Georgia Bulldogs: AJ McCarron
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
However, that might be the case with Bulldogs junior Ramik Wilson, whose performance at one of the starting inside linebacker positions could have a big impact on how the rebuilding defense functions in the first several games.
Georgia signed four talented inside linebackers in its most recent recruiting class, but leaning too heavily on the youngsters might be a problem in the early going with the Bulldogs facing Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first month of the season. That leaves the onus on Wilson and fellow junior Amarlo Herrera -- the team’s top returning tackler with 70 stops a season ago -- to perform capably while the freshmen learn on the job.
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It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEven South Carolina's Steve Spurrier concedes that Alabama has been college football's best team in big games in recent seasons.
Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.
“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”
That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.
It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.
Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.
Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.
Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.
Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.
If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.
The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will certainly have high hopes in 2013 with Aaron Murray returning to lead the offense.
One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.
Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.
Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.
The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.
If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.
This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.
There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.
This time a year ago, Damontre Moore, Dee Milliner, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Matthews, Tre Mason, Ace Sanders and Manziel weren’t exactly household names.
We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.
Today's Take Two topic: If you could pick an offense in 2013, which one would you take -- Alabama's or Georgia's?
Take 1: Chris Low
To me, the three best offenses in the SEC next year should belong to, in alphabetical order, Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M. You couldn’t go wrong with any of the three. If I were picking one, though, I’d take the Crimson Tide. It starts with senior quarterback AJ McCarron, who knows that offense inside and out, also knows the league, and doesn’t make mistakes. In the past two seasons, he has thrown 46 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. He also has been at his best in each of the past two BCS National Championships. There’s no substitute for having a veteran quarterback who delivers in the big games.
So start casting those votes in our SportsNation poll, and we'll go over the results in the next few days.
Here are the five candidates:
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama: He looked like a crimson-and-white bulldozer running over Notre Dame defenders on his way to 140 rushing yards in Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. His 20-yard touchdown romp three minutes into the game set the tone for what was an utter mismatch.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football put on a post-Heisman Trophy show with a Cotton Bowl-record 516 yards of total offense in the Aggies' 41-13 demolition of Oklahoma. He accounted for four touchdowns and set an FBS bowl record with 229 rushing yards on 17 carries. Manziel joined Vince Young as the only two players in history to rush for more than 200 yards and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: His start to the game was shaky, as Murray threw two interceptions in the first quarter. But he came roaring back to set Georgia bowl records with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 45-31 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Murray was lights-out on third down and threw two of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to break a 31-31 tie.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron obviously likes the big stages. After winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors in last season's BCS National Championship, he followed up that performance with four touchdown passes against Notre Dame last week to lead the Tide to their second consecutive national title. He directed touchdown drives on each of Alabama's first three possessions and was 8-of-9 passing in those three drives.
Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina: In what turned out to be Sanders' farewell to the Gamecocks, he scored three touchdowns in their 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught a pair of scoring passes. He also had a clutch fourth-down catch to keep South Carolina's game-winning drive alive and finished with nine receptions for 92 yards.
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: What will Johnny Football do for an encore? After becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, after setting the SEC record for total yards (5,116), all eyes will be on Manziel in his second year as the Aggies' quarterback. He'll be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and two big receiving targets. But Manziel will probably still be one of the slipperiest players in the country. If he grows more as a passer, watch out, because he'll be even more dangerous in 2013.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
The sixth-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) will instead play No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) in the Capital One Bowl with far less at stake, although they can still become just the third Georgia team ever to win 12 games in a season -- a win that could send off a valuable senior class in the right way after they helped re-establish Georgia as one of the SEC’s top programs.
Let’s review our Georgia Power Rankings entering bowl season (last week’s rank in parentheses):
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Dogs pull off fake puntThe score: 0-0
The situation: Georgia faced fourth-and-10 from the Alabama 36 on the first play of the second quarter.
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Two players barely a year out of high school football would decide the fate of Alabama’s 2012 season.
Boy did it pay off.
“Two big plays by freshmen there,” senior center Barrett Jones said.
Big doesn’t even begin to describe them. You need more hyperbole for this one, like mammoth or gargantuan.
