- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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A conference title and a trip to the national championship are both on the line Saturday.
For Alabama, one of its top receiving weapons is down. Facing the SEC's No. 2 pass defense, this isn't exactly what coach Nick Saban or his team needed in what is now the biggest game of the season.
But that doesn't mean the Crimson Tide is void of talent at that position. For starters, freshman Amari Cooper has been fantastic this season, catching a team-high 47 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns.
However, Georgia knows what Cooper can do and will stop at nothing to neutralize him Saturday. That means someone has to step up with Kenny Bell, arguably Alabama's best deep threat, out. Someone has to take the pressure off Cooper and provide some help for quarterback AJ McCarron.
That person will be junior Kevin Norwood, who has quietly compiled 26 receptions for 395 yards and four touchdowns. He isn't exactly the deep threat that Bell was, but a solid outing from him should help Alabama's offense be the balanced unit it wants to be against Georgia's top-flight defense.
The Tide could get by on running the ball a little more. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have more than proved that they are capable of having the offense run through them. But with a defense like Georgia's, which is playing its best and has allowed an average of 59.3 rushing yards and just 1.9 yards per carry in its past three SEC games, the Tide needs balance.
It needs to be able to go over the top, and it needs Norwood to step up. This offense operates at its best when it can keep the defense guessing with the run and play-action. According to ESPN Stats & Information, McCarron is completing 73.3 percent of his passes off play-action this season. He's thrown 10 touchdown passes off play-action -- twice as many as last season -- and seven of those have come on passes thrown 20 yards or longer.
So if Alabama is going to walk out of the Georgia Dome with a victory, Norwood has to play at a different level, and he will. Cooper will help take some pressure away from him, but Norwood has good speed on the outside, which will help him beat Georgia on a couple of big plays Saturday. He's also tough enough to extend plays and drives when he's draped by defenders.
Norwood has battled a leg injury for most of the season, but he says he's better than ever, which makes him that much more of a problem for Georgia's defense. A healthier Norwood will pierce the defense with critical conversions to keep Alabama moving.
Norwood has been solid to this point, but there's more on his plate this weekend. When his number is repeatedly called, he'll repeatedly step up to get Alabama closer and closer to its second straight trip to the national title game.
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough