By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Kirby Smart’s Alabama defenses routinely squared off in practice against Heisman Trophy-winning running backs and NFL-bound wide receivers.
Still, the Georgia coach never saw a collection of offensive weapons during his days as the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator like he’ll see Saturday when the teams meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta.
Smart and his fourth-ranked Bulldogs are preparing to face what he calls “one of the most elite group of skill players I’ve seen assembled in college football.”
The Tide’s headliner is Tua Tagovailoa, who could become the first Alabama quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy. But even Tagovailoa knows he has been spoiled by the quality of his supporting cast, from a formidable offensive line to a deeper-than-ever group of receivers and a typically loaded backfield.
“I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s awesome,” Tagovailoa said. “I can go to the right, I can get a Snickers bar if I wanted to. I can go to the left, I get some Skittles. It’s really fun for me as a quarterback to be behind some first-round draft picks.”
In truth, this fast-paced, high-powered offense scarcely resembles some of the past groups under coach Nick Saban in style and methodology.
It starts with Tagovailoa and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, but it’s also a product of a stockpile of skill players.
There’s the standard-issue deep, talented backfield. Like usual, there’s also a seemingly made-for-the-NFL wide receiver putting up huge numbers. Now, it’s Jerry Jeudy, not Julio Jones, Amari Cooper or Calvin Ridley — all first-round draft picks.
But Jeudy has plenty of playmaking company among the receivers, more so than any of those high-profile predecessors. And Tagovailoa has put up huge numbers for an offense that ranks second nationally in scoring, fourth in total offense and, most tellingly, sixth in passing.
“They have the most explosive receiving corps we’ve faced all year, so I feel Alabama is the best team we’ve faced all year,” Georgia linebacker Juwan Taylor said.
It’s not as if Saban’s old offensive formula didn’t work, but times have changed and so has the Tide offense.
The Tide hasn’t had a Top 15 offense under Saban.
Enter Tagovailoa. And Jeudy. And fellow receivers Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and freshman Jaylen Waddle. Plus tight end Irv Smith Jr. Not to mention tailbacks Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs.
Yes, it’s a long list.
All of the receivers are deep threats who are dangerous once they have the ball in their hands. They’re all averaging more than 17 yards per catch with at least five touchdown receptions.
They’ll face a Georgia secondary led by cornerback Deandre Baker and one of the SEC’s top defenses.
“When you look at the wide outs they’ve got, they’ve got a bunch of them, and they’re really good,” Smart said. “Then they’ve got some toys they can do things with. Then they’ve got the tight end, and they’ve got really good backs. With all those things, we’ve got to play a really good football game, and our kids are excited for the opportunity.”
The Bulldogs, of course, are painfully familiar with Tagovailoa. He came off the bench to lead a second-half comeback in the national championship game against them.
Since then, he’s logged 12 starts, 3,189 yards and a school-record 36 touchdowns while only throwing two interceptions.
The Georgia defenders also have far more game film of him to study. Last season, they were preparing for the more run-oriented Jalen Hurts not Tagovailoa.
“We didn’t know he was that elusive or had an arm like that,” Bulldogs defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said.
They do now, and Georgia also has the nation’s No. 10 scoring defense, a unit that has been stingy about giving up big plays.
Tagovailoa has gained seasoning and so have Jeudy, Ruggs and DeVonta Smith. All four were freshmen last season.
“I think Tua is a dynamic player,” Ledbetter said. “He’s very elusive. And he’s a deep ball threat even for us, and we’ve got to make sure our DBs are on top of that.
“We’ve definitely got to make sure we affect the quarterback, whether that’s getting sacks or getting batted balls or just great pocket push and just making them throw uncomfortably. I think the name of the game is just making him uncomfortable for as long as you can.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.