The first play came on third-and-5 at the 50-yard line. Georgia held a 28-25 lead, and it appeared that the Tide were squandering their great field position. With about four minutes remaining, quarterback AJ McCarron stuck the ball in T.J. Yeldon’s gut, and the frosh cut to the right side and barreled his way past the first-down marker.
It was a play everyone inside the Georgia Dome or plastered to a TV set knew was coming.
Yet Georgia’s defense, which had been giving up rushing yards like men give up beads at Mardi Gras, couldn’t stop the force that was Yeldon.
“He went out there and just ran people over,” offensive lineman D.J. Fluker said of the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder. “You can’t find that too often.”
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Amari Cooper hauls in the winning TD pass in front of Georgia's Damian Swann.
It was a simple post play to the left side, where it’s better if Amari Cooper releases on the inside. He cut outside and stopped momentarily as he looked for McCarron. Once he saw the play was coming, he left a helpless Damian Swann in his dust before hauling McCarron’s perfectly thrown pass and waltzing into the end zone to give Alabama the winning score in a 32-28 victory.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and I wanted to come out here and be a big-time player,” said Cooper, who finished with a game-high seven catches for 127 yards and the key score. “I envisioned it before it happened, and it came true.”
He probably envisioned it because it looked easy on film, as he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier felt confident taking shots at the Dawgs.
“That’s what we want as receivers,” Cooper said. “We want to take those shots, and that’s what we did.”
It helps that Cooper, who goes by the nickname Hollywood because of his on-field skill, is an extraordinary athlete. Before his touchdown, his play of the night came when he went up top and snatched a 44-yard prayer from McCarron away from one of the most physical players in the game in safety Bacarri Rambo in the second quarter. After that, he spent the rest of the night sprinting past or cutting by Georgia defenders and bailing Alabama’s offense out in crucial situations.
“He’s able to do the things that you would think a normal freshman wouldn’t do,” Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He’s making big plays in big games, like he did today.
“He takes it and runs with it and lives to that name. He’s something special.”
To Jones, Cooper just has a different gear than a lot of players. One moment he is side-by-side with a defender; the next, he’s gone -- with the ball.
“He’s one of the fastest people I’ve ever seen,” Jones said.
Cooper stretched the field and gave Alabama more running room, which helped free Yeldon, who entered the game with just three 100-yard performances but carried the ball a game-high 25 times for a backbreaking 153 yards and a touchdown. While giving Eddie Lacy the occasional breather, Yeldon helped Alabama register an SEC championship record 350 rushing yards Saturday.
“It’s like he’s been here three times himself,” Lacy said. “As a freshman, you can’t ask him to play any better than he did tonight.”
You can’t ask more from either. They did so much for Alabama in the biggest game of either's career. Yeldon had nine runs that resulted in first downs, while Cooper had three first-down plays. Together, they touched the ball 32 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson tells both Cooper and Yeldon before every game to play with purpose. On Saturday, they did that and then some. This is only the beginning for these fabulous freshmen.
“I’m glad they’re freshmen because they are going to be here for a while,” offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio said.
That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.
ATLANTA -- In what lacked the defense of a usual SEC game, No. 2 Alabama outlasted No. 3 Georgia 32-28 to claim the 2012 SEC championship. Alabama is now headed to Miami to face No. 1 Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7.
Alabama's game-winning score came on a 45-yard pass from AJ McCarron to a wide-open Amari Cooper with 3 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was over when: After driving down to Alabama's 8-yard line, Aaron Murray threw a pass to Chris Conley at the 5-yard line that was tipped. Conley came down with the ball with 5 seconds remaining, but time expired before Georgia could run one last play.
Game ball goes to: If you looked up the word "workhorse" in the dictionary, you'd find a picture of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon next to it. Lacy rushed for 181 yards on 20 carries and had two touchdowns. He registered 176 of those yards through the first three quarters, averaging 10.4 a carry during that time. Alabama's offense was at its best when Lacy touched the ball the majority of times on drives. Yeldon, only a freshman, carried the ball 25 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. His first-down run on third-and-5 on Alabama's final scoring drive set up the Tide's game-winning touchdown.
