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Trading places: Nick Saban now needs dynamic offense to save bad defense in this year's Game of the Century

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Nearly eight years ago, Alabama coach Nick Saban delivered one of the most revealing quotes of his tenure. In October 2012, as college football’s tempo boom rocketed through the sport, Saban questioned the safety of the frenetic style of football thriving at places like Ole Miss, Oregon and Baylor. “Is this what we want football to be?” Saban asked.

With Saban officially cleared to coach No. 2 Alabama’s game with No. 3 Georgia on Saturday, he’ll now be front and center for the dichotomy this game offers. Alabama has become the style of program Saban once detested, and Georgia closely resembles the Alabama program in the embryonic years under Saban.

Alabama is a defensively deficient program that through a three-game sample size has shown it’s going to need to rely on an explosive offense to win games. While Alabama doesn’t operate at the breakneck tempo like those teams back in 2012, they do utilize it as a weapon and play a wide-open style that was once offensive to Saban’s football DNA.

The early empirical evidence shows that Alabama’s path to the SEC title this season will be one where scoring 40 is a necessity. Twice last season — losses to Auburn and LSU — scoring 40 wasn’t enough for Alabama. And Alabama is feeling the personnel losses from five defensive players being drafted in the first three rounds.

“They’ve downgraded at defensive back and their pass rush has taken a hit,” said an NFL scout. “They aren’t generating as much pressure as they usually are.”

Georgia, in its fifth year under Kirby Smart, has taken on the identity this season of so many of Saban’s early teams. They have a game manager at quarterback, a smothering defense and fit the archetype of many of Saban’s early Alabama teams — run the ball, control the clock and rely on a dynamic defensive line to dominate. “That’s exactly what Bama used to be,” another NFL scout told Yahoo Sports.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart (L) and Alabama coach Nick Saban pose near the SEC trophy on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP)
Georgia coach Kirby Smart (L) and Alabama coach Nick Saban pose near the SEC trophy on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP)

Yahoo Sports spoke to a half-dozen coaches and NFL scouts who have played or studied Alabama or Georgia this year. (A majority of the interviews came before Saban’s COVID-19 positive test.)

The matchups are clear — Georgia’s SEC-leading defense (12.3 points per game) needs to shut down an Alabama offense ranked No. 1 nationally (51.0 points per game). Conversely, Georgia’s pedestrian offense (No. 34 nationally at 420 yards per game) will attempt to find holes in Alabama’s historically bad defense, which yielded the most yards in school history to Ole Miss (647). Saban is 21-0 against former assistants, and it’s unclear if this game will count on his record.

Here’s a look at those four units through the eyes of the experts who’ve studied them.

Georgia defense

The best compliment to coordinator Dan Lanning’s defense is that the sum is greater than the parts. And the parts are excellent.

Georgia led the nation in scoring defense (12.6) and rush defense (75.6) last season. And any argument for Georgia winning the SEC this year centered around the Bulldogs returning eight defensive starters. “It’s as good of as defense as you’ll see in the country,” said an opposing assistant coach. “In the neighborhood of a defense like Clemson back in 2018.”

Earlier this season, a coach made a memorable analogy to Yahoo Sports about UGA’s defense. He complimented their ability to be consistently aggressive without taking risks, before acknowledging with a laugh the paradox sounded a bit like “Jumbo Shrimp.”

That balance of pressure without exposure has become Lanning’s hallmark, as another coach noted: “He knows he can get pressure on the quarterback without having to put anyone in conflict or stress. He wants to get after the quarterback. He’s got a good third-down package and timing to keep offenses behind the chains.

“He’s not going to blitz just to blitz. He’ll pop a backer and whatnot.”

From a pure talent perspective, Georgia’s defensive conversation starts with 6-foot-6, 330-pound nose tackle Jordan Davis. One scout said he’s a bigger version of former Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, which will make anyone who saw the 6-foot-4, 342-pound Lawrence shudder a bit. There aren’t many humans with the size and athleticism of Davis and Lawrence walking the earth.

Davis played primarily on first down last season, and has emerged as more of a multi-down player this year. “He’s a beast,” the coach said. “He looks like [former Bama star] Quinnen Williams playing nose guard.”

The other freaky player on Georgia’s defense is junior corner Tyson Campbell, the former high school teammate of Bama star corner Patrick Surtain. (Campbell ranked as the No. 4 corner in the Class of 2018 and Surtain the No. 1.)

At 6-2, Campbell is the ideal long and rangy modern corner. “He’s got the highest ceiling, and he’s talented, he’s on the radar,” said a scout. “He’s got a shot.”

The rest of the Georgia defense is comprised of experienced players, as one coach notes there are no inexperienced weak links. Senior defensive end Malik Herring is a pass-rush menace with six pressures, safety Richard LeCounte is a dynamic SEC safety who is a tick too slow to be an elite NFL prospect and redshirt sophomore end Azeez Ojulari’s high motor has helped his six TFLs and three sacks. Senior linebacker Monty Rice tortured Tennessee.

The rank-and-file Bulldogs are all high-end college players who’ll be mid-round NFL picks that have bought into Lanning’s system. “They are strong, they play fast,” an NFL scout said. “Lanning has killed it. They have a good rotation, they are deep, they don’t have any holes.”

Alabama offense

There’s an embarrassment of offensive riches that enabled this Alabama team’s identity. “Steve Sarkisian is really just toying with you, obviously,” said an opposing assistant. “If he wants to line up and hand [the ball off] 40 times, they are going to win. Throw it 45 times, they’re going to win the game. It’s a matter of what he chooses to do.”

So far, Alabama has thrown 91 passes and run the ball 101 times. But they’ve also had blowouts against Missouri and Texas A&M that have allowed them to pad the run totals.

