January 11, 2022
The Alabama Crimson Tide waited until the second half of the SEC Championship Game to blow the Georgia Bulldogs out of the water. That game happened over a month ago. Since then, Nick Saban’s and Kirby Smart’s teams reasserted themselves as the nation’s best with one-sided wins in the College Football Playoff Semifinals. When the two teams collided in the National Championship Game, Georgia finally overcame its SEC rival.
Let’s recap the game’s outcome, top performers, best prospects, and look ahead to 2023.
Smart entered the National Championship Game with an 0-4 record against Saban. One of those losses came just over a month ago, and another came in the 2018 championship. However, Monday night was the right time for Smart to exorcise his demons and hand his mentor a significant loss.
Georgia won the game 33-18 behind an impeccable fourth quarter from quarterback Stetson Bennett. With time running out, Bryce Young threw a pick-six to Kelee Ringo, which sealed the game for Georgia. The Bulldogs fought hard to establish the run in the second half, which opened their offense in time for a convincing fourth quarter push where they outscored Alabama 20-9.
Alabama’s offense only mustered one touchdown in the game. They settled for four field goals and suffered some setbacks at the hands of Georgia’s dominant defense and special teams. The Bulldogs blocked a field goal and stopped a two-point conversion.
The 15-point win at Lucas Oil Stadium was the closest national championship since Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa beat Georgia 26-23 four years ago.
We’ll start by examining the top performers for the new reigning national champions. Sophomore defensive tackle Jalen Carter found himself on the wrong end of a penalty, but the Florida native made up for those mistakes. Carter blocked a field goal and recorded six pressures.
Edge rusher Nolan Smith finished the game with seven tackles, including two tackles for loss, and a sack. He and linebackers Quay Walker and Channing Tindall were crucial members of the pass rush that made Young so uneasy.
Safety Lewis Cine allowed 56 yards in coverage, but he came roaring down from his safety position to make seven tackles.
Alabama had some equally impressive individual performances. Christian Harris led his team with seven tackles, including four for loss, and three sacks. Freshman Dallas Turner also joined the party, sacking Bennett twice.
Will Anderson Jr. didn’t post the most impressive stat line, but he terrorized Georgia’s offense throughout the game.
Georgia’s defense features up to 12 players that could hear their names in the upcoming draft. Linebacker Nakobe Dean, nose tackle Jordan Davis, and defensive end Travon Walker are the best of that group.
Dean’s size (6’0″, 225 lbs.) and athleticism make him an ideal fit for modern NFL defenses. Teams want players capable of playing in space and contributing on three downs against evolving passing games. Some teams won’t like Dean’s smaller frame, but he was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded linebacker in the FBS this season.
Davis won the Bednarik Award (given to the nation’s top defensive player) this year. He has freaky size (6’6″, 340 lbs.) but isn’t a contributor as a pass rusher. Nose tackles are mostly two-down space eaters, and I expect that’ll limit Davis’ draft stock. He gets too tired when asked to play every down, and we saw him wear down in the SEC Championship Game.
Travon Walker has a more balanced combination of size (6’5″, 275 lbs.), speed, and athleticism. He can play on every down and contribute as a pass rusher. There’s a chance he sneaks into the bottom of the first-round.
Alabama’s defense had its share of top NFL prospects. Safety Jordan Battle, defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis, and linebackers Christian Harris and Henry To’oTo’o have the potential to go in the top two rounds.
Battle is a 6’1″, 210 lb. junior who played over 250 snaps in the box, slot, and at free safety this season. He doesn’t have the range to play single-high in the NFL, but his profile reveals a player who rarely misses tackles in run support and doesn’t allow deep passing plays over his head. Safeties rarely get drafted in the first-round, but Battle should go in the top 50 selections.
Mathis was a pleasant surprise for Alabama this year. The 6’4″, 312 lb. senior amassed 10.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in his breakout season, including sacks in the SEC Championship Game and Cotton Bowl. He stands out in a defensive tackle class with few elite prospects.
Harris and To’oTo’o formed one of the nation’s best linebacker duos this season. I don’t view either as a first-round pick, but they have the athleticism to earn Day 2 grades.
We can look at recruiting to predict which teams have the best chances of returning to the playoff and National Championship Game in 2023. According to 247Sports, Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State finished inside the top four for recruiting in 2021 and are once again among that elite group in 2022.
Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud returning in 2022 give the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes a leg up on Georgia, who could have a quarterback controversy on its hands.
All three teams expect to lose plenty of starters to the pros, but Alabama (with Young, Will Anderson Jr., Brian Branch, and Dallas Turner) and Ohio State (Stroud, Marvin Harrison Jr., TreVeyon Henderson, Jaxson Smith-Njigba, and Miyan Williams) have the best returning talent.
Nick Saban and Ryan Day should have their programs at the title race’s forefront next season.