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Alabama gets exposed, the key to beating Georgia and more college football takeaways

What an epic rivalry weekend.

Not only did Jim Harbaugh finally beat Ohio State, but he helped Michigan advance to the Big Ten title game in the process. Alabama was held scoreless for three quarters and needed last-minute heroics and four overtimes to win the Iron Bowl. And despite losing six straight meetings against the Sooners, Oklahoma State sacked Caleb Williams six times en route to a wild 37-33 win.

The regular season is over, and conference championship weekend is coming up. Our reporters break down the college football landscape, from playoff hopefuls to Heisman contenders.

Alabama gets exposed

For 58 minutes and 25 seconds, Alabama was a mess.

On the road at Auburn, nothing was going right offensively. Quarterback Bryce Young‘s Heisman Trophy hopes were circling the drain and running back Brian Robinson Jr. struggled to move the chains.

The defense played well, but the offense was threatening to score three or fewer points for the first time during the Nick Saban era.

And while Young rallied the troops in the final 1:35, throwing the game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left and then winning the game during the fourth overtime on a 2-point conversion, it doesn’t change the fact that Auburn exposed a vulnerable Alabama team one week before an SEC championship game against Georgia.

The real issue: the offensive line, which gave up seven sacks and a total of 17 plays for zero or negative yards.

It continued a trend we’ve seen all season long. Alabama’s line, which usually hits its stride during the second half of the season, has continued to stumble down the stretch, allowing pressure on 28.3% of dropbacks, a figure that ranks ninth in the SEC.

On Saturday, Saban was forced to pull center Darrian Dalcourt for Seth McLaughlin, who wasn’t even on the two-deep depth chart entering the game, and replace right tackle Damieon George with Chris Owens during the second half. It helped just enough to win the game, but what will it mean against Georgia? The Tigers’ defensive front is good, but it’s not as good as the Bulldogs’, which has six more sacks and has missed 58 fewer tackles this season.

Whether it’s Dalcourt, who is playing on a bum ankle, or McLaughlin, who has played sparingly in his two years on campus, it’s fair to wonder how they’ll handle 340-pound future All-America nose guard Jordan Davis.

If they can’t protect Young and create some running lanes for Robinson, there might not be enough time in the world to beat Georgia, win the SEC and reach the playoff. — Alex Scarborough

How someone can beat Georgia

There’s a good argument to be made that, if you have to dig deep into the advanced metrics to make a case against Georgia, it’s probably not worth making the case. Indeed, you’ll hear no Bulldogs slander here. Kirby Smart has the nation’s best team.

But let’s say we’re given a message from the future, and it tells us that Georgia won’t win the national championship. In that universe, what might have gone wrong?

For the bulk of this season, the conventional wisdom was that an offensive juggernaut would go toe-to-toe with Georgia’s overwhelming defense, and more often than not, the name of that juggernaut was Ohio State. As the great Lee Corso would say … Not so fast, my friend.

Michigan’s pass rush exposed Ohio State’s vulnerabilities, and the duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo made the Buckeyes’ talented offense look mortal. It’s not hard to see how Georgia would’ve done the same.

And all of that suggests we might have been entirely wrong about the blueprint for beating the Dawgs, and in retrospect, it should’ve been obvious.

Using offensive and defensive expected points added (EPA) for each of Georgia’s 10 Power 5 opponents, the Bulldogs have played four above-average offensive units: Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. Georgia dominated all three games.

The Dawgs have played just one above-average defense, however. That was Clemson, in the opener. Georgia didn’t score an offensive touchdown. Or consider a far more relatable metric: yards per dropback. The three best defenses Georgia faced were Clemson, Florida and South Carolina. The three best offenses were Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. Against the top offenses, Georgia’s defensive EPA dropped by about 10 points from its Power 5 average. Against the top defenses, its offense declined by nearly 14 points.

In other words, Georgia is likely to struggle more against a great defense than a great offense.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, given where Georgia’s best talent resides. On defense, the Dawgs are loaded with blue-chippers at every level. Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, Derion Kendrick — there’s a long list of potential defensive MVPs. On offense, however, Georgia looks human. Stetson Bennett has been wonderful, but he’s not a future NFL star. The backfield of Zamir White, James Cook, Kendall Milton and crew are all talented, but none have been All-Americans. Aside from tight end Brock Bowers, there isn’t a true five-star superstar on that side of the ball. So, which unit was always more likely to have a bad game: the blue-chip D or the makeshift O?

