Friday, November 30, 2012
SEC Championship, position-by-position
By David Ching and Alex Scarborough
DawgNation's David Ching and TideNation's Alex Scarborough take a look at Alabama and Georgia position-by-position as Saturday's SEC championship game between the second-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) and third-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) approaches.
QUARTERBACK Alabama: It's hard to believe AJ McCarron is only a junior starting in his first SEC Championship. It seems like so long ago that he took over the reins from Greg McElroy and became the first underclassman to start and win the BCS National Championship Game. He learned how to treat big games like any other. The let-it-rip attitude has paid off this season as he ranks No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency while setting a school record for touchdown passes in a season.
Georgia: Junior Aaron Murray has already put together one of the best seasons in school history. Last week he became the first player in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons and tied Peyton Manning for second in career touchdown passes with 89. The national leader in passing efficiency (177.15), he has thrown 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The big question against Alabama, however, is whether Murray can play loose enough to be effective. He struggled against South Carolina and Florida, with one touchdown and four interceptions.
RUNNING BACK Alabama: While Georgia comes into the game touting a dynamic duo at running back, Alabama does the same. The Todd Gurley-Keith Marshall combo has outgained Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon by just 10 yards, but Alabama's tandem has two more touchdowns. The Crimson Tide are used to a two-man backfield under coach Nick Saban. Lacy played understudy to Trent Richardson last year, Richardson the understudy to Mark Ingram the year before. The last time Alabama was in the SEC Championship Game, Ingram and Richardson combined for 193 yards and three touchdowns against Florida.
Georgia: With Gurley and Marshall healthy, the Bulldogs are in a much different position than a year ago when Isaiah Crowell was trying to gut it out on an injured ankle; Carlton Thomas started and mustered just 28 yards against LSU -- and the Bulldogs’ general inability to move the ball on the ground was costly. Gurley and Marshall have been a revelation for Georgia, helping maintain offensive balance. Gurley is the top running back in the SEC with 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns, while the speedy Marshall has 720 yards and eight touchdowns. If they can move the ball on the ground a bit against Alabama, it will take an enormous amount of pressure off Murray’s shoulders.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Alabama: The wide receiver corps has been banged up and bruised all season in Tuscaloosa. Freshman Chris Black went down in fall camp, DeAndrew White against Ole Miss and Kenny Bell, Alabama's best deep threat, broke his leg last week. But Black, a top-10 prospect coming out of high school who had been expected to contribute this season, appears ready to provide the speed missing beyond starters Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones. Cooper is the big-play threat for McCarron. The freshman leads all receivers in catches (45), yards (767) and touchdowns (eight) this season. Michael Williams, Alabama's starting tight end, is among the best in the country blocking but hasn't been a receiving threat.
Georgia: The wideout position would be one of the most obvious advantages for the Bulldogs entering this game were it not for the season-ending knee injuries that struck Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown -- both of whom ranked among the team’s top receivers when they went down. Malcolm Mitchell, in particular, has picked up the slack since then, scoring touchdowns in four of the last five games and averaging 67.7 yards per game over the last six. He and Tavarres King (34 catches, 704 yards, eight TDs) are the Bulldogs’ top two playmakers, but Chris Conley (16-195), Rantavious Wooten (15-187) and Rhett McGowan (9-110) have all played bigger roles since Brown went down in Game 9 against Ole Miss. Likewise, tight ends Arthur Lynch (18-344) and Jay Rome (10-133) have played a bigger role in the passing game after Brown’s injury.
Alabama: If you're looking for the strength of the Crimson Tide, look no further. There are four potential NFL draft picks among the five starters on the offensive line. Barrett Jones is the defending Outland Trophy winner at center and guard Chance Warmack has been called the most impressive offensive lineman in the country by some scouts. Tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio are the bookends coaches dream of, both coming in at 6-foot-6 and more than 310 pounds. They'll be tested by speedy UGA linebacker Jarvis Jones, fourth in the country in sacks and second in tackles for loss. If there's one area the offensive line has struggled in, it's pass protection.
Georgia: This group entered the season as the biggest question mark on Georgia’s roster and that remains the case entering Saturday’s game. Will Friend’s offensive line has exceeded expectations this season and has even been dominant in a few games. But it has also struggled at times -- most notably in the Bulldogs’ lone loss, a 35-7 defeat at South Carolina. Sophomore center David Andrews has acquitted himself nicely in his first season as a starter. He’ll face a tough challenge in the middle from Alabama senior Jesse Williams. On the edges, true freshman right tackle John Theus and junior left tackle Kenarious Gates have been up and down throughout the season.
