Third downs between Alabama offense and Georgia defense could be critical in key matchup

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Only seven FBS teams have forced their opponents to punt more frequently than Georgia; only three teams punt less frequently than Alabama. Both teams can thank third-down success for their respective status.

The potential SEC Championship Game preview Saturday between SEC West favorite Alabama and SEC East favorite Georgia could hinge on the results of third downs between Alabama’s offense and Georgia’s defense, two units that have been among the best in the nation. Georgia ranks 10th in the nation in allowing conversions 28.26% of the time, while UA ranks second in the nation in converting 64.52% of the time.

Alabama’s excellence on third down has come without the luxury of advantageous down-and-distance situations.

Of Alabama’s 31 third downs faced this year, only 10 have been with three or fewer yards to gain; that percentage ranks 19th nationally. Expanding it out to six or fewer yards to gain – still relatively friendly conditions for an offense — UA has had that benefit on 17 of its 31 third downs faced, a percentage of 54.84 that ranks 24th nationally.

That being the case, UA has been forced to convert in adverse situations to maintain one of the nation’s best third-down offenses. (The only team better is Temple, which has played just one game this season.) In those difficult third-down snaps, UA has often done more than convert.

UA wide receiver John Metchie III has three catches on third downs of seven or more yards to gain; those three catches went for 135 yards, moving the chains all three times and once scoring a touchdown. Jaylen Waddle has been similarly effective: his two catches in the same situations have gone for 31 yards, both creating first downs and one scoring a touchdown.

DeVonta Smith’s lone catch in the situation was a 14-yard gain that earned a first down.

“What makes them succeed is their players,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s based on really hard guys to cover outside. ... Najee (Harris) runs the ball really hard, and they are massive upfront. So, offensively, they are not built like some of these teams that go tempo the whole time and go hurry-up the whole time. They can go up-tempo and they do tempo well, but they are really big, they can take shots down the field with explosive wideouts they have. They make you defend the entire field.”

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Georgia’s situational success has come through the more traditional methods.

Of the 46 third downs the Bulldogs have had to defend, 29 of them have come with seven or more yards to gain. In forcing opposing offenses to face that situation 63.04% of the time, Georgia ranks fifth nationally.

Much of that can be attributed to what has statistically been the best run defense in the nation thus far, allowing 1.49 yards per carry.

“Their defense is especially very, very good, probably the best defensive team in the country all the way around, when you talk about stopping the run, having good pass defense, getting off the field on third down,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “They've been very efficient and effective in every part of the game. They have good players that can rush the passer. They can play the point."

UGA has also been fortunate with penalties: 21 of the 27 penalties committed by its opponents were offensive penalties, some of them particularly costly relative to third-down conversion rate. Arkansas had a third-down conversion negated penalty and pinned itself behind the chains with three penalties on first down; Tennessee had a third-down holding call and three false starts on second downs.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson