Even with the increased coverage of gambling in sports over the last few years, it's rare that a game's betting line gets the kind of breathless coverage that has been devoted to the fact that the Alabama Crimson Tide are underdogs this weekend against the Georgia Bulldogs. One comment that it was the first time Nick Saban's team hasn't been favored in 72 games even wound up on Politifact Georgia, which is about as close to transcending the sport as gambling coverage gets.
And for all the "Alabama dynasty is over" talk, Alabama as a less-than-a-field-goal underdog has nonetheless led to a bunch of people suddenly taking the Tide all over again. I have heard very few people, if any, publicly predict that Georgia is going to win a game. Meanwhile, the line has drifted down, all the way to even in some books, but none of it has been quite enough to put the Tide over the top and make them a favorite, at least as of Friday's numbers. There's still a split between the pundits and the betting public. For the record, I find this an interesting diversion, being someone who doesn't bet and someone who doesn't really buy the idea that just because people put money on something they're being wiser about it.
In any case, this is the marquee game of the SEC season so far and could end up being one of the best games of the year. In a year when the SEC West was a little bit more settled, it would be touted as a preview of the SEC Championship Game -- and it might still be that. In any case, it's one of the preeminent football programs of the last decade facing off with the team that has pretty consistently been one of the best in its division over the last decade. That's worth watching even if you don't have any money riding on the outcome.
1It's Raining, It's Pouring. Let's Hope Fans Aren't Snoring. This could be a pretty soggy game. Starting at 3 p.m. ET, the hourly forecast for Athens calls for a 50 percent or greater chance of precipitation until past midnight, which means that it's likely to be raining for most of the game. Oh, and did we mention that Clarke County is under a flash flood watch through Sunday evening? Northeast Georgia doesn't look like it will get walloped as bad as the Carolinas, but if you're going to the stadium, bring a poncho. And an umbrella. And maybe a small watercraft of some sort.
2Run the Dang Ball. All of which is likely to amplify what should be a run-heavy game plan for both of these teams. Unless you count Leonard Fournette as a running back tandem on his own -- and, really, there's a good case for doing so -- Alabama and Georgia might have the two best running back tandems in the league. The Bulldogs have used this to good effect, rushing the ball 147 times while attempting just 91 passes when sacks are counted as pass plays. Alabama and Lane Kiffin have not done that. The Tide has thrown the ball 168 times while running it on 148 snaps. That is a bit skewed because Alabama attempted 59 passes against Ole Miss, which was arguably necessary, but the Tide also attempted 43 passes against Middle Tennessee, which was not. With Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman both sporting passer ratings around 124, passing the ball in bad weather is not the way Alabama will maximize its chances of winning.
3A Defensive Struggle. In all likelihood, this game is not going to be a barn-burner. Georgia and Alabama also have two of the better defenses in the SEC, though strength of schedule considerations have to be taken into account. The Dawgs are allowing just 4.2 yards a play this year, good for third in the SEC. That places Georgia right behind Alabama, which is giving up just 3.9 yards a snap. And the Tide excels at stopping the strength of the Georgia offense; Alabama is allowing an average of 1.97 yards a run, which is the best mark in the conference and ranks third in the nation. Georgia is tied for third in the league, giving up 3.09 yards on an average running play. The weakness of the Alabama defense is its passing defense, which might not matter all that much given the rainy conditions. Neither of these teams is likely to score many points. (Statistics from cfbstats.com)
Matthew Emmons -- USA Today Sports
4Get There Early. Alabama and Georgia have combined to score first in seven of their eight games so far this season. The only exception was the Tide's game against Ole Miss, and we all know how that turned out. Georgia has outscored opponents 41-3 in the first quarter, and has never trailed this season (and been tied just once, briefly, against South Carolina). Alabama has also started out strongly, having outscored opponents 21-3 in the opening quarter -- the only opponent to score in that part of the game again being Ole Miss. Saying that the team that scores first in this game is going to win is probably not fair and a little bit ludicrous, but neither team is in the habit of giving up the lead once they have it.
5A Rare, and Dire, Possibility. While all the attention has gone to the rarity of the Tide being an underdog in this game, Alabama has not started a season 0-2 in the SEC since 1990. (At least on the field. This being Alabama, there have been some vacated games in the interim.) There were some years in which that streak might have died, had it not been for the fact that one of the Tide's annual interdivision rivals was Vanderbilt, but it's still been 25 years. And while starting out with two losses in the conference wouldn't be the death knell for the Tide's SEC West chances, it would be all but. Alabama would no longer control its own destiny and would need LSU (among others) to lose at least two games and might need Ole Miss to lose three. If football games were decided on pure need -- they aren't outside of sports columns and television studios -- Alabama would have to be the odds-on favorite.
THREE TO WATCH
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama: If Alabama does have to defend the pass -- and odds are that it will have to do so at some point in the game -- then keep an eye on Allen. He leads the team with three sacks and two more quarterback hurries this season. Allen also has a pair of broken up passes. He only has seven total tackles this season, but he could be a force when Greyson Lambert drops back.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: This one shouldn't require an explanation, but out of an abundance of caution: Before Fournettemania began sweeping the nation, Chubb was the front-runner to emerge as the best back in the SEC. He still has a claim to being in the running for the honor, carrying the ball 71 times for 599 yards and six touchdowns. The sophomore is averaging almost 150 yards a game despite sharing the load some with Sony Michel and to a lesser extent Keith Marshall. Chubb already has 19 runs of 10 or more yards and seven runs of 20 or more, according to cfbstats.com.
Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, RBs, Alabama: It's a bit harder to differentiate between the Tide's two rushers than it is with Georgia's. Both do different things well. Henry leads the actual ground attack, carrying the ball 67 times for 422 yards and eight touchdowns, but Drake is no slouch (37 carries, 215 yards, one touchdown). Drake is more prolific receiver; both backs have caught the ball seven times, but Drake has 139 yards to Henry's 51. And Drake returns kicks -- eight of them for 170 yards so far. The result is that Henry is tops in rushing yards (105.5 per game) while Drake averages more all-purpose yardage (131.0).
Tim Heitman -- USA Today Sports
If the passing game were going to be more of a factor than it's likely to be in this one, it would probably be an easier call; I still don't trust Alabama's secondary right now, particularly in a big game. But it would almost be malpractice for the Dawgs to be overly reliant on the pass, given the weather and Chubb's excellence. Still, a lot of people seem to be taking Alabama because Alabama, and a few more are depending on this to be that game for Georgia. (That game for Georgia is rarely the one you expect, so playing Alabama doesn't fit the bill for me.) That doesn't mean there aren't cogent reasons for picking the Tide, because there are. On the other hand, for the first time in a long while, I trust Georgia (which is frightening in its own right). I can see this one going either way, so I'll take the home team in a close one. Georgia 21, Alabama 17