Alabama football coach Nick Saban has faced former assistants 21 times during his exceptional career. He's 21-0 against them. It says here that streak will come to an end on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa when former Bama assistant Kirby Smart brings his No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs to town to face the No. 2 Crimson Tide.
No, I'm not up to my bloodshot eyeballs in Maker's Mark bourbon. I haven't been smoking wacky tobacky. My brain hasn't been fogged by COVID-19. At least not that I know of.
But I have watched a good portion of the Bulldogs' three wins in three tries thus far, as well as a fairly sizable sample size of the Tide's three triumphs. And while there is no denying the brilliance of the Bama offense — first nationally in scoring (51 points a game), second nationally in passing yards (385 per game) and third in total yards (560 a contest) — the Tide defense has been anything but impressive to date.
And defense is how Saban's teams, wherever he's coached, have usually earned their championships.
But that's not so much been the case this season in Houndstoothville, especially in Saturday's 63-48 win at Ole Miss.
To be fair, the Rebels are really, really good with the ball. They can throw it. They can run it. They can score it, having averaged 41.3 points through one win and two losses. And they've gotten better each week, going for 35 against Florida, 42 against Kentucky in overtime, then 48 against the Tide.
But Ole Miss and its creative coach and former Saban assistant Lane Kiffin aren't Bama's only defensive hiccup to date.
In the Tide's 38-19 season-opening win at Missouri, the defense surrendered 322 total yards to a Tigers team that had yet to discover the passing skills of freshman QB Connor Bazelak, who hit 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and four TDs in Mizzou's upset of LSU this past weekend. That was followed by 24 points and 450 total yards allowed against Texas A&M. Then came the Ole Miss win, when the Tide not only surrendered 647 yards of offense, but allowed Rebel running backs Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy to each rush for at least 120 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've never played this way on defense," Saban lamented after the Ole Miss victory. "It's certainly not what we try to aspire to be as a defensive team. I believe in our players. We have to get our players to play better. I think we're capable of it."
But that's who this Bama bunch seems to be. Beyond that, it's who they've been for awhile now, dating back to that 44-16 loss to Clemson in the national title game at the close of the 2018 season. Couple that with the 46 points surrendered to LSU last season and 48 to Auburn — the Tide's two 2019 defeats — and there's one common denominator that should greatly please Tennessee fans: All three of those defensive meltdowns occurred after Pruitt left Bama to become head coach of the Vols.
Meanwhile, as good as the Tide has been on offense, Georgia has been just as impressive on defense, and against an arguably tougher schedule, given that their three wins to date have come against surprising Arkansas — which should be 2-1 instead of 1-2 if not for a wretched officiating error in last week's loss at Auburn — Auburn and Tennessee, which both stand 2-1.
Not only are the Bulldogs first nationally in rushing defense (38.3 yards a game), but they're second in total yards allowed (236.7) and fifth in scoring defense (12.30). Nor is it as if Georgia is defense only. While Alabama is 44th nationally in scoring defense (30.30 ppg), the Dawgs are 22nd in scoring offense (36.0).
Add it all up and Georgia's average margin of victory (23.7) is actually three points better than Bama's (20.7).
This is not to say Alabama can't or won't make Smart the 22nd former assistant to fall to Saban in 22 tries. Nor is it to suggest that if Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett IV suddenly realizes he's an undersized former walk-on facing the most tradition-rich football power in the South that the Dawgs might not be in trouble.
And regardless of what happens this time around, these two schools could meet again on December 19th in the SEC title game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. Both will probably deserve to be there.
But on Saturday, given the performances of each team to date, it would seem that Georgia's defense will be enough better than Bama's offense that it should get the victory unless UT's Pruitt is moonlighting for the Tide this week.
So make it Dawg D 34, Tide O 28. Just don't expect the same result come December 19th.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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