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The case for Alabama . . . and the case for Georgia

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

Will Kirby Smart steal the limelight from his former boss, Nick Saban?
© USA Today Sports Images

Jacksonville and New Orleans advance Sunday, but underdogs Buffalo and Carolina get the money for a perfect 4-0 dog weekend in the NFL Playoffs. Details, plus a big stat preview for Alabama/Georgia on CHAMPIONSHIP MONDAY in VSiN City!

College Football National Championship Preview: A clash of SEC titans as Alabama battles Georgia for all the marbles
It’s all been leading to this. The No. 1 Power-Rated team in the nation from summer to winter, the Alabama Crimson Tide led by head coach Nick Saban…take on the promising upstart Georgia Bulldogs who are led by Saban protégé Kirby Smart.

If you want to beat them…hire the best from their staff!

Saban is favored by just over a field goal. But this is far from his best recent team. You saw that last week when Alabama struggled to move the ball against Clemson (just 4.0 yards-per-play and 261 total yards), and lost outright at Auburn in its last regular season game. Georgia won’t be intimidated after surviving Oklahoma in overtime. 

This could be the ignition of a renewed cross-divisional rivalry in the conference of champions. Eight of the last 11 national champions have come from the SEC, and it’s certain to be 9 of 12 come midnight Monday.

Georgia (13-1) vs. Alabama (12-1) 
Las Vegas Line: Alabama -3.5, total of 45
Records vs. the Point Spread: Georgia 10-4, Alabama 6-7

Georgia caught the market by surprise, as shown by that 10-4 ATS record this season. Granting that it would have been 9-5 if not for the benefit of extra time against Oklahoma last week. Strong journey through a tough schedule. Alabama was priced like champions all season…but played such a soft schedule that it was hard to properly gauge its true level of performance. 

Before getting to our key indicator stats, let’s update our “Market Watch.” Here’s this week’s progression. 

Opening Line: Alabama -4, total of 48
Tuesday Line: Alabama -4, total of 46
Friday Line: Alabama -3.5, total of 45
Current Line: Alabama -3.5, total of 45

A very heavily bet game. The Over/Under was hit hard by sharps and the public. Both teams have excellent defenses. Alabama’s 24-6 win over Clemson was looming large in the minds of bettors when the number went up. No support yet for the Over even at a key number like 45, though it’s possible the public will go that way in the hours before kickoff because casual fans enjoy rooting for points. (Plus, overtime can only help!)

The market has been hopping between Alabama -3.5 and Georgia plus 4 the past few days. Generally, the public likes laying chalk under the four, while professional wagerers take a piece of the Bulldogs when the full four is available. 

Stat time.

Georgia: 6.9 on offense, 4.7 on defense (vs. the #18 ranked schedule)
Alabama: 6.7 on offense, 3.9 on defense (vs. the #47 ranked schedule)

Alabama has the better differential at plus 2.8 to plus 2.2. But, Georgia played the tougher schedule. If you equalize schedules, you come pretty close to equalizing those differentials. Not evidence here that Alabama should be favored by more than a field goal. Though, many stat-orientated bettors do give defense more weight. That proved to be a valid approach for Alabama-Clemson. The Tide would win yards-per-play 4.0 to 2.7 in that one. 

Key Passing Stats 
Georgia: 8.9 yards-per-pass attempt, 23 TD’s, 7 interceptions thrown
Alabama: 8.4 yards-per-pass attempt, 25 TD’s, 2 interceptions thrown

Both teams are so great running the ball, that it opens up opposing pass defenses to get blistered. So, while those stats are fantastic for both…they overstate the true skill sets in play. Both teams have receivers who can run forever off short completions. Both offensive coordinators prefer safe passes that don’t give away field position. You can tell that Kirby Smart is a Nick Saban disciple in terms of mindset (rather than an undisciplined Lane Kiffin clone!). Wouldn’t be a shock if this game comes down to which offense happens to bust the extra long run off a short toss. 

Pass Defense 
Georgia: 5.8 yppa allowed; 16 TD’s allowed, 11 interceptions
Alabama: 5.3 yppa allowed; 7 TD’s allowed, 17 interceptions

Georgia’s pass defense was great this season, while Alabama’s was otherworldly. Georgia held Baker Mayfield to less than 300 yards in the air last week, which is a decent showing in context. Alabama had it easier with Kelly Bryant of Clemson, and stifled him with an 18-37-2-124 passing line. No way this is going to be an aerial battle for 60 minutes. Neither defense would allow it.

Impact Defense 
Georgia: 34% third down pct-allowed, 19 takeaways, 31 sacks
Alabama: 34% third down pct-allowed, 22 takeaways, 36 sacks

Again, quality stuff from both. Important to remember that Georgia played an extra game. That’s 19 takeaways in 14 games…which isn’t particularly intimidating. That’s more of a “keep things in front of you” defense than a “sell out and steal the ball” approach. If you adjust for strength of schedule…slight edge to Alabama. 

