The Georgia Bulldogs will win the SEC Championship Game in 2021 for reasons which have decades-long roots in the history of Southern football. It’s a new day and a modern age in college football.
By Matt Zemek
Bear Bryant and Pat Dye, God rest their souls, would not have believed it when Alabama beat Florida 52-46 in the 2020 SEC Championship Game, its toughest late-season test on the road to the national title. Alabama handled Notre Dame and Ohio State with great ease in the College Football Playoff. That game against the Gators was the toughest test for Nick Saban’s team. It prevailed because it scored over half-a-hundred points in an event which felt more like Star Wars and less like SEC football.
Nick Saban has remained successful and powerful in recent years because he saw how college football was changing. He saw that as much as he – and a defensive coordinator named Kirby Smart – loved old-time football and 17-10 defensive slugfests, the sport was moving in a different direction. Being able to get the ball to fast skill players in space, and being able to build an offense with an abundance of elite receivers and offensive linemen, was the true path to success.
Alabama beat Clemson in a national championship game shootout to claim the 2015 title. It narrowly missed a repeat in 2016. Alabama was the most fun team in college football in 2018 and made the national championship game before losing to Clemson and Trevor Lawrence. Alabama averaged 48.5 points per game in its run to the 2020 national title. Saban was willing to change his methods to keep winning, and we can see the results. Football has become something very different from what it used to be…
… except at the University of Georgia.
Kirby Smart has not embraced modern offense the way Nick Saban has. Last year, that cost Kirby. Georgia fans have been frustrated that their coach has not made the adjustments Saban has been willing to undertake. This has usually elevated Alabama over Georgia, but in 2021, the old ways show signs of winning the day.
Alabama’s offensive line is noticeably weaker than it was a year ago. The departures of Landon Dickerson and Alex Leatherwood to the NFL have left Bama diminished on offense. Bryce Young has a lot of natural talent, but he has not had a clean pocket, and coordinator Bill O’Brien has not been willing to use Young more as a runner. Alabama looks like a team which is caught in between on offense: It knows Bryce Young needs to have the ball in his hands, but it doesn’t know how to put Bryce Young in winning situations. Alabama doesn’t possess the relentless, easy potency of last year’s offense. The lack of physical strength up front has been hard for O’Brien to work around.
Georgia’s old-school ways have produced a physically dominant team with the nation’s best defense and an offense which doesn’t have to take any real risks. It’s the Kirby Smart blueprint, and it has reigned supreme this year.
Much as Ohio State was not able to unleash its speed on Michigan, because the Wolverines finally punched Ohio State in the mouth and were able to physically set the tone for that game, so it also is that Georgia is in a position to finally punch Alabama in the mouth and prevent the Crimson Tide from running wild in the open field, as they did in last year’s win in Tuscaloosa.
Last year – and in most of the past several years – Star Wars has trumped 1980 Vince Dooley-style football.
This year, the old ways have reigned supreme. Georgia will win the SEC Championship Game because it has the better, more physical linemen and has demonstrated consistent superiority in the trenches. That is the whole ballgame, the key to victory on Saturday in Atlanta. We can talk about so many other game keys, but Georgia has found the ability to dominate physically and win at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. No team in the country – not Cincinnati, not Michigan (though the Wolverines were great against Ohio State) – has been as strong and overwhelming as Georgia has.
After years of futuristic football winning out – with Joe Burrow throwing for a billion yards under Joe Brady in leading LSU to the national title, one year before Mac Jones thrived under Steve Sarkisian in a similar way – Manball has returned with a vengeance in 2021. Kirby Smart never abandoned his central playing style. He stood by it. He stood by the mindset which lifted Georgia to the national championship in 1980.
Georgia is poised to win its first national title since Herschel Walker’s first season (“My God! A freshman!”) by playing the way those old Georgia teams did.
UGA isn’t ascendant because of spread concepts and tempo and modernity. It has thrived because it has followed the old-time Southern ball coach formula to perfection. Blocking. Tackling. Being fundamentally sound. Don’t make mistakes. Field position.
Alabama beat Georgia last year with long-distance pass plays which make field position less central to success in the modern game. This year, it has worked out for Kirby Smart: Georgia has played games with a style reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. The parity we have seen in the sport in 2021, with Ohio State being less than dominant, and with Clemson falling from its perch, has flowed to many different schools across the sport. Georgia has been the one Power Five team to avoid real slippage this year, showing that the old ways still have a place in the sport.
If Kirby Smart wins it all this year, he won’t just end Georgia’s 41-year national championship drought; he will have done so by sticking to the maxims and points of emphasis from the old-school coaches who preceded Steve Spurrier’s more updated approach in the SEC. If Nick Saban was willing to change and start “pitchin’ it around the ballpark,” as Spurrier liked to say, Kirby Smart stood by the Vince Dooley-Pat Dye methods of our grandparents’ generation.
With Alabama being so frail at the line of scrimmage, and the Tide having rushed for just six yards against LSU a few weeks ago, this is Georgia’s chance to not only win the SEC championship, but to score a win for the old ways. That’s what this UGA team is built on. There’s no need to get cute or clever now.
Alabama has to find a different path to victory. Georgia’s path has been working brilliantly all season. Just execute the game plan one more time. Nothing fancy. No gimmicks. Get that pad level right and beat the snot out of the man lining up across from you.
Georgia will win because – unlike 2019 and 2020, in which Joe Burrow and Mac Jones threw like there was no tomorrow – the old ways are back in vogue in the SEC.
It’s 1980 all over again, in more ways than one.