Saban’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis midweek dinged the intensity of the game but only ever so slightly
By Dennis Dodd CBS Sports
Though Alabama vs. Georgia has evolved as not only the SEC game of the year but perhaps the college football game of the season, it has already been compromised. Think about it: Only one head coach will be there.
Alabama might have three of the four best offensive players in the country. (Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle). Georgia’s no-name defense wouldn’t mind staying anonymous as long as it keeps strangling opponents.
There is, of course, the coaching dynamic. You might have heard: Kirby Smart has never beaten Nick Saban. In fact, neither have any of Saban’s assistants (21-0). If it happens Saturday, it will go down without Saban on the field after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, there are only three other regular-season games left between currently-ranked top 10 teams. No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia will probably be the highest-ranked teams to meet in the regular season.
It’s that compelling. It’s that significant. It’s that big. With that in mind, here are six things that will decide Alabama-Georgia on Saturday in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week (8 p.m. ET).
- No Nick? No problem? Saban did his best to allay fears that his absence will impact the program. C’mon, of course it will. You don’t lose the game’s best coach three days before a game and stay on the same track. That said, it doesn’t mean Alabama will lose. Saban made clear he’d be more than involved remotely. “I’m right down the street,” he said on a Zoom call. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has earned enough trust to be the figurehead. That was key, a quick (and temporary) transfer of power. Saban employs six former head coaches including assistants and analysts. There is more than enough experience to run this superpower for a week.
Saban is asymptomatic. The CDC says, if that remains the case, he can be back in 10 days. If there are no complications or symptoms, that would theoretically put Saban back on the field Oct. 24 against Tennessee. For now, the game plan is in. Whatever shock the players have been through can be channeled against Georgia. The biggest impact would be a long-term absence by Saban.
- Battle for the soul of the SEC: The winner gets validation for its style of play. Georgia’s offense remains a lasting image of what Alabama used to be under Saban from 2007-13: game-manager at quarterback, strong run game, smothering defense. In 2014, Lane Kiffin arrived and help shape the Crimson Tide into what they are today: an elite spread offense that specializes in producing more NFL receivers than defensive linemen. We’ll boil it down for you: Georgia is No. 2 nationally in total defense. Alabama has scored at least 35 points in 16 consecutive games.
- SEC Championship Game preview? Yup, there’s that — if we get the far. Saban is 5-1 against Georgia since arriving at Alabama. The only loss was in overtime, 26-23, in his first season. Don’t know if the world can stand two Tide-Dawgs games in a two-month period. Jamie Newman: Remember him? This actually would have been a perfect game for the Wake Forest graduate transfer. If Newman had stayed, Smart would’ve had to decide whether to progress toward the spread. That’s what Newman played at Wake. This offense might give Georgia its best chance this week. Newman opted out in September.
- Tempo is key: Georgia doesn’t run much tempo (no-huddle, hurry-up offense). Alabama certainly does these days. Almost everybody else does at some point in this modern offensive age. Kiffin’s ability to go no-huddle (frequently) last Saturday sliced open the Alabama defense like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Rebels snapped the ball every 21.8 seconds during their 86 plays. That actually brought their average up to 21.2 seconds for the season. Georgia’s best counter to tempo is its diligence. It is among the leaders in time of possession.
Asked this week if his team would try to make Alabama another Thanksgiving turkey by using tempo — OK, I didn’t use those exact words — Smart said: “It’s not who we are. It’s certainly who Lane is. … Everybody does that now. There’s not a team that says, ‘We’re not going to go tempo anytime.’ I would just say Ole Miss does it more frequently. … He doesn’t sub. He goes really fast and tries to not allow the defense to sub and wear them down. There were a couple of points in that game it was tough. I’ve been there defensively. It’s like, ‘Man.’ It doesn’t matter what you call your guys are gassed. You know what, the other guys are gassed, too. It’s not always pretty football. It can turn sloppy. It’s not the football I’m used to seeing in the SEC.”
- Which defense will be more motivated? Alabama was embarrassed against Ole Miss defensively. The unit is definitely vulnerable considering it gives up twice as many yards as Georgia this season. The feeling here is that Saban will appeal to his unit’s pride to, you know, not give up 647 yards and 48 points against the Bulldogs.
Those Dawgs enter Saturday’s game coming off a tremendous defensive performance. Georgia held Tennessee scoreless in the second half and to -1 yard rushing for the game last week. That marks the second straight season Georgia has completely eliminated an opponent’s rushing attack in a game. It is one of two teams nationally that has allowed no rushing touchdowns on the season. (Air Force, which has played only one game, is the other.)
- Saban’s dominance is on the line: Yes, it must be mentioned again. Saban is 21-0 against former assistants. And yes, this game will count toward that record. In those games, the average margin of victory has been 25 points. He is currently in a stretch of four straight weeks where Bama will play his former assistants. Jimbo Fisher and Lane Kiffin have already gone down. Smart and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt follow. As mentioned, Saban is 5-1 against Georgia since taking over Alabama with the only loss coming when he joined the team in 2007. Even that was 26-23 in overtime. It was the last time the teams played in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Crimson Tide haven’t lost to an SEC East opponent since 2010.
- Najee Harris is breaking out: Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-worthy running back scored more rushing touchdowns (five) against Ole Miss than 27 teams have scored this season. Again, he’s going against a defense that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown on the year. Whoever “wins” that battle gets the advantage in winning the battle. Harris is averaging career-highs in carries, yards per carry and touchdown rate on the season.
- Saban’s absence dropped the spread:With Saban not on the sidelines, oddsmakers across the nation had to adjust their prognostications on the Alabama-Georgia game. The Crimson Tide, which were six-point favorites over the Bulldogs earlier in the week, saw their line drop two points as soon as the Saban announcement came down. Alabama now stands as a four-point favorite at home against Georgia, according to William Hill Sportsbook. That has not dissuaded our CBS Sports experts, who are heavily leaning toward the Crimson Tide in Saturday night’s game.
- Quick kicks: Clemson’s Travis Etienne needs 173 yards against Georgia Tech to become the ACC’s career rushing leader … how the Air Raid gets grounded: Mississippi State (vs. Texas A&M) threw 70 passes last week against Kentucky, but the offense didn’t score a point in a 24-2 loss with six interceptions … Florida State (vs. North Carolina) is trying to avoid it first 0-4 conference start since joining the ACC in 1992 … Alabama gained 723 of the 764 available yards last week against Ole Miss (94.6%). Last year, Bama led the country in that category … UAB (vs. Western Kentucky) has won every home game since it brought back the program in 2017. Those 20 consecutive wins are tied for the third-longest active streak behind Notre Dame and Clemson … Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence has thrown only 12 interceptions in his career. Four of them have come against Georgia Tech, this week’s opponent. If he gets through this week unpicked, Lawrence will have gone a calendar year without throwing an interception … a fourth straight loss by Louisville (at Notre Dame) would be its second such streak in three years. The Cardinals were ranked 18th four weeks ago … Only three teams are 3-0 against the spread this season — Marshall, Arkansas and Charlotte