The indicator stats make very clear that Smart is a protégé of Saban. It’s hard to tell the teams apart. Handicapping the game is a true challenge because there’s not a clear edge, except perhaps for the same kind of “experience” advantages that just helped the Atlanta Falcons get past the LA Rams the other night. Saban and ‘Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts have been here in their current roles. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is a true freshman who hasn’t ever seen a defense like this.

The case for Alabama (-): if the Tide can stuff the run, it forces young Fromm to try to beat them through the air. That sets up a replay of the win over Clemson, with Fromm struggling in similar fashion to Bryant last week. There isn’t a “math” or “Power Rating” case for Alabama to win by five or more. There is a matchup and “game flow” case because inexperience can have big trouble putting points on the board against quality defenses under playoff pressure. 

The case for Georgia (plus): the loss at Auburn taught them what NOT to do in big games vs. elite opponents, and this battle-tested underdog is now ready to compete toe-to-toe for 60 minutes. If Georgia can move the chains and get some points on the board with its elite rushers, then we’re looking at a potential dead heat. There’s not a visible case for “Georgia outright” beyond hoping Alabama suffers turnovers, or is at least a partial pretender in a way that’s hidden by its soft schedule. (The defense didn’t look overrated vs. Clemson!). Something like “these teams are so similar that it’s a virtual toss-up” is the heart of the case for betting Georgia plus the points. 

NFL Playoffs: Jacksonville survives defensive war with Buffalo as offense continues to struggle
Though, it wasn’t expected to be THIS low scoring, nobody was surprised that Sunday’s matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars was ruled by the defenses. There was only one TD drive all day. Both coaching staffs emphasized safe offensive play and punting. Very breezy conditions made it even less likely that either quarterback could make a big pass play downfield. Blake Bortles, in particular, seemed prone to tossing paper airplanes when throwing short passes to his right. You’ll see below that quarterbacks combined for just 208 passing yards on 63 attempts!

Jacksonville (-9) 10, Buffalo 3 
Yards-per-Play: Buffalo 3.6, Jacksonville 3.9
Total Yardage: Buffalo 263, Jacksonville 230 
Third Down Pct: Buffalo 39%, Jacksonville 17%
Turnovers: Buffalo 2, Jacksonville 0
Rushing Yards: Buffalo 130, Jacksonville 155
Passing Stats: Buffalo 18-40-2-133, Jacksonville 12-23-0-75 
TD Drive Lengths: Buffalo no TDs, Jacksonville 86

Ugly if you like seeing touchdowns, beautiful if you like rooting for defenses and Unders. The only meaningful difference is that the Jaguars were able to complete one drive in the end zone. That allowed them to barely score more than the point spread. The big dog won total yards and third down conversions. One of Buffalo’s turnovers was a pick on its last play of the game. The other didn’t lead to any points. So, that 2-0 category deficit for the Bills didn’t impact the scoreboard. A dead heat except for one great Jacksonville drive.

Buffalo confirmed that it wasn’t a playoff caliber team. Jacksonville sinks to that level too when opponents aren’t handing them cheap points…or whenever Bortles is matched up against a decent (or better) defense. The Jaguars advance to face Pittsburgh next week. They did win on that field much earlier in the season when the unprepared Steelers suffered a turnover implosion (Jags won turnover category 5-1 and returned two picks of Ben Roethlisberger for TDs). In many ways, Jacksonville switches roles in its playoff sequel…now the Jags will be the underdog that has to keep the game close with defense in hopes of stealing a win.  

NFL Playoffs: Where did the “improved” New Orleans defense go? Drew Brees leads Saints to second round
So much for the “new-look” New Orleans Saints. As soon as the playoffs started, the running game disappeared (just 41 yards on 22 carries) and the defense let “banged up” Cam Newton have his best performance in months (306 passing yards with no interceptions, after seven of his last nine efforts had been 183 passing yards or less). New Orleans held on to advance, but the Saints are much less scary now than they seemed entering the postseason.

New Orleans (-6.5) 31, Carolina 26
Yards-per-Play: Carolina 5.8, New Orleans 7.3
Total Yardage: Carolina 413, New Orleans 410
Third Down Pct: Carolina 47%, New Orleans 25%
Turnovers: Carolina 0, New Orleans 1
Rushing Yards: Carolina 107, New Orleans 41
Passing Stats: Carolina 24-41-0-306, New Orleans 23-33-1-369
TD Drive Lengths: Carolina 68-75, New Orleans 80-75-75-62

Huge game for Brees, with the interception actually being a good thing because the Panthers cost themselves 20 yards by not knocking the ball down. Only 10 incomplete passes. New Orleans was over eight YPP most of the day, until getting super-conservative on the final drive to run clock/drain timeouts. This is still a passing offense that can go deep in the postseason, but the team as a whole can’t be this one-dimensional and win on command. The defense? It did a good job of forcing field goal attempts through the first two thirds of the game…though the Panthers were moving way too easily in the middle of the field. Then, the Panthers were moving way too easily everywhere. That fourth quarter defensive fade for the Saints could be a bigger problem next week on the road against rested and ready Minnesota. Carolina did make it a 4-0 weekend for underdogs against the spread. This was the only game to go Over the total. 

