ATLANTA — The most striking part of No. 4 Alabama’s matchup with No. 3 Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday is the similarities between the programs. Schematically, philosophically and structurally, each has been threaded together with similar DNA, thanks to Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s more than a decade of experience working under Alabama’s Nick Saban at three different spots. So what will make the difference on Monday night?
Yahoo Sports tracked down three assistant coaches who’ve schemed and studied both teams this year. Two picked Alabama to win and one picked Georgia. Here are where they see the key factors:
1. The two coaches who picked Bama both project a close game. Neither team has a significant edge on the offensive line. Georgia has better tailbacks and the Tide has an edge at receiver, as Calvin Ridley will be the first wide receiver chosen in the NFL draft.
Both also have relatively inexperienced quarterbacks who aren’t going to be slinging the ball around the yard. Georgia’s Jake Fromm is trying to become the first true freshman quarterback to win the national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. Jalen Hurts was a Hunter Renfrow heartbeat from taking that title last year.
Both are going to be asked to manage the game more than win it, which coaches see as an advantage for Alabama. Georgia needs to be able to contain Hurts in the pocket, which is easy to write and hard to execute.
“Hurts will hold the ball until guys come open,” one coach said. “It’s really hard to get him down with just four guys. He can make a guy miss, and then when you’re a pattern-match defense and the routes extend down the field, now you have vertical separation between the quarterback and defenders [that’s hard]. Once he breaks the defensive line, there’s a lot of room to run.”
2. The coach who picked Georgia felt like Alabama didn’t have the same personnel, especially rushing the quarterback, that it has had the past four or five years. Alabama has been vulnerable to play-action this season, leaving it susceptible to deep shots. “The thing about them is that the way their defense is structured, you can get one-one-ones with safeties with your slot,” the coach said.
The Georgia defense has been impressive, as the scheme is geared around freeing up an impressive linebacking crew – led by projected top-10 pick Roquan Smith – to scramble around and make plays. “There’s no weakness, they’re very sound,” the coach said. “I have a lot of respect for that defense. There’s just never any guys open. I have a lot of respect for their linebackers. They were the best linebackers I’ve seen in a long, long time.” (A different coach pointed out that the biggest play from the Rose Bowl was Smith’s stuff of a wide receiver hand-off on third-and-2, a remarkable stick that forced a field goal in overtime.)
3. Both coaches know each other extremely well, as Smart worked for Saban at LSU, with the Dolphins and then for nine years at Alabama. How will the familiarity play out? One coach brought up an interesting facet: “I think Kirby has the upper hand in this. Kirby knows Nick like a book, where Nick knows Kirby, but he doesn’t know him as a head coach.
“Both will prepare the same. Both will motivate the same. I just think a lot of times when you become the HC, a lot of the guys you work for are going to influence you. You do things different than the guy you worked for. That’s what made Kirby successful. Sometimes when you work for iconic and successful coaches like Nick, you try and be like them and emulate them. I think Kirby has been true to who he is.”
4. Hurts won the SEC Player of the Year as a freshman. He’s led Alabama to back-to-back national title games. He’s thrown 17 touchdowns and just one interception this year. Yet there remains a steady stream of skepticism about Hurts. “I know it’s a cliché,” said one opposing coach, essentially apologizing for making an obvious point. “I don’t think the quarterback can drop back and throw it.” Added another about scheming Alabama: “How are they going to keep him in the pocket and make him play quarterback?”
Said the third: “If you look at his big plays, it’s his ability to improvise with his legs and make big plays. They struggle in the throw game.”
The difference for Hurts this year, one coach pointed out, is that Alabama’s offense is more sound under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll. Hurts’ completion percentage is down from 62.8 to 61.3, but the offense has been more to Saban’s liking. Former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would appear to call run plays just to call them, but Daboll has kept things more balanced. “I think they’re a little more sound in what they do and a little more multiple,” said one coach. “There are similarities. I think they’re more fundamentally sound [now].”
5. None of the coaches gave either team a decided edge in special teams, but they did point out areas of strength and weakness. Alabama punter JK Scott has been around so long that it feels like Mike Shula recruited him. He’s certainly developed a strong respect level around the SEC for his consistency. “That guy is worth three scholarships with what he does,” said one coach. “You talk about a guy like Nick who plays defense and field position, that guy is up his alley.”
Georgia’s edge comes in the punt-return game. Mecole Hardman averages 11.3 yards per return and has proven a consistent threat for the Bulldogs all year. Alabama has searched for consistency all year in the punt-return game and found little. “I think that’s a difference that really does favor UGA in this game,” said a coach. “Alabama has really struggled in the punt-return game. That’s one thing we thought looking at them this year that was a big difference than the past. With Hardman, the punt return is a whole other element for Georgia.”