- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Games in the SEC are often decided up the middle -- in the trenches, over the center and into the heart of it all.
Saturday's matchup between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia likely will be no different, as the Crimson Tide's offensive line, arguably the best in the country, battles with the Bulldogs defensive front that is equal parts size and skill.
Alabama center Barrett Jones has gone through four seasons of SEC battles. He has gone head-to-head with the best from LSU, Arkansas and Florida. But the biggest challenge he has ever faced might have come from a former teammate during practice. Terrence Cody, the former Alabama nose guard with the apt nickname of Mount Cody, was terror on centers and guards in his two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
This weekend Jones will face a nose guard similar to the former 6-foot-5, 365-pound All-American. He might not be a mountain, but John Jenkins is surely a load. The 6-foot-3, 351-pound senior has helped Georgia to a top-25 defense.
"He's hard to block," UA coach Nick Saban explained. "Any time you play an odd defense, a 3-4 defense and can't block the nose guard, makes it hard to run a lot of plays. He reminds me a lot of Cody when we had him here."
Jones doesn't compare well to anyone in Alabama's past, perhaps because he has played so many positions. But nevertheless, Georgia coach Mark Richt is aware of the defending Outland Trophy winner's presence at center.
"He's a fantastic player, obviously," Richt said of Jones. "You know, very versatile. All of a sudden he's playing center when he was playing some tackle in the past. To have a guy like that, a senior leader, up front, right where you need him, right down the middle, is huge.
"No doubt, he's got the ability to block a big man like [Jenkins] because he's a big man himself. A lot of centers aren't quite as big as he is. I think it's going to be an advantage for him to have a better chance to man up against a big nose guard like that."
But Jones is defined by more than his size, said Saban.
"He's an extremely smart player," Saban explained. "This is his first year playing center, but he's done a really good job for us. His efficiency as a blocker, whoever he's had to block, has been really good for us this year."
The Jones-Jenkins matchup is the focus, but the entire line is filled with intrigue. When Jenkins goes out, he is spelled by another 350-plus pound nose guard -- Kwame Gaethers.
Alabama players to watch
1. S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix:The sophomore has quietly played well this season, but he will need to turn up the volume on his performance Saturday. Georgia's potent passing game necessitates it.
2. LB C.J. Mosley: The junior linebacker leads Alabama is tackles by a mile -- or 40 to be exact -- and he'll likely have his work cut out for him against Georgia, covering the middle of the field while chipping in on the running game.
3. RB Eddie Lacy: AJ McCarron and the Alabama passing game can finesse the Bulldogs all they'd like, but it's up to Lacy to be the hammer to drive the message home on Saturday night. The junior running back can set the tone early by hitting the Georgia defense with big gains and forcing them to crowd the box.
Georgia players to watch
1. LB Jarvis Jones: It's no wonder Saban called Jones one of the best defensive players in the country this week. The linebacker is fourth in the country in sacks and second in tackles for loss. His ability to terrorize the backfield will either make or break the Alabama offense.
2. WR Tavarres King: If Murray decides to go for broke early, he'll likely target King, who leads Georgia in yards per catch (minimum 10 receptions). The 6-foot-1 senior leads all receivers with eight touchdown receptions.
3. QB Aaron Murray: Murray has struggled on the big stage in the past, falling to LSU in last year's SEC title game and struggling against South Carolina and Florida this season. The junior did something different this week, though, opting out of any media obligations. Is it a sign that's he's focused on the task at hand, or is it a tip that he's putting too much pressure on himself?
NG Jesse Williams versus 'Gurshal': Williams is confident he and the defensive line are up to the task of stopping Georgia's dynamic duo at running back. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have been freshmen standouts, but the combo of T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy can't be overlooked either. "It can kind of make the other guys seem like, 'Oh, it's just like practice,' " Williams said.
By the numbers
64.7: McCarron is completing 64.7 percent of his passes thrown 20 yards or longer this season, an increase of more than 25 percentage points from last season. Play action has been the key. McCarron is completing 73.3 percent of such passes off play action this season, including seven of his 10 touchdowns.
75: Georgia has 75 plays that have gained 20 yards or more, seventh most in FBS this season. The Bulldogs and Texas A&M are the only two teams with at least 50 such completions and 25 such rushes.
7.9: Georgia averages 7.9 yards per play on first down this season, the second-highest average in the nation.
--Numbers provided courtesy ESPN Stats and Information Department.
1dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon