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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, November 30, 2012 at 9:33 PM

We don’t have a BCS “Final Four” this year, but Saturday afternoon’s SEC Championship game is a defacto national semifinal because the winner of #2 Alabama vs. #3 Georgia will earn the right to play #1 Notre Dame for the national championship a little over a month from now. Sports bettors must determine the value team in Saturday’s epic showdown…and “learn while they watch” about what might happen when the winner faces the Irish when the trophy is on the line.

Alabama-Georgia is a very interesting matchup because they didn’t face each other during the regular season…and because they didn’t have a lot of relevant common opponents during the regular season. The SEC is so big now (14 teams) that you can still have some mystery about where teams stand in early December!

*Alabama didn’t play Georgia

*Alabama didn’t play SEC East powers Florida or South Carolina

*Georgia didn’t play SEC West powers Texas A&M or LSU

All of those teams rate very well in the current BCS standings, yet we have limited samples to deal with in terms or predicting what would happen when the two divisional champs play each other. All we know is this:

*Alabama lost to Texas A&M, and was very lucky to beat LSU

*Georgia lost to South Carolina, and was very lucky to beat Florida

Why “lucky?” Alabama needed to rally in the final moments in Baton Rouge after trailing most of the fourth quarter. Georgia needed SIX turnovers from Florida to offset the three they made themselves in a cocktail party nailbiter.

Even though Alabama seemed pre-ordained to return to the BCS title tilt before the season started, they’re fortunate indeed that they survived LSU, AND Oregon lost to Stanford, AND Kansas State lost to Baylor, AND Texas A&M and LSU both had tougher SEC schedules than they did.

It all presents an interesting challenge to handicappers and sports bettors heading into this much-anticipated blockbuster. Let’s see what our indicator data suggests about the likely result…

ALABAMA vs. GEORGIA (4 p.m. ET on CBS)

Las Vegas Spread: Alabama by 7.5, total of 50.5

This is a neutral site game in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Obviously the Bulldogs will play in front of a boisterous crowd. But, Alabama is used to playing here and in big games in general. The market doesn’t seem to be granting Georgia anything for playing in its home state. Alabama has been getting respect all season against the number, even when they started showing some vulnerabilities.

CURRENT BCS RANKINGS

Alabama: #2

Georgia: #3

You have to wonder how an SEC “round robin” would sort itself out if these two teams, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, and South Carolina all played each other. Would Alabama survive as the best of the bunch? Would Georgia finish in the top two? Would all six be seen as so closely matched that separating them would be difficult? The market is saying Alabama is well clear of the field, even though the two games they played within that hunk of teams put that in question.

HEAD COACHES

Alabama: Nick Saban

Georgia: Mark Richt

One reason Alabama is getting so much respect in the line…and so much support from TV punditry is that Nick Saban possesses proven championship credentials while Mark Richt was always seen as a guy who couldn’t win the big one before this year. And, even this year, his teams didn’t exactly sparkle in their big ones. Richt has been on the hot seat for a few years because Georgia kept underachieving expectations. If you’re thinking of betting the dog here, you need to justify in your own mind that Richt deserves to be on the same field as Saban. We have some statheads in the NETWORK mix that are questioning Alabama’s true superpower status of late…but nobody questions the coaching advantage in this matchup.

QUARTERBACKS

Alabama: A.J. McCarron

Georgia: Aaron Murray

Both are known to get rattled against top defenses when they have to pass under pressure. Since both play for good teams, they manage to avoid that much of the season. Murray has more explosive numbers against lesser opposition because Richt likes to attack through the air when he has an advantage. McCarron looks more like a game manager because Saban prefers to close out wins on the ground when he’s in command. That makes analysis tricky. We believe the TV pundits are overrating a perceived edge for Murray because of his highlight reel TD passes. He had more lowlights vs. South Carolina and Florida than highlights. Who do we give an edge to? Let’s say it this way. Murray is very likely to determine who wins and covers…either by playing very well or by committing too many turnovers. Murray is a linchpin player much more than McCarron.

Normally in this spot we look at last week’s boxscores. That would tell us nothing about this game because both Alabama and Georgia won easily as big favorites last week. Instead, let’s take a closer look at what happened in the games that these two 11-1 teams dropped in league play.

BOXSCORES IN LOSSES

TEXAS A&M 29, ALABAMA 24

Total Yardage: Texas A&M 418, Alabama 431

Rushing Yards: Texas A&M 165, Alabama 122

Passing Stats: Texas A&M 24-31-0-253, Alabama 21-34-2-309

Turnovers: Texas A&M 0, Alabama 3

Third Downs: Texas A&M 61%, Alabama 47%
Vegas Line: Alabama -13, total of 54

The Aggies caught Alabama flat-footed in the first half with their up-tempo attack (which, amazingly happened to almost every A&M opponent this year…watch some game films people!). Some TV pundits have suggested Georgia come out with that same lightning speed and intensity. We can’t argue with that. The key of course is avoiding mistakes and moving the chains. It’s not just that the Aggies moved quickly. They executed well! You see no turnovers from A&M even with their aggressive approach…on the road against a top defense! Can Georgia do that? Or, would Georgia aggression just lead to the Bulldogs shooting themselves in the foot over and over again? The Aggies converted 61% of their third downs. Georgia needs to make a run at 50% if they want to spring an upset.

SOUTH CAROLINA 35, GEORGIA 7

Total Yardage: Georgia 224, South Carolina 392

Rushing Yards: Georgia 115, South Carolina 230

Passing Stats: Georgia 11-31-1-109, South Carolina 6-10-0-162

Turnovers: Georgia 1, South Carolina 0

Third Downs: Georgia 44%, South Carolina 42%

Vegas Line: South Carolina by 1, total of 54.5

There’s a danger in looking at losses in that teams will much look in their worst game of the season than they’re likely to look in the game you’re handicapping. Georgia’s offense struggled badly here, with low totals, and a very ugly passing line. The stats aren’t as bad as the final score. South Carolina returned a punt for a TD while jumping out to a 21-0 first quarter lead. So…Georgia did the opposite of starting fast here. And, it has to be said, their offense didn’t impress in the win over Florida either. The Bulldogs finished with 17 points even though the Gators turned the ball over six times. Murray and the offense as a whole will have to lift their games significantly from what they did vs. South Carolina and Florida if they plan on advancing to face Notre Dame. The good news is that both Johnny Manziel and Zach Mettenberger did post meaningful passing numbers against the Alabama defense. This was SHOCKING at the time…but might be a sign that this isn’t a vintage Alabama team.

BEST EXPECTATION

The best expectation is that Aaron Murray will determine the result. If he can match Manziel and Mettenberger while avoiding turnovers…then we could see a very dramatic fourth quarter and an upset victory. If he just provides a replay of what happened vs. South Carolina and Florida, it’s going to be a squash for the Crimson Tide that could yield a victory margin of three touchdowns or more.

JIM HURLEY has been studying game films very closely to get a read on what Georgia’s offense is likely to do vs. Alabama’s defense. What he’s learned will yield a team side play, and possibly a total too. You can purchase the final word Saturday in this game and the rest of the card right here at this website. Make a few clicks and have your credit card handy.  If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on combination seasonal packages that take you through the college bowls, the NFL playoffs, and March Madness in the baskets.

The SEC Championship game will send a winner to the BCS Championship game. When championships are on the line, you need WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!

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