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Alabama (12-1) vs. Georgia (13-1)
8:15 p.m. ET Jan. 8 [ESPN]
Alabama -4, O/U: 45
If this national championship looks a little familiar to you, well, then you probably live in the Southeast.
The 2017 national title game (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) is an all-SEC affair between No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama. It’s a clash of teams with similar styles, similar coaches and players who come from similar places. For all intents and purposes, this is a second SEC title game with just a bit more at stake.
“Each time I play an SEC game, I know what type of game I’m going to get,” said Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans. “It’s going to be a physical game. I’m going to go against great athletes. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide haven’t played since Kirby Smart arrived in Athens, but we can take away plenty from both teams’ tendencies heading into this game. These are five matchups that will dictate this contest. There’s also a prediction below, for those interested in those types of things.
Georgia’s Offensive Line vs. Alabama’s Defensive Front
This is a standard highlight in high-profile matchups such as these, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less critical. Georgia’s offensive line went from weakness to strength this season, and that group’s fueled the Bulldogs’ stellar running game and the success of Jake Fromm. But as Alabama showed last week against Clemson, it can dominate games when its front is playing well. The loss of Anfernee Jennings (knee) will hurt the Tide, especially against the run, but it’s still going to be up to Georgia’s offensive line to stem a ferocious front and the nation’s top-ranked defense. Alabama is going to funnel defenders into the box in order to stop the run. Da’Ron Payne is the Crimson Tide’s top-graded PFF College player (85.5), and his bulk will seriously challenge Georgia center Lamont Gaillard, who grades out as the nation’s 11th overall center.
That matchup within this matchup is huge because it’ll dictate Georgia’s rushing efforts up the middle. If the Bulldogs’ rushing attack is forced outside with frequency, it’s going to be hard for them to contend with Alabama’s overall sideline-to-sideline speed.
Can Georgia keep the edge on Jalen Hurts?
Without much question, Jalen Hurts is the most important player in this game. His arm will likely decide how well the Tide play offensively, but it’s his feet that will dictate Georgia’s coverage. Alabama uses RPOs and option plays better than most, and the result is Hurts rushing for 808 yards this season, including sack yards. He might not be the most dangerous passer, but his ability to pull the ball down at any time and make a play is a nightmare for opponents.
Georgia doesn’t necessarily need to keep Hurts in the pocket, but it does need to keep containment. For that to work, outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter must maintain the edges. Bellamy (6-foot-5) and Carter (6-foot-6) are both long, which helps in that process, and they’ve both been decent against the run this year. PFF College gives Carter a 76.5 grade against the run and Bellamy a 77.4. But the real key to Georgia defending Carter will be linebacker Roquan Smith. One of the top players in the country at his position, Smith will be asked to serve as a spy on Hurts on occasion – though that does take him out of his main strength in coverage – and he must keep him contained. If Smith and the Georgia linebackers win that battle, it’s going to be hard for Alabama to move the ball consistently.
This matchup will be against Baker most of the time on the right side, but we’re including Davis here because Ridley moves around. Either way, this is Alabama’s best receiver against two Georgia corners who’ve had really strong seasons. Baker and Davis rank 27th and 29th among corners nationally per PFF College, and Baker, particularly, has been great grading out at a 85.7 in coverage, which is 23rd in the country.
Just how important is containing Ridley for Georgia? Consider that Ridley’s 59 catches are 43 more than anyone else on the Crimson Tide. The junior wide out has been targeted 96 times, which is 32 percent of Alabama’s passing attempts – really, the number is even higher when you consider Ridley hasn’t been in for much garbage time under backup QB Tua Tagovailoa. That’s a huge offensive emphasis on Ridley, and when he has success – like he did against Clemson – the Tide do as well. The times Ridley has been the least effective this season are against LSU and Auburn. One was a loss, the other one of the closer games Alabama played all year. Contain Ridley, and you take away Hurts’ safety blanket and top threat.
Evans/Mack Wilson vs. Sony Michel/Nick Chubb
This could easily cycle toward the entire Alabama front – Payne, Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs are fantastic run defenders – but we’re spotlighting Alabama’s middle linebackers here. Chubb and Michel, not to mention D’Andre Swift, are brilliant. Last week’s Rose Bowl display was no fluke, even if it came against a defense that’s not close to Alabama’s quality. Chubb rates as PFF College’s sixth overall running back in the country, while Michel slots at 26th. Both are bruising feature backs, yet they roll at you fresh and in waves. That tandem, with Swift occasionally spelling them in passing situations, is lethal. The entire offense flows from that pair, including the Bulldogs’ deadly downfield passing offense.
Evans, Alabama’s senior middle linebacker, is a fantastic foil to Georgia’s running backs. He’s instinctive, agile from side-to-side and a thumper when he collides with ball carriers. Alabama’s top-graded player outside of Payne, Evans (85.3) is the equal to Chubb/Michel. The real question is will Alabama’s other linebackers step up. Shaun Dion Hamilton is supposed to be starting for the Tide, but he suffered a season-ending injury in November. That’s thrust five-star sophomore Mack Wilson into his spot. Every bit as freakishly athletic as Evans, Wilson is a game-changer when he plays well. That’s what happened last week when Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown and finished as Alabama’s top-graded player (89.9). If Wilson can continue that strong play and support the run, the Tide should be able to limit the Bulldog rushing attack despite Jennings’ absence.
Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. Jake Fromm
Where will Fitzpatrick line up from play to play? Your guess is as good as mine, and that’s the challenge for Fromm this week. Fitzpatrick is a safety by label, but he’ll play plenty of nickel, corner and even serve as a blitzer off the edge. The Thorpe Award recipient is the best defensive back in college football, and he does a bit of everything – and yes, he will play this week. Fromm, for his part, is a precocious true freshman, who’s ably piloted Georgia to an SEC Championship and a classic Rose Bowl win. Fromm is too often labeled a game manager by the untrained eye. He’s not asked to slice up a defense, but he’s excelled when given the opportunity. Fromm is particularly potent in terms of hitting the deep ball, where he holds the highest passer rating of all FBS quarterbacks this year, according to PFF College.
The challenge for Fromm this week will be to identify Fitzpatrick’s location, and, honestly, attempt to stay away from each play. Georgia hasn’t faced a defensive back quite like Fitzpatrick this season. If Fromm isn’t careful, he could find himself sacked and robbed in center field by Fitzpatrick. Stay away from him, and the Bulldogs’ passing attack has a chance to thrive.
This isn’t an easy game to pick because of the similarities between both teams.
In some ways, I lean Georgia. Its defense isn’t quite as stout as what Alabama brings to the table, but I trust the Bulldogs’ more on offense. They have a true identity there with a stellar rushing attack and steady quarterback play. Alabama, in its initial season under Brian Daboll, hasn’t ever seemed to find that type of rhythm. That said, the Alabama defense isn’t Oklahoma’s. Georgia hasn’t faced a defensive front of Alabama’s quality all year, and I expect this game to look much closer to the first Auburn game than the second for Georgia’s offense.
In the end, I just like the Tide a bit more here. That defense, when it’s playing pissed off, like it is now, is incomparable, as Clemson found out last week. Offensively, I think the Tide will establish enough of a run game to put Hurts in the best position possible for success.
Smart isn’t the coaches who’ve come before him, and he has a better roster to lean on than the majority of his predecessors did. But I can’t declare the pupil – any pupil of Nick Saban’s – better than the teacher until I actually see one beat him. This all-SEC clash will be close, but in the end Saban will tie Bear Bryant with his sixth national championship.