in the first half in the Orange Bowl to set up the third all-SEC title game in the last 11 seasons and the second national title rematch in that span.

In 2011, LSU beat Alabama, 9-6, in the regular season before the Crimson Tide beat LSU, 21-0, in the BCS championship. This season, Alabama beat Georgia, 41-24, for the SEC championship on Dec. 4.

Can Georgia do what Alabama did 10 years ago? A win would be the Bulldogs' first over Alabama since 2007 and the school's first national title since 1980. Or will Alabama coach Nick Saban get his fifth win over former assistant Kirby Smart in five tries?

No matter what happens, we hope the game is a classic like it was in 2018 when the Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs, 26-23, in overtime on a TD pass from Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith. Here are our early questions ahead of the Jan. 10 title game in Indianapolis.

Which version of Stetson Bennett will we see?

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett played the best half of his life on Friday night against Michigan as Georgia put the Wolverines away in the first 30 minutes. Bennett’s excellence came four weeks after he struggled in a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game — a performance that left some Georgia fans wondering if JT Daniels should become Georgia’s starting QB again.

There’s no doubt about who will start for Georgia on Jan. 10. But will the third time be the charm for Bennett against the Crimson Tide? Each of his two starts against Alabama have been 41-24 losses and he’s thrown five interceptions over those two games.

If Bennett is going to be better against Alabama this time, he’ll need to utilize freshman tight end Brock Bowers as much as possible. Bowers was uncoverable in the second half of the SEC title game and showed off his exceptional playmaking ability against the Wolverines. Bennett will also need to avoid making the one or two head-scratching throws that he seemingly makes on a weekly basis. He got away with a terrible decision early in the second half against Michigan on a ball heaved across his body over the middle but he hasn’t gotten away with mistakes against Alabama.

-Nick Bromberg

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 04: General action during the SEC Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on December 04, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How will Georgia defend Alabama differently?

In the SEC title game, Alabama killed the Georgia defense through the air. And a significant component of that passing success came through the quick game, particularly to Jameson Williams and John Metchie.

With the running game largely stifled, Bryce Young was getting the ball out and into the hands of his playmakers in an instant. Those throws got Young in a rhythm early and were an effective counter to Georgia’s attempts to get pressure in Young’s face. Later on, Young hit several deep balls and the heralded Georgia defense put forth its worst performance of the season.

With the ball out of Young’s hand so quickly, Georgia’s front four couldn’t get home and star defensive tackle Jordan Davis was a non-factor. The Bulldogs didn’t register a single sack and had just four tackles for loss, well below their season average. How will Kirby Smart, Dan Lanning and the UGA staff approach things this time around?

There are adjustments to be made, no question. But there is also one key difference in personnel for the Alabama offense. Metchie is out with a knee injury, leaving Williams as the main weapon on the outside. In Alabama’s CFP semifinal win over Cincinnati, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien relied heavily on Brian Robinson in the running game.

Robinson had 55 yards on 16 carries against Georgia. On Friday night, he went for a whopping 204 yards on 26 carries. It’s safe to say he won’t be able to replicate that kind of production against Georgia. But that level of success adds an interesting element to the chess match between the two coaching staffs.

- Sam Cooper

Will Georgia bring its swagger to Indianapolis?

Georgia was riding high as the No. 1 team in the country for a significant chunk of the season and it really felt like this would be Georgia’s year. The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since 1980 and were undefeated and rolling entering the SEC title game. That’s when they ran into Alabama, their old nemesis.

Kirby Smart got UGA to the national title game in 2017, but lost in excruciating fashion to Alabama. In 2018, Georgia got back to the SEC title game and lost yet again to Alabama in another heartbreaker. This year, Georgia was undefeated and favored in the game, yet could not get over the Alabama hump again and lost, 41-24.

Will this time be different?

On the heels of that loss, it was fair to wonder about the psyche of Smart’s team entering the Bulldogs' College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan. But those questions were quickly answered as the Bulldogs trounced the Wolverines, 34-11. In Friday night’s win, Georgia played with that familiar confidence that was evident throughout the regular season but seemed to be missing against Alabama.

Will the swagger on display against Michigan carry over to the national title trip to Indianapolis?

The Bulldogs have not beaten Alabama since 2007. That’s seven consecutive losses, including four during Smart’s tenure as head coach. Before he became the head coach at his alma mater, Smart was a trusted assistant on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. He has yet to beat his old boss.

This is the last hurdle to climb for Georgia to rise to the top of the heap in the college football landscape.

- Sam Cooper