“Great moments are born of great opportunities …
You were meant to be here. This is your time.
Their time is over … this is your time!”
Herb Brooks to 1980 US Hockey Team (as played by Kurt Russell)
Can the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs become the team of destiny their fans have dreamed of for three decades?
Can the Red and Black, last champions of the college football world in 1980, conjure up an inspired effort like the gold-medal winning Red, White, and Blue U.S. Hockey team from that same year?
Can this team, this underdog, take down its very own crimson menace, and the sport’s reigning bully?
To win … to become this team of destiny … Georgia has to dethrone a dynasty – the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.
When Georgia and Alabama meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulldogs face not only a fearsome opponent, but also the pent up frustration of chronic unmet expectations. Bulldog players, coaches, fans, and followers consider the program elite, but since Georgia last won college football’s grand prize in 1980, five Southeastern Conference programs have captured a combined ten national championships. Imagine a grating drum roll for Georgia fans as you read the list.
1992 – Alabama
1996 – Florida
1998 – Tennessee
2003 – LSU
2006 – Florida
2007 – LSU
2008 – Florida
2009 – Alabama
2010 – Auburn
2011 – Alabama
Think that championship roster doesn’t gnaw at Dog fans? The perception of Georgia nationally is at odds with the Red and Black base. Fans in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge … talk radio hosts in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta … the pretty boys and girls talking on ESPN and Fox … all of them consider Georgia underachievers.
These five keys should decide whether Georgia can overcome the doubters and become a team of destiny Saturday afternoon.
1. Aaron Murray must outplay A.J. McCarron. If Murray comes back for his senior season, he will become the most prolific passer in SEC history. While the Dog QB has been maligned for coming up short in big games, those criticisms are perhaps off base. In losses to South Carolina this season, LSU (last year’s SEC title game), Boise State (last year’s season opener), and others, Murray faced defensive fronts that shut down Georgia’s running game and nullified any play action passing with a fierce pass rush. A.J. McCarron heard similar questions about whether he could handle the big stage until he proved himself in last year’s national championship game. That title game success muted criticism of McCarron’s less-than-stellar play in the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M. Murray should be the equal of McCarron (or better) and can prove it Saturday. But, he will need help … which takes us to a second key.
2. Georgia’s offensive line must play Alabama’s defensive front to a near-stalemate. The Dogs will not dominate Alabama up front. The Tide is too well-coached, seasoned, and disciplined on defense to get pushed around. But, they are not that big and they do not generate much of a pass rush from their front three. Nick Saban has a history of trying to completely take away at least one aspect of an opponent’s attack. I expect Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to do whatever it takes to stop Georgia’s rushing attack. As a counter, watch for Georgia to throw the ball a lot early … instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia should pass to open up some running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley doesn’t need much space to keep the chains moving. If the Georgia offensive line can at least hold its own, that would be a net plus for the Bulldogs. While much attention has been paid to the pairing of Alabama’s great offensive front taking on Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense, I think this is the more important matchup.
3. Alabama may be able to advantage of the aggressive Georgia secondary. Georgia has more talent on defense than anybody – including Alabama. Period. The Dogs are bigger and faster, and their edge in the secondary (even considering the Tide’s terrific Dee Milliner) is the most pronounced of the defensive position units on either side. The Bulldog defensive backs, especially safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo will support the run defense aggressively and deliver a strike. Still, they are at times too aggressive (a trait sure to be amplified in the heat of such a big game), prone to penalties and to biting on play fakes. Watch for Alabama to bait the Dog DBs with pump and go action, or simply with play action passes, and try to hit some deep balls. The Dogs secondary boasts great athletes, but they must play with controlled aggression.
4. Which team will deliver the big plays? Will Eddie Lacy rumble through tacklers for the Tide? Will T.J. Yeldon take a McCarron screen pass to the land of milk and honey like he did in the showdown with LSU? Will Milliner pick off Murray? Or, will the sublime Dog duo of insider linebacker Alec Ogletree (the best athlete on the field) and Jarvis Jones control the action, with Ogletree chasing down Tide runners sideline to sideline and Jones wreaking havoc in the Alabama backfield? Will Gurshall (the nickname for Gurley and Marshall in homage to the great Herschel Walker) provide the Dogs with a little thunder and lightning at the running back position. Will either team break a punt or kickoff return? Remember that the Honey Badger – Tyrann Mathieu of LSU – undid the Dogs in last year’s title game with punt and interception returns. Somebody is likely to make a big play … who?
5. Does Alabama realize the intensity they will face Saturday? Few of these Tide starters have played significant roles in an SEC championship game, many of the Dogs have. This is a hungry Bulldog team with unfinished business in the Georgia Dome. Last year they soundly outplayed LSU for a half, but crumbled under the pressure in the third and fourth quarters and got humiliated. Alabama took the backdoor into the national title game and missed the SEC championship. The Tide hasn’t been here since 2009 and it is an intense setting (the teams do not have five weeks to rest and prepare as they would in the national championship game). Beyond the players and staffs though … there is something deeper that I’m not sure many people have calculated. The Bulldog crowd, disappointed and mostly dormant for three decades, will absolutely dominate the Dome on Saturday afternoon – in numbers and intensity. If Georgia gets off to a quick start, it will ignite a passion – even fury – from Georgia fans that has not been seen since Munson was at the mike, since big #34 was stalking the end zone, since … since the Dogs were national champions. It would surprise me if Alabama realizes that potential factor.
Destiny … or dynasty.
This is Georgia’s game. This is Georgia’s season. This is their time.
Georgia 24 Alabama 20