Different style, same results for Alabama


Former Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy tweeted out the most fitting summation of Alabama’s continued identity overhaul on Saturday night – “Bama WRU.” That notion, of course, would have been laughable 10 years ago, as Saban’s smash-mouth soul resonated as the identity of the SEC.

But on Saturday night, as Jaylen Waddle streaked past the vaunted Georgia defense, DeVonta Smith slithered through it and Mac Jones delivered lasers to them time and again, Jeudy’s declaration appeared prescient. Alabama again has the best wide receiver group in America, and it is most comfortable winning games simply by running past you and throwing over you.

That means the road to the SEC title is about finding a way to make sure you don’t end up choking on the exhaust of Alabama’s elite wide receivers. As Alabama sits in the driver’s seat to win the league, it has positioned itself there thanks to a continued evolution toward embracing aerial dynamism.

Just peek at the frozen moment that summed up No. 2 Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia. The Tide took the lead for good in the third quarter with Jaylen Waddle sprinting past Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell for a 90-yard touchdown catch.

No. 3 Georgia entered the matchup with No. 2 Alabama as the definitive elite defense tasked to slow down the Crimson Tide’s fireworks show. Modern football has tossed aside all those clichés about great defenses always besting a great offense. And this cliché shall remain in the gutter.

Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) catches a pass after Georgia defender Tyson Campbell (3) fell during Alabama’s 41-24 win over Georgia on Saturday. (Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports)

There was Campbell, a rangy 6-foot-2 corner, helplessly tumbling to the ground as Waddle ran under the ball. That saved Campbell a 50-yard sprint of shame, as there’s no way he would have caught Waddle, the most electric player in college football who finished the night with 161 yards. Campbell is an NFL prospect and considered a high-end SEC corner, and he was too slow to be even a speed bump for Alabama’s aerial assault on Saturday night.

On three consecutive possessions in the second half, Alabama wrestled away the game from Georgia and revealed just how this edition of the Crimson Tide is going to beat elite opponents. They scored the 21 unanswered points on Waddle’s touchdown, a Najee Harris plunge and a 13-yard Smith snare in the back of the end zone.

Mac Jones finished with 417 yards passing, the first quarterback in school history to throw for 400 yards in three straight games. (Tua Tagovailoa’s career only featured three 400-yard games.) Jones targeted Smith 13 times, hitting him 11 for 167 yards. Third receiver John Metchie chipped in three catches for 50 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown.

“It’s probably the strength of our team,” Saban said of the explosiveness of Alabama’s receivers. He added: “I think that trying to cover outstanding receivers really is a difficult task.”  

Alabama’s offense has been evolving under Saban since Lane Kiffin endured numerous verbal abuses by refusing to run the ball as much as Saban’s liking, starting with the season Blake Sims emerged as a record-setting quarterback in 2014.

This latest Alabama evolution has come a bit by necessity. Alabama’s defense is one of the least-talented groups Saban has had in the past decade. Georgia’s failure to exploit it showed why the Bulldogs will have a ceiling with Stetson Bennett as quarterback, as he threw three interceptions and gave Georgia no chance to win after throwing a pair in the second half. Both led to touchdown drives. (Kirby Smart brushed aside the idea of Bennett losing his starting job after the game.)

Last season, Alabama averaged 47.2 points per game, but still relied on a defense that ranked No. 3 in the SEC and No. 13 nationally by allowing 18.6 points per game. This year, Alabama’s going to have to continue to shift more toward winning shootouts, as its defense is 10 points worse per game.  

It has been a reluctant evolution for Saban, an exacting defensive coach, to become an offense-first program. But the pairing of Waddle and Smith — college football’s dynamic duo — have to make that a bit easier. Alabama also has an elite offensive line that Smart raved about after the game, and Harris is one of the three best tailbacks in the sport. The amazing part, of course, is that Alabama lost a pair of first-round picks at receiver last year – Jeudy and Henry Ruggs.

Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith catches a touchdown pass in the first half against the Georgia Bulldogs on Oct. 17. (UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

This year’s Georgia team felt like a last stand for the old identity of the S-E-C, back when those letters carried with them assumptions of smash-mouth, between-the-tackles and establish-the-run football.

But Georgia’s best chance of keeping up with this edition of Alabama left, as the opt-out of Jamie Newman and the transfer of Justin Fields have left the Bulldogs relying on a former walk-on. Bennett has been a nice story and is a good player, but there’s a reason former walk-ons tend not to win SEC titles and lead teams to the College Football Playoff. There are limitations, and those popped up again and again as balls were batted down at the line of scrimmage and Alabama finished with 10 overall pass breakups. (Georgia had three.) Expect the din for USC transfer JT Daniels to play to become deafening.

Georgia led at halftime, 24-20, and appeared comfortable exchanging blows in what Saban called a “15-round fight.” But in the end, it was Saban getting emotional about his return to the sideline after a false-positive COVID-19 test sidelined him for three days.

Saban passed three consecutive tests to be able to return to the sideline on Saturday. While he’s rarely a font of feelings, Saban said coming back “was very emotional for me.”

He added: “I’ve got a lot of gratitude myself for the way they sort of handled all the disruption of the week.”

When Saban returned, some of the football world order did as well. Alabama established itself again as resounding SEC favorites. Saban improved to 22-0 against former assistants and 3-0 against Smart.

And Alabama continues streaking to an identity that encompasses a familiar one — relentless winning.

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