Now that Wildcard Weekend is in the books, let’s take a quick look at summaries from the game-by-game stat previews provided Thursday through Sunday here in VSiN City. We’ll cut and paste those and stick them in italics. Going in kickoff order…

“Kansas City deserves to be favored, but probably needs cheap field position points to justify that high number. That means the cover comes down to the ability of Marcos Mariota to move the ball and avoid turnovers.”

The injury to Travis Kelce helped turn a 21-3 lead for the team that “deserved to be favored” into a come-from-behind upset for the road dog that was able to “move the ball and avoid turnovers” in a 19-0 second half blitz. KC looked pretty strong in the first half, stronger than we had given them credit for before Kelce’s injury. 

“We’d have to say that most of the evidence points to the Rams winning the game. The case for Atlanta plus the points would involve a big edge in experience at the quarterback position, and the tendency for first-year head coaches to make too many tactical errors in their playoff debuts (you saw that with Oklahoma late in the Rose Bowl)…This one could swing hard in either direction. As great as this Rams story has been, they were squashed by Minnesota, and outplayed at home by Philadelphia in the game Carson Wentz got hurt. Are the Rams ready to win a playoff game over an experienced opponent by at least a touchdown?”

The stat evidence did ultimately point to a “stat win” for the Rams, who won yards-per-play 5.6 to 4.5 and total yardage 361-322. But, “the case for Atlanta” ruled the day straight up and ATS fairly convincingly against a favorite whose inexperience kept them from accomplishing much with those stat edges. Congrats to those of you who made that read. 

“Here, it looks like Tyrod Taylor is going to have big trouble moving the ball against an opponent that’s been saving themselves for the postseason. Bad offense meets fantastic defense. Jacksonville might need cheap points off field position or turnovers to cover…Handicappers must determine if Jacksonville’s defense is going to make it easy (setting up cheap points that might also bring Over the total into play), or if Buffalo’s defense can create a low scoring 60-minute dead heat that makes things very interesting.”

People’s definition of “interesting” will differ…but the game sure followed that script. Taylor was in way over his head on the road against a great defense. The Jags couldn’t get any cheap points off turnovers, and failed to cover. 

“The most likely scenario is New Orleans controlling its own destiny to win by a touchdown or more. If Newton starts forcing dumb risks when playing from behind, the scoreboard could blow up quickly. Carolina’s defense must force punts and field goal attempts…enough for the offense to hang around and try to steal the game late…For this to be a game, Carolina’s offense has to play clean while the defense berates Brees.”

Well, the prior New Orleans defensive stats led us astray there. Carolina’s offense did play clean and have a chance to steal the game late. Carolina’s defense couldn’t berate Brees. Basically, Drew Brees did control his own destiny very well…but what appeared to be other team skill sets disappeared (maybe only temporarily) under the playoff spotlight. The New Orleans defense let Cam Newton convert half of his third downs until the very end, and wasn’t able to force a single turnover. 

We talked in Point Spread Weekly in at least one MNF preview about the concept of “cheap points.” We classified TD drives of 60 yards or more as “drive” points or “long distance” points. Anything at 59 or less, or scored by special teams or defense can be called “cheap” in comparison. Here are “cheap point” counts for this past weekend’s favorites…

Kansas City 0 (despite 2 forced turnovers)
LA Rams 0 (no forced turnovers)
Jacksonville 3 (despite 2 forced turnovers)
New Orleans 3 (no forced turnovers)

Favorites often need cheap points to cover, and they’re typically the key to blowouts. Only four takeaways in four games for favorites, with two cheap field goals and no cheap touchdowns. Hidden key to the 4-0 underdog point spread sweep. 

NFL Playoffs: Early point spreads for divisional round
A quick peek at next weekend…

Atlanta (-2.5/41.5) at Philadelphia
Tennessee at New England (-13.5/47)

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-7/41)
New Orleans at Minnesota (-3.5/44.5)

New England opened at -14 and 47.5 at the Westgate before each dropped half-a-point. Atlanta’s total opened at 44.5 Saturday but quickly fell THREE points after quants attacked. Pittsburgh went up at -7.5 and 42 before falling to what you see above. We’ll let the lines settle some more before updating our estimated “market” Power Ratings in Tuesday’s report.  

Back with you Tuesday to recap the championship stats. We’ll also update our NFL Power Ratings for the surviving eight, and jump back into college basketball after an upset-filled weekend with marquee previews from Greg Peterson.

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