Alabama’s offensive line holds key to SEC title

They are No. 2 and No. 3 in the BCS standings, but for most observers this is the national championship game.

Not since Florida and Alabama were 1 and 2 heading into the first week of December has an SEC Championship Game been as big. Either team, Alabama or Georgia, will be favored over undefeated and No. 1 Notre Dame.

But unlike previous SEC championships, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are more than two closely matched teams near the top of the national rankings: They are virtual mirror images of each other.

Both play 3-4 defenses that throw a lot of different looks at opposing quarterbacks. Both have pro-style quarterbacks that are among the best in the nation in pass efficiency. And both have a tandem of running backs with bruising power and breakaway speed.

“I think passing efficiency sums it all up,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said early in the week when asked about the two quarterbacks. “These two guys have done it as well as anybody in our league, maybe as well as anybody in the country.”

Saban was also complimentary of Georgia’s runners, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, a pair whose production has earned them the melded nickname Gurshall, a word-play on Bulldogs legend Herschel Walker that Georgia fans find uproariously clever.

“Todd is a little bit like our guys,” Saban said, referring to the Tide’s pair of runners, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. “He is big, physical, he can (run) inside or outside and can make you miss. He also has power.

“Their second guy (Marshall) is a very good back in all those regards, but he is also a very fast guy. So there is a little change of pace there that the players have to be aware of. You definitely need to make sure that you keep better leverage. You always have to keep good leverage on the runner, but I think when you have guys that have great speed, you have to really be conscious of that.”

So, with similar offenses, similar defenses, and no discernible differences on special teams, why are the Crimson Tide favored to win?

Easy. Alabama is better in the areas that don’t get all the hype.

The key for the Tide is not the skill players, not the guys whose names get called and who have stats posted online every week. It’s the guys whose named are hardly ever heard, guys like center Barrett Jones, who will likely be an All-American for the third consecutive year playing three different positions, and Cyrus Kouandjio, one of the best Alabama offensive tackles since John Hannah. D.J. Flucker, Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack.

Jones, Kouandjio and the rest of Alabama’s offensive line are names not often mentioned on television and not often interviewed after games, but these are the men who will make the difference.

Championship games are about controlling the ball, chewing up the clock and wearing down opposing defenses. That uncelebrated burden falls on the offensive line.

On that front these two teams are not all that close.

Alabama has the best front five in the nation. Georgia’s offensive linemen have struggled and will need to have the game of their lives to keep their team in this championship.

The quarterbacks, tailbacks and wideouts could all have great games, but where the big men play is where this one will be decided. And in those trenches is where Alabama has won the day almost every time it’s taken the field.