Alabama: Alabama's defensive line will have its most difficult task of the season against Georgia as Williams, Damion Square and Co. attempt to stop not only Murray's arm, but the Bulldogs' running game as well. The line has been solid as the defense ranks in the top three in pass and rush defense, but getting pressure on the quarterback has been another matter. Alabama is 42nd in the country in tackles for loss and has had back-to-back games with just one sack each.
Georgia: The Bulldogs seem to have found a combination they like with Kwame Geathers at nose guard, allowing John Jenkins to shift to defensive end opposite Garrison Smith. That trio has been on the field more and more lately, with impressive results in the second half of the season. Smith took over for injured Abry Jones in the starting lineup and leads Georgia’s linemen with 52 tackles. Jenkins and Smith notched season highs with 11 and eight tackles, respectively, last week against Georgia Tech.
Alabama: Alabama's versatile rotation of seven players will fill roles depending on the situation. Junior C.J. Mosley leads the group with 92 tackles -- the most on the team by a mile. But even he can't claim to be a starter. When Alabama is in its base 3-4, he's off the field in favor of Nico Johnson. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard is the most dangerous of the bunch. The 6-foot-6, 248-pound sophomore leads the team in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (nine).
Georgia: Without question the most dangerous playmakers on the Bulldogs defense -- witness All-American Jarvis Jones’ single-handed destruction of Florida’s offense or Alec Ogletree’s 15 punishing tackles last week against Georgia Tech. Ogletree’s brilliant play has been one of the biggest factors in Georgia’s defensive improvement during the second half of the season, with double-digit tackles in the last four games and 87 stops to lead the team despite missing the first four games. Jones and freshman Jordan Jenkins will be key factors Saturday, as the Bulldogs will rely on them to provide pressure on McCarron off the edge and force him into mistakes. Jones leads the nation with six forced fumbles and is among the national leaders with 19.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide's secondary hasn't lacked for big plays this season. They're a big reason why Alabama has more interceptions and turnovers this year than last. Safety Robert Lester has four interceptions and cornerback Dee Milliner has tallied 18 passes defended, good enough for fourth in the country. But the unit isn't impervious to the occasional slip, as evidenced by games against LSU and Texas A&M. During that two-game stretch, Alabama allowed 21 of 38 conversions on third down, six of seven red-zone scores and an average of 274.5 passing yards. But the Crimson Tide are No. 3 in the country in pass defense, No. 5 in passing efficiency defense and No. 1in scoring defense.
Georgia: All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo has returned to his status as a turnover generating machine of late -- with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the last five games. Sophomore cornerback Damian Swann is another emerging playmaker who had a hand in two takeaways against both Florida and Ole Miss. Otherwise, the secondary has been quietly steady. Strong safety Shawn Williams made some noise with his comments about the defense playing soft -- now viewed as the turning point of the season as the Bulldogs have allowed only 8.2 points per game since -- and ranks second on the team with 78 stops. Likewise, cornerback Sanders Commings has been quietly effective with 34 of his 40 tackles being solo stops.
Alabama: If there's one area Alabama has made drastic improvement this season, it's in special teams. Last year the Tide struggled with field goals, kickoffs and punts. This year, they're excelling in all three areas. Cade Foster has rebounded from making no 50-plus yard field goal attempts to being three of five from that range and has boosted his touchbacks from five to 37. Jeremy Shelley hasn't missed a field goal or an extra point all year. Cody Mandell has improved at punter, increasing his average from 39.3 yards to 44.1. The one area of concern, however, has been on punt return, where Christion Jones has two fumbles against Western Carolina and a number of questionable decisions.
Georgia: Mark Richt said this week that his desire for Georgia’s special teams units was that they have a “solid” season following a disastrous 2011. The Bulldogs have been solid, but they haven’t exactly been spectacular. True freshmen at kicker (Marshall Morgan) and punter (Collin Barber) needed time to settle in, but seem to have done so. Morgan has hit 25 PATs in a row after missing four in the first seven games. He is only 3-for-6 on field goals in the last five games, however. Meanwhile, Barber has been outstanding in the second half, with opponents returning only four punts in the last five games for a total of just 27 yards -- almost all of which came on a 19-yard return by Ole Miss. Return men Mitchell and McGowan haven’t made a ton of big plays, but Mitchell, in particular, is capable. His 47-yard kickoff return to open last week’s game against Georgia Tech set the tone for what would quickly become a rout.