Will Georgia's prolific Chubb-Michel duo pass final test on championship stage?
ATLANTA — Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, one of the most prolific 1-2 rushing punches in college football history, do not live their lives in tandem.
For instance, the collective offseason decision that altered the trajectory of Georgia football arrived by chance. The two seniors did not huddle to discuss future options, nor were they the first ones to know the other's eventual decision to return to school. Each star player went through his evaluation processes separately, arrived at a decision to return to school and alerted head coach Kirby Smart. The collaborative appeal — paired with returning senior linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy — arrived afterwards via matching mindsets: “Come back and try to leave a legacy,” Michel said.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban says the Bulldogs’ backfield duo is “as good as I can ever remember.”
As former Georgia assistant, Alabama defensive coordinator and soon-to-be Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt put it, “When you say this is what I want a football player to be, these guys are that way.”
Now, the ultimate challenge for the final edition of the Chubb-Michel legacy: Solving an Alabama defense that has finished top-10 nationally against the run every year for the past decade and finished No. 1 four times in the past six seasons.
For two backs who have combined to rush for 8,259 yards over their four seasons on campus — the most by a pair of teammates in FBS history, surpassing SMU's Eric Dickerson and Craig James and Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones — Saban’s Crimson Tide can be viewed as the last boss waiting at the end of the game’s final level.
“Probably one of the greatest teams I ever played against two years ago was Alabama. I still remember that," said Chubb, who rattled off 146 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide as a sophomore. "It's hard to run the ball on them, but we're going to have to run the ball. … Got to try to get some movement up front and as running backs, it's probably going to be really on us to kind of make something happen.”
Since 2008, Alabama has faced 32 teams which finished their respective seasons averaging 200 or more rushing yards per game. Georgia will be No. 33. In the previous 32 meetings, the Crimson Tide defense held those run-heavy opponents to an average of 116 rushing yards and allowed just 21 total touchdowns on the ground. Only one of those teams — Auburn’s 2013 “Kick Six” squad — eclipsed the 200-yard mark. (Saban’s teams have allowed 200-plus rushing yards in a single game only five times in the past decade.)
To potentially complicate matters for the Bulldogs, true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm is not considered a particularly elusive signal-caller, rushing for 94 yards in his first season in Athens. One common theme in past teams who have solved, or at least produced against, Alabama’s run defense? Mobile quarterbacks. From that aforementioned list of 32 teams, here are the opponents who reached 150-plus rushing yards with multiple touchdowns:
|Team||Rushing Yards||Rushing TD||QB (Rushing Yards)|
|2012 Texas A&M||165||2||Johnny Manziel (92)|
|2013 Auburn||296||2||Nick Marshall (99)|
|2017 Mississippi State||172||3||Nick Fitzgerald (66)|
Offenses led by Tim Tebow, Deshaun Watson and Cardale Jones — quarterbacks capable of rattling off 50-plus rushing yards on their own to keep defenders off-balance — have also found success over this decade-long run of dominance for Alabama’s defense. A Fromm-engineered attack would present a rarer solution to the pride of Tuscaloosa.
Then again, few, if any, of those previous examples boasted a stable of backs and punishing offensive line comparable to Georgia’s group.
Players on both sides of the title-game aisle, from Michel to Alabama star linebacker Rashaan Evans, said they expect a straight-forward, physical matchup given that both programs are practically mirror images of one another.
“They really have more than three running backs,” Pruitt said. “If you watch, everybody talks about Nick and Sony and (freshman D’Andre) Swift. But Brian Herrien's a good back and (Elijah) Holyfield is a good back, too.
"You watch them at the end of the games and these guys are coming in and they're extremely talented. But you don't find many places in the country if any that have five good runners like they have.”
Added Saban: “Their offensive line has certainly created an identity up front. They've got two great running backs, do a really good job with the play-action passes. Their quarterback has been very efficient and effective. So the combination of the balance that they create with the running game and their ability to throw the ball down the field, whether it's RPOs (run-pass options) or play-action passes makes them very difficult to defend.”
That last point by Saban is the alternative balancing act: Jake Fromm’s ability to punish secondaries for overemphasizing run prevention. The true freshman takes advantage of the focus on Chubb and Michel, leading the nation in total quarterback rating on passes 20 yards or more downfield. On passes traveling at least 15 yards in the air, Fromm has tallied 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions this season and he’s been at his best when opposing coordinators bring pressure. And which defense ranks among the very best at big-play prevention?
|Big Play Type||Total Allowed By Alabama||National Ranking|
Still, after watching Chubb and Michel rumble and dash for more than 8,000 yards and 87 touchdowns, including 367 total yards and six scores in a thrilling Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma, framing them as mere matchup decoys is virtually impossible.
This is the stage they returned for. This is the stage they deserve.
If Georgia is going to take down Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night, slaying college football's preeminent giant, the Bulldogs’ prolific running back tandem will likely wield the slingshot.