All of this gets to another interesting point: With Oklahoma and Ohio State losing in Week 13 (and Alabama struggling against Auburn), there’s a good chance that the best offenses in the country won’t be in the playoff this year, but some truly impressive defenses (Oklahoma State, Michigan and Cincinnati all rank in the top 10 in adjusted defensive EPA) could be.

Again, none of this is to suggest Georgia shouldn’t be the prohibitive favorite should the Dawgs make the playoff. But if they do, the path to a national championship might actually be a bit tougher without Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State in their way. — David Hale

The impossible task of a perfect overtime format

The 86th edition of the Iron Bowl went to its first overtime ever on Saturday (four total), reigniting debate over the new overtime format in college football after Penn State and Illinois went nine extra frames in October.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the new rules, teams have to run a two-point conversion after a touchdown beginning in the second overtime instead of the third overtime. And now, if the game reaches a third overtime, teams simply take turns going for two instead of entire possessions like the first two overtimes.

The previous iteration of college football’s overtime rules were fun. Trading possessions from the 25-yard line until somebody comes out on top felt like a fair way to end a game. However, as evidenced by Texas A&M’s 74-72 victory over LSU in a seven-overtime game in 2018, there were rare cases where these things could go too long, no matter how much we might have enjoyed the game.

Along with the time of the game, playing around 200 snaps as the Aggies and Tigers did in 2018 also increases the odds of sloppy play due to fatigue, and typically leads to more injuries. Anytime we can help protect players — who are still not properly compensated — the better.

The traditionalist in many fans is understandably going to have a hard time accepting this new format, regardless of whom it does or does not benefit. Generally speaking, people like the things that they know and hate to see them change.

Regardless of how anybody feels, the new overtime is working as intended, with that 2018 game between Texas A&M and LSU as the impetus for change. Though Penn State-Illinois went nine overtimes and is in the books as the first of its kind, the overtimes from that game and 2018’s Texas A&M-LSU contest are not created equal. There were 23 plays run in the first two overtimes of Penn State-Illinois, and a combined 14 in overtimes 3-9. You can’t say that about 2018’s marathon.

Beyond the old format, I’m not sure what overtime rules are going to feel right for most fans. Right now, this format maintains the spirit of the old one; it’s just a little more gimmicky once they reach the third overtime.

At the very least, the current college overtime format is still better than the NFL’s, which gives the team that wins the coin toss a chance at a sudden-death victory. Both teams being guaranteed a possession in college makes more sense than putting much more weight to a coin toss.

However, one thing the NFL should get more credit for is its willingness to tie in regular season games. Because we’ve hardly ever gotten to the end of a regular season NFL overtime and said to ourselves, “I’d love just one more serving of this impasse.” — Harry Lyles Jr.

A defensive player should win the Heisman Trophy

One thing remains consistent at the conclusion of the college football season: The Heisman Trophy, the sport’s illustrious statue, is awarded. There usually are two or three candidates who separate themselves during the second half of the season, securing their seats in New York. But over the past two decades, the distinct recognition has essentially been a quarterback award.

Since 2000, 17 of the 20 winners have been under center (omitting Reggie Bush’s 2005 award, which was vacated). The lone non-signal-callers have been Mark Ingram II (2009), Derrick Henry (2015) and DeVonta Smith (2020).

In what has been an unconventional turnout of events, no player has made a strong case to take home this year’s award. Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud were believed to be the front-runners, but lackluster regular-season finales for both left the pole position on ballots wide open.

With no offensive players truly dominating, an argument can be made that this year’s trophy should go to a defensive player. The only defensive player to take home the award was Charles Woodson in 1997. Staying in Ann Arbor, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson is one strong candidate. During Michigan’s 42-27 win against Ohio State, he completely annihilated the Buckeyes’ offensive line from start to finish. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge rusher finished with seven tackles and three sacks.

If I had a Heisman vote today, though, my winner would be Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. In a 24-22 four-overtime Iron Bowl victory, Anderson wreaked constant havoc. Auburn had no one who could stay in front of No. 31 — something that has been customary for every offensive front he has faced this season. The nation’s leader in sacks (14.5), Anderson is the best defensive player that Nick Saban has ever had in his defense. Anderson constantly manages to finish at the quarterback.

Both Hutchinson and Anderson have strong résumés, and both further staked their claims during Rivalry Week. The Heisman is awarded to the most valuable player during a particular season, and Anderson and Hutchinson have been the two best players in the country in 2021, regardless of position. — Jordan Reid

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