Stat of the game: Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) outrushed Georgia 350-113 and averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the process -- a new rushing record for the SEC championship game. Georgia (11-2, 7-1) averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. That makes three consecutive games in which Georgia's defense surrendered 300-plus yards on the ground.
Best call: On the first play of the second quarter, Georgia coach Mark Richt stepped out of his shell and called a fake punt on fourth-and-10 at Alabama's 36-yard line. Tight end Arthur Lynch took the snap and zipped a pass to cornerback Sanders Commings for 16 yards. Two plays later, Murray threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Rome to give the Bulldogs the early 7-0 lead.
What it means for Alabama: The win assures the Tide of making their second straight national championship game and third in four years. Alabama, which is second in the BCS standings, will face top-ranked Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
What it means for Georgia: The Bulldogs will miss out on a BCS bowl game and could be headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl to take on a Big 12 opponent. The last time Georgia was in the Cotton Bowl was 1983, when the Bulldogs beat Texas 10-9.
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.
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The Bulldogs’ veteran defense thoroughly dominated a line that had to replace three NFL draftees at first before offensive line coach Will Friend’s group finally began to make progress. And that process has continued during the regular season, with the line exceeding its coaches' modest expectations as the new lineup continued to grow more comfortable as a group.
“They’ve improved each week and we’ve got to keep going that way,” said Friend, whose players are among the biggest factors in Saturday’s SEC championship matchup with Alabama according to many analysts. “The season’s a long way from over and there’s still another month left, I guess, to keep improving and keep going. So they’ve gotten better, but at the same time we’ve got to be more consistent.”
The low point of the season was certainly Georgia’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina, when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, in particular, helped whip the Bulldogs up front. That was a painful experience for the line, but it was also a valuable lesson for the group.
“It wasn’t that hard for them to realize what we had to work on and we needed to play better,” Friend said. “We try to be pretty honest with how we think guys played and I feel like they kind of respond better when you tell them the truth and tell them how you feel. So they knew.
“And of course, if you’ve got a good group, they know anyway, so they could tell and they saw what they needed to work on and it was just go back to work. It would have been no different if we would have played better.”
Alabama’s dominant defense is not particularly similar to South Carolina’s in structure, but it is even more effective when it comes to results. The Crimson Tide rank among the national leaders in every major defensive category and represents perhaps the biggest matchup challenge that Friend’s line will have faced this season.
“They’ve got a great defense,” Friend said. “Obviously the stats speak for themselves. When you put the tape on, you see how well they play the techniques and how hard they play and how physical they are. They’re well coached, they’re focused on what they’re doing, they play it just like their coaches want them to play it and they’re very impressive, so it’s a big challenge.”
NO. 3 GEORGIA VS. NO. 2 ALABAMA
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
1: Play-action passing: Both quarterbacks in this game are experts at passing after play-action fakes, but Alabama’s powerful running game has helped quarterback AJ McCarron throw downfield off play action with devastating effectiveness.
McCarron has completed 64.7 percent of his passes that covered 20 yards or more -- an increase of more than 25 percentage points from last season. The percentage goes up even more after faking a handoff to a running back. McCarron has completed 73.3 percent of his passes of 20 yards or more after a play-action fake and has used such situations to throw seven touchdowns.
2. Balanced Bulldogs: Only six offenses accounted for more explosive plays -- ones that gained at least 20 yards -- than Georgia’s 75 this season, but an even more impressive aspect of the Bulldogs’ big-play offense is its balance.
Only Georgia and Texas A&M have at least 50 completions of 20-plus and at least 25 rushes that covered that distance.
The Bulldogs also have a habit of making good use of first down to keep the chains moving or find the end zone. Georgia’s average of 7.9 yards per play on first down ranks second nationally, and it averaged at least five yards on first down in every game except its lone loss of the season against South Carolina.
3: Tide running wild: Want a sign that a team has a dominant running game? When Alabama wants to run, it has been awfully hard to stop.
The Crimson Tide is averaging 6.0 yards per carry on designed runs -- an average that leads the SEC. And backs such as Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon typically encounter very little resistance as they begin moving downhill. Alabama averages an SEC-best 4.2 yards before the back makes first contact with a defender.