AUBURN, Ala. – If you searched within the Iron Bowl for reason to believe Alabama will beat Georgia in the SEC Championship, you didn’t find any.
The 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide consists of a group of flawed fighters. There’s value in that.
Without Alabama’s stoicism (and Auburn’s offensive ineptitude), it would have lost the Iron Bowl. Instead, Alabama shrugged off a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit amid a hostile crowd in a 24-22 victory in four overtimes.
A neat comeback, one that will be remembered in Iron Bowl lore – but also a performance that offered further evidence that No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) is more likely bound for a New Year’s Six bowl than the College Football Playoff.
Auburn is armed with one of the SEC’s best defenses and proved as much Saturday, but Georgia boasts college football’s best defense since 2011 Alabama.
If Auburn could hold Alabama scoreless through three quarters, then what should we expect Alabama to muster against a defense surrendering 6.9 points per game?
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To think Alabama will beat No. 1 Georgia (12-0, 8-0) on Saturday (3 p.m. CT, CBS) requires a belief that coach Kirby Smart will melt in fear at the sight of Nick Saban, his former boss.
Alabama will possess the better player at the sport’s most important position – quarterback Bryce Young – but for three quarters Saturday, Auburn showed Georgia that the avenue to beating Alabama has less to do with Young and more to do with terrorizing on Alabama’s uncharacteristically shoddy offensive line.
On several plays, the question wasn’t whether Auburn was going to sack Young. The question was, who was going to sack him?
One second-quarter play, in particular, depicted Alabama’s offensive line woes. Auburn’s Derick Hall whizzed by Alabama right tackle Damieon George Jr., while Eku Leota breezed past by Kendall Randolph, who had entered the game as a sixth lineman. Hall and Leota barreled toward Young, met in the middle and crumbled the quarterback – the fifth of Auburn’s seven sacks, and it wasn’t even halftime yet.
The Bulldogs will watch film of the Iron Bowl and think, oh, how fun? Consider, Georgia’s defense is so deep and talented that its leading tackler, linebacker Channing Tindall, doesn’t even start.
Georgia’s 41 sacks rank fourth in the nation. Alabama is third with 43, but Georgia has surrendered just eight sacks all season, the second fewest in the nation.
Alabama is surrendering sacks at a rate of 2.92 per game – that’s double last year’s average.
The trio of quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris highlighted Alabama’s 2020 national championship team, but more than any of those three, Alabama sorely misses the three offensive linemen who were selected in the NFL Draft after last season.
The best way to slow down a pass rush is to establish a run game, but Alabama never seriously threatened Auburn on the ground. Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders combined for 93 yards on 26 carries. Three times, Alabama drives ended after either Robinson or Sanders met a wall of defenders where they hoped to find a running lane on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 plays.
Young proved indestructible, though. After playing most of the game under duress, Young led a 97-yard game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, and he shined throughout overtime.
But if Alabama’s pass protection woes persist and it cannot mount any sort of complementary running game, no room for rally will remain against Georgia.
Because unlike Auburn, Georgia doesn’t play with its food. The Bulldogs feast.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Why Alabama football is in trouble against Georgia Bulldogs