ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia coach Mark Richt often remarks how he had serious doubts whether the Bulldogs’ offensive line could cut it when the team opened spring practice this year.
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. 2 ALABAMA VS. NO. 3 GEORGIA
Saturday, 4 p.m.
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Records: Georgia 11-1 (7-1 SEC), Alabama 11-1 (7-1)
Last week: Georgia beat Georgia Tech 42-10, Alabama beat Auburn 49-0
What’s the Story?: The implications involved in this game are clear: win and play for a BCS championship. Alabama has claimed the BCS title in two of the last three seasons (2009 and 2011) and enters as a 7.5-point favorite. Georgia is playing in this game for the second consecutive season, but it suffered a 42-10 blowout loss against LSU last year in Atlanta. The Bulldogs will need a much more composed performance to have a chance against Alabama and its powerful defense.
Five headlines: Check out our Insider recap of this week’s biggest storylines from Thursday.
Players to watch:
1. Aaron Murray: The Bulldogs’ quarterback is the biggest wild card entering Saturday’s game. He has been brilliant over the last month with 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last 18 quarters, but he also struggled on the big stage this season against Florida and South Carolina. If he performs poorly against Alabama, it’s hard to imagine Georgia winning the game.
2. Jarvis Jones: A player who often shines when the spotlight is the brightest, Jones and Alec Ogletree have formed a devastating outside-inside combination. With 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, Jones has expertly harassed most opposing quarterbacks and needs to do so against Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
3. Bacarri Rambo: The 2011 All-American has been on fire in recent weeks, intercepting three passes, forcing three fumbles and recovering one in the last five games. The Bulldogs don’t have many areas that are obvious advantages entering this game. A takeaway or two would be an enormous momentum boost for the underdogs.
1. AJ McCarron: Ranked second nationally in passing efficiency behind only Murray, McCarron went nine games before throwing his first interception of the season. The junior quarterback has had his brilliant moments in big games -- think last season’s BCS championship game against LSU -- and his not-so-great outings -- all but the final drive against LSU this year and a two-interception game against Texas A&M. He typically excels in his “game manager” role for Alabama and must avoid major mistakes on Saturday.
2. Amari Cooper: While running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon power the Tide’s strong ground game, freshman receiver Cooper is the key factor in the passing attack -- particularly after second-leading receiver Kenny Bell suffered a broken leg last week against Auburn. Cooper is far and away the team leader with 45 catches, 767 yards and eight touchdowns and needs to help provide some balance to the offense against Georgia.
3. Adrian Hubbard: Alabama has strong defensive players throughout its depth chart, but Hubbard is the most consistent at providing destructive plays in opponents’ backfields. The 6-foot-6 outside linebacker leads Alabama with nine tackles for a loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles. The Tide’s collection of linebackers -- also including leading tackler C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson -- will be responsible for finishing plays as Georgia attempts the difficult task of establishing its running game.
Georgia’s running game vs. Alabama’s defensive front
Thanks to its strong defensive line and big, physical linebackers, Alabama ranks second nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 77 yards per game. Opponents are averaging just 2.36 yards per carry and have rushed for only seven touchdowns all season. So the Tide presents perhaps the biggest challenge the Bulldogs will have faced all season as they attempt to move the ball on the ground. Freshmen Todd Gurley (6.5 yards per carry) and Keith Marshall (6.7) have proven that they can make big plays when the offensive line clears space for them to operate, but those opportunities will be hard to come by against Alabama.
By the Numbers
Check out today’s Insider post with stat breakdowns from ESPN Sports and Information.
On Deck: The winner of this game will play No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) for the BCS championship. The loser will discover its bowl fate on Sunday.