- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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For the first time, Alabama and Georgia will meet in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. Here’s a look at what to watch in a contest that’s a play-in game for the Discover BCS National Championship Game:
1. All eyes on Murray: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has been quiet this week. He cut off all media interviews and instead devoted all his focus to the biggest game he or anybody on this team has played since arriving in Athens. Murray will go down as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in SEC history. He has passed for 3,201 yards and 30 touchdowns this season and leads the SEC in passing efficiency with a 177.1 rating. He is the first player in SEC history to have three straight 3,000-yard passing seasons and has 89 career touchdown passes, tying him with Peyton Manning for second place all-time in the SEC. What Murray hasn’t done is play particularly well in big games. He could shed that label forever by leading the Bulldogs to a win. Quarterbacks’ legacies are shaped by how they perform in these types of games. Murray is playing his best football right now. Ever since the Florida game, when he was picked off three times, he has thrown 13 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four games.
2. Making plays at receiver: Both teams have suffered casualties at receiver this season. Most recently, Alabama lost Kenny Bell for the season when he broke his leg last week against Auburn. Georgia earlier this season lost Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown to injuries. Tavarres King has quietly had a big season for the Bulldogs with eight touchdown catches, and Malcolm Mitchell will also be key in this game with his ability to make big plays down the field. More than ever, Alabama will lean on freshman Amari Cooper in the passing game with Bell out. Cooper has eight touchdown catches and is averaging 17 yards per catch. Alabama coach Nick Saban is also prepared to pull the redshirt off Chris Black, who hurt his shoulder in August and underwent surgery. Black is healthy and wants to play in this game.
3. Denting Alabama’s defense: Alabama leads the country in scoring defense for the second straight season. One of the reasons why is that the Crimson Tide simply don’t give up big plays. They have allowed 89 plays this season that have gained 10 yards or more, which is nine fewer than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team. Opponents are averaging 1.9 drives per game against Alabama that reach the red zone, the lowest average among FBS teams. Running the ball in the red zone against Alabama has been nearly impossible. The Crimson Tide are allowing 0.82 yards per rush in the red zone this season, the lowest average in FBS. What makes this such an intriguing matchup is that Georgia has specialized in generating big plays on offense. The Bulldogs have 75 plays that have gained 20 yards or more, which ranks seventh among FBS teams. The only game this season that they didn’t have a play of at least 30 yards was their 35-7 loss to South Carolina.
4. Winning the big ones: This is a stage Alabama is accustomed to being on, and the Crimson Tide have been at their best in marquee games under Saban. They are 3-1 against nationally ranked teams this season and have won nine of their past 11 games against nationally ranked foes. Georgia, on the other hand, has faced just two nationally ranked teams this season. The Bulldogs beat Florida 17-9 and lost to South Carolina 35-7. Georgia has struggled the past few seasons against nationally ranked opponents, losing eight of its last 11 games to teams ranked in the Top 25. The win over Florida on Oct. 27 was Georgia’s first win against a top-10 opponent since the 2009 season and its first win against an SEC team ranked in the top 10 since beating No. 9 Florida 42-30 in 2007.
5. Forcing turnovers: It’s no coincidence that Alabama and Georgia lost the turnover battle in each of their losses this season. Alabama turned the ball over three times in its 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, which didn’t turn the ball over at all. Georgia had one turnover and South Carolina none in the Bulldogs’ loss to the Gamecocks. Which defense can force the most turnovers in this game? Alabama has scored 157 points off turnovers this season, the most in the SEC and fourth most in the FBS. For the season, Alabama is plus-14 and Georgia plus-9 in turnover margin. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has thrown just two interceptions all season, and both came in the Texas A&M loss. Murray has thrown seven interceptions this season but hasn’t thrown any in five of his last six outings. The exception was the Florida game when he threw three.