Gene Frenette: It's time for Georgia football to exorcise Nick Saban, Alabama demon

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13), seen here celebrating with fans after beating Georgia Tech last week, is an underappreciated player and leads the nation in several important stat categories. The former walk-on has kept the job over the much-hyped JT Daniels.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13), seen here celebrating with fans after beating Georgia Tech last week, is an underappreciated player and leads the nation in several important stat categories. The former walk-on has kept the job over the much-hyped JT Daniels.

For the past month, Georgia has made it close to impossible to get off the narrative that this feels like the Bulldogs’ time to win their first national championship in 41 years.

Everything about their lethal defense, which is tops in the country in total yards (230.8 yards), points allowed (6.92) and red-zone scoring (6 TDs in 22 attempts) by wide margins, has screamed out dominance. Georgia’s front seven, led by Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall and Travon Walker, consistently puts opponents on lockdown.

But Saturday’s SEC Championship showdown against Alabama and the Nick Saban dynasty is a mental hurdle for Kirby Smart’s team. The Crimson Tide has won the last six meetings, including two in the SEC title game and the 2018 national championship on a 41-yard TD pass from Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith on 2nd-and-26 in overtime.

Win or lose, Georgia will likely have a spot in the College Football Playoff, but this is also a chance to exorcise a demon and take ‘Bama out of the national title hunt. The Tide needed a 97-yard, game-tying TD drive last week to overcome unranked Auburn 24-22 in overtime, another sign the six-time national champion under Saban is plenty vulnerable.

Many believe a big edge for ‘Bama is at quarterback with Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Young, but don’t discount the production of Stetson Bennett. The former Georgia walk-on has had a meteoric rise this season and kept the much-hyped JT Daniels on the bench.

Alabama coach Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide have won the last six meetings against Georgia. The Bulldogs have never been in a better position than Saturday's SEC Championship game to exorcise that demon.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide have won the last six meetings against Georgia. The Bulldogs have never been in a better position than Saturday's SEC Championship game to exorcise that demon.

Believe it or not, Bennett tops all Power 5 quarterbacks in passing efficiency (188.55), yards per attempt (10.84 yards) and yards per completion (16.7 yards).

So Georgia has a dependable quarterback, a ferocious defense comparable to the best Saban unit has ever had in Tuscaloosa, and has outscored eight SEC opponents by an average margin of 41-8. On the other side, ‘Bama has played five one-score SEC games, losing to Texas A&M by a field goal and winning the other four by 2, 6, 7 and 2 points.

This prediction comes with one caveat for the Bulldogs: don’t let this game be a tossup in the fourth quarter. Georgia 34, Alabama 24. . . .

Even if chaos happens on Championship Saturday and the teams ranked No. 2 (Michigan), 3 (Alabama) and 4 (Cincinnati) all lose, Notre Dame doesn’t belong in the College Football Playoff. When you consider the combined record of the Fighting Irish opponents at 59-71 (worst among CFP top 10) and the absence of a quality win, it’s almost a travesty that No. 6 ND could sneak into the playoff if the correct dominos fall.

Now Cincinnati also has a dreadful schedule, but at least the Bearcats have the trump card of beating Notre Dame on the road. I’d argue several teams who finish with two losses — Ole Miss, Ohio State, Alabama (if it loses close to Georgia) and Baylor (if it beats Oklahoma State) — would have better resumes worthy of a CFP bid over the Irish.

Committee chairman Gary Barta has also said ND head coach Brian Kelly leaving for LSU could factor into their playoff fate, which is a ridiculous penalty for the players. Kelly may look like a mercenary and snake oil salesman for leaving a potential CFP team, but his players don't deserve to suffer for it. The bigger point is if strength of schedule truly matters in the CFP equation, Notre Dame should already be out of consideration, regardless of Kelly being Baton Rouge-bound. . . .

Odd point spread: the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns, coached by incoming Florida boss Billy Napier, are a 3-point underdog at home against Appalachian State in the Sun Belt championship game. Two months ago, Napier's team beat ASU 41-13 at Cajun Field and outgained the Mountaineers 455-211. . . .

The Atlanta Falcons extended their NFL-best streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 28 games in last week’s 21-14 win over the Jaguars. Give an assist to Urban Meyer and his staff for preserving that streak by keeping James Robinson (17 carries, 86 yards) off the field for the last 16 plays of the first half. . . .

Jaguars’ punter Logan Cooke and his nurse wife, Mary, got involved with Zoe Ministries over the summer to help the village of Three Rivers on the Kenya/Uganda border in Africa have access to clean water. Logan wouldn’t divulge the cost of financing a project to dig a well, but he and Mary were sent pictures of the water taken from a nearby river, which villagers often drank, and another from the well water.

“It was cool to see the difference in the water they were drinking,” said Cooke, who will wear Zoe Ministries cleats for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. “One looks like water out of that pond [near TIAA Bank Field] and you can’t see through it. The other is as clear as Aquafina.” The Cookes are planning a trip to Africa in June to get a close-up look at Three Rivers Village and the well they financed. . . .

Of all the Jaguars’ lowly statistics this season, none makes winning more difficult than Joe Cullen’s defense having an NFL-low six takeaways (5 interceptions, one fumble recovery) in 11 games. That number is more alarming when you consider in the previous decade, where the Jaguars had a record of 44-116, they still averaged 19.4 takeaways per year. . . .

Remember when athletic directors all over the country were complaining about money problems during the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, they didn’t have trouble coming up with over $100 million in buyout money so far this season to either fire Power 5 coaches — among them Florida’s Dan Mullen, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Washington’s Jimmy Lake, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, TCU’s Gary Patterson and USC’s Clay Helton — or pay the previous employer’s buyout terms for hiring a new coach.

By increasing the arms race of investing in coaches to unconscionable levels, presidents and athletic directors across the landscape have made college football a paragon of hypocrisy. . . .

Oklahoma deserves no applause for the publicity stunt of letting retired coaching legend Bob Stoops be the interim coach for the Sooners’ bowl game. Unless this is some sort of trial run to see if Stoops and OU are game for a long-term reunion, that opportunity should have gone to a deserving staff member who could benefit from the experience. . . .

I’ve heard a ton of testimonials for giving to Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund the past 25 years, but none more powerful than listening to Michelle Birt and her husband, Matthew, tell their moving story on 1010XL-AM and the "Frank Frangie Show" on Wednesday. The couple relayed several stories about the many challenges faced by their 16-year-old son, Talen, who battled cancer for several years before passing away on July 8.

Michelle got emotional on the air when talking about receiving a notice for her son’s funeral expenses, then repeatedly told the listeners, “Balance paid in full” by the Jay Fund. If that doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, nothing will. . . .

Pigskin forecast: Los Angeles Ramseys over Jaguars by 10 (back ailments); Buffalo Bills over New England Patriots by 3 (extra days of rest); Baylor over Oklahoma State by 1 (cold dish of revenge); Michigan over Iowa by 4 (Ohio State hangover remedies); Houston over Cincinnati by 1 (revoked CFP reservation). Last week: 4 right, 2 MLB lockout prospects.

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Gene Frenette: Time for Georgia football to exorcise Saban-Alabama demon

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