Bama’s resplendent talent starts on the outside, as it has two elite wide receivers in junior Jaylen Waddle and senior DeVonta Smith. “Those two will be first-round picks,” said an opposing assistant. “If they’re not, I don’t know what a first-round wide receiver looks like.”

One of the challenges for Lanning will be the versatility they bring. They both line up on either side, so it’s hard to assign a specific defender to them. Waddle is physical for a 5-10, 182-pounder, without holding back his flash.

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) pulls in a pass over Mississippi defensive back A.J. Finley (21) during Alabama's win on Oct. 10. (AP)
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) pulls in a pass over Mississippi defensive back A.J. Finley (21) during Alabama's win on Oct. 10. (AP)

“What stood out in person was how stocky he is,” said an opposing assistant. “He’s not tall, but he’s not a small guy. He’s got a wide-built frame and isn’t afraid to go across the middle. He’s been tagged a few times this year and got up and shook it off and kept moving.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find another player in college football as dynamic as Waddle.”

Coaches also raved about Alabama’s offensive line and tailback Najee Harris. The lone knock on Harris is his inability to find a final breakaway gear, but he’s still averaging 6.7 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns. “With a guy like Najee Harris toting the rock and a line like Alabama has, it’s pick your poison,” one coach said.

The most interesting player on Alabama this season has been quarterback Mac Jones. He’s evolved from the perception he’d be a caretaker and now ranks in the top five nationally in passing efficiency, total offense and passing yards per game.

With the luxury of elite receivers, a top tailback and high-end offensive line, Jones is emerging as an NFL prospect. One coach pointed to his ability to throw players open, a skill that Joe Burrow showed countless times last year. There’s a trust the receivers will get the ball and Jones has shown the accuracy and touch to get it to them.

Georgia is likely to get after Jones, and coaches were impressed with how he’s handled that. “His toughness stood out,” said a coach. “Teams have hit him a few times and he’s come back and stepped in there and made some good throws.”

Georgia offense

This is the type of offense that Saban’s defenses from a decade ago could have swallowed whole. Junior Stetson Bennett has completed 63% of his passes, thrown no interceptions and led Georgia to wins in all three games. (The first was off the bench.)

One coach called him a “poor man’s Chase Daniels,” which is a kind way to describe a game manager. These are the types of quarterbacks Saban used to employ — Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron and John Parker Wilson — before former coordinator Lane Kiffin ratcheted up the offense and helped change Bama’s offensive recruiting paradigm starting around 2014.

“He can’t see it between the tackles,” said an opposing coach. “He does a good enough job not to get them beat. Is he going to take a game over? No.”

Georgia’s offensive line has four new starters and is replacing two first-round picks at offensive tackle — Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson. Center Trey Hill is a potential mid-round NFL pick. This Georgia unit has talent and promise, but for now is just OK.

Georgia’s skill is solid but not spectacular. Receiver George Pickens — he of water bottle-squirt infamy — is the offense’s most dynamic player. Sophomore tailback Zamir White has emerged as Georgia’s bell cow and is solid, but won’t remind anyone of the gilded tailbacks who’ve gone through UGA in recent years. “They’re above pedestrian,” a coach said of Georgia’s tailbacks. “But the offensive line isn’t blowing anyone off the ball.”

Zamir White #3 of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates after a play against the Tennessee Vols Oct. 10. (Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Zamir White of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates after a play against the Tennessee Vols on Oct. 10. (Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Alabama defense

The best news for Georgia’s mediocre offense is that this Alabama defense is decisively un-Saban-like. While Lanning enters the game as the league’s hottest coordinator, Bama’s Pete Golding has to be squirming considering Saban’s history with short shelf lives for underperforming assistants. “I’ve never seen that from them,” said a coach of Alabama’s no-show against Ole Miss. “It just seemed like disarray.”

Let’s start up front where Alabama is vastly inferior to past editions, which means it can’t garner a pass rush from their base defense. They lack both dominant inside players and an established pass-rush specialist, the root of their defensive impotence.

“He runs a 4-2-5 and normally plays two [safeties] on the roof,” said a coach. “That’s because his defensive line is so good, they can play a six-man box. That isn’t the case anymore. He has to cheat some sort of coverage, which exposes the nickel.”

If there’s a key player who opposing coaches point to on Alabama’s defense it’s true freshman nickel Malachi Moore. They identify him as the most likely to be exposed.

Moore is a highly regarded freshman with a bright future, but he’s been thrust into a huge role. Expect Georgia OC Todd Monken to try and isolate and pick on Moore on Saturday. (Alabama’s other secondary members not named Surtain — including junior corner Josh Jobe — are viewed as vulnerable as well.)

The good news for Bama is that the early read on middle linebacker Dylan Moses’ return from an ACL tear is positive. He’s the same sideline-to-sideline menace he was prior to the injury.

After Moses and Surtain, who are both first-round picks, there’s significant drop-off in talent and experience. Freshman Will Anderson, who plays the edge, will eventually be an elite defender and projects as a prototypical three-and-done Bama stud. Maybe this is his night to pop? He’s been the buzz player in camp and already has one TFL and one hurry.

Final analysis, prediction

The team with the biggest chance to make a game-breaking special teams play is Alabama. Waddle is considered an elite NFL prospect as a return man, both in kickoff and punt. “He’s as dynamic as there is,” said an opposing coach of Waddle on kicks. “I’d put him up there with every great return man I’ve seen [in college].” (Bama’s punter is a true freshman walk-on, so that’s worth monitoring.)

In the end, one coach surmised the matchup this way. “In the SEC, the best defense usually wins. And it’s clear who has the best defense.”

Prediction: Georgia 21, Alabama 17

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