The Georgia Bulldogs are playing with house money in Monday’s national championship against Alabama in Atlanta. When you’ve gone 37 seasons without winning a national title, a chance at greatness like Georgia has experienced in 2017 is impossible to anticipate.
But it’s here.
These overachieving third-ranked Bulldogs (13-1) have scraped and clawed all the way into a matchup against the Crimson Tide to decide who gets to celebrate a national title on the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
What happens if Georgia doesn’t win tonight? Well, fans will be disappointed. You can’t make it all the way to the championship game and lose without being a bit frustrated, even it is to the Crimson Tide, which are seeking their fifth national title under coach Nick Saban since 2009.
However, I can guarantee not a single life-long Bulldogs supporter will jump ship if tonight’s game doesn’t go their way. Nobody who was experienced all the years and years of yearning for this moment will find this one loss unacceptable, especially after wobbling through an 8-5 season in 2016 under then first-year coach Kirby Smart.
Even though the talent on the field may favor Georgia, conventional wisdom supports the notion that Alabama will be able to tap into its enormous pool of championship-game experience to win this one. The Crimson Tide are 1-1 in championship games since the current playoff format was instituted in 2014.
However, I’d seriously doubt a single player or coach with Georgia’s program came this far to go home complacent with losing in the national championship game — even if it is to most revered program in the college football landscape. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Georgia’s players will be loose from the opening kickoff, feeling the energy of playing in a championship game just 70 miles from Sanford Stadium in Athens. The Bulldogs learned their lesson last week after successfully digging out of a 17-point first-half deficit to win a double-overtime thriller against Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl: Playing stiff and rigid will not get the job done again.
And the Bulldogs have just the right mix of talent to pull off the victory against the Crimson Tide, which on Sunday were a four-point favorite in Las Vegas for tonight’s game.
Georgia’s biggest key against Alabama will be getting the ball into the hands of senior running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, who both will begin preparing for the NFL draft after the Bulldogs’ national championship outing. Both of Georgia’s powerful running backs can slowly chip away at the Crimson Tide defense, which at times, has been vulnerable against the run.
Alabama will be a bit weaker with leading linebacker Anfernee Jennings out after surgery this week on his knee, and multi-purpose defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick saying he will be able to play, despite a bruised kidney.
Georgia needs to keep it simple. Grind the clock. Let Georgia’s running backs continue to see touches, knowing the Chubb and Michel duo that combined for five rushing scores in the Rose Bowl will eventually be able to break a long one against Alabama.
There’s no doubt Michel and Chubb will be good for at least 25 touches each, if needed, to keep control of the field position battle and alleviate some of the weight on the shoulders of freshman super-talent at quarterback Jake Fromm.
Momentum will be everything for Georgia against a Saban-coached Alabama squad. If the Crimson Tide sense any blood in the water, they’ll circle and start to gnaw away, just like in the 24-6 win against defending-national champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Georgia’s defense also needs to come out salty if it wants to survive a likely back-and-forth battle with Alabama. The Bulldogs can clamp down on the Crimson Tide running game with their tremendous depth at linebacker, led by senior Lorenzo Carter and junior Roquan Smith, who should announce by the end of the week he’s turning pro.
Yes, Alabama is favored to win and for good reason. This is the third consecutive season the Crimson Tide have lined up and played in the championship game, while the Bulldogs haven’t been here since the 1982 season.
But don’t count out these Bulldogs. Georgia’s managed to eclipse every expectation for the 2017 season. Winning the national championship would truly be the best icing on what’s been a delicious cake this year.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Bill_Murphy313 on Twitter.