ATLANTA — Two bruising, stingy defenses built to stop anyone and anything and two offenses that are predicated on a run-first mentality but bristling with big-play capability
Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game between Georgia and Alabama at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium could well register on the Richter Scale. In fact, the two Southeastern Conference foes almost seem to expect it.
So that's why players like Bulldogs senior punter Cam Nizialek -- who transfered to Athens from Columbia University for his final year of eligibility -- are prepping for a big night.
“I think in every game special teams plays a big part,” Nizialek said. “But (even more so) with two great defenses like these teams have. Punting is going to be huge; kickoffs are going to be huge.”
Mecole Hardman, the Bulldogs shifty kick-returning speedster out of Elbert County High School, said the unit is planning on making a difference.
“Special teams is always the difference in the game,” he said. “In every game you play, no matter how good special teams is, special teams always come into play; like the punter to flip the field or the kicker to hit touchbacks every time or the punt team not allowing return yards. Special teams is always the X-factor in the game.”
Comparing punters, Nizialek is ninth nationally in punting average at 44.5 yards a kick with 22 of his 49 punts downed inside the 20. In the semifinals against Oklahoma, he booted six punts for just over 48 yards on average, including a 61-yard blast, with three downed inside the 20. The unit has yielded 63 yards on 12 returns on the season.
Alabama’s JK Scott is 46th in the nation at 42.4 yards a kick and the punt unit has allowed just four returns all season for 5 total yards. Of Scott’s 48 total kicks, 14 have been over 50 yards, with 25 inside the 20.
Return game: Push (though Hardman looks poised to break one at any moment)
Each program's return game reveals similar numbers. Georgia relies mainly on Hardman, who has 21 of its 26 punt returns for 237 yards (11.2 yards a return), second-best in the SEC. He averages 27.4 yards a return on kickoffs, which was tops in the SEC in 2017, but has yet to take any kick the distance.
The Tide, meanwhile, has used four different returners, averaging 7.9 yards per punt return as a group, with Trevon Diggs and Xavian Marks totaling 24 returns for 8.2 yards a return and 22 yards a return on kickoffs. The Crimson Tide also have not returned a kick for a touchdown.
However, neither team has allowed a kick return for a touchdown. But Nizialek said he feels Hardman could be the guy to break all of those streaks.
“Mecole is a phenomenal athlete,” Nizialek said. “He’s great gunner and a great returner, and I think he’s capable of breaking one.”
If it comes down to a last-second field goal, the Dogs may have the advantage. Sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship is 17-of-20 on field goals, including a long of 55 yards, which set a new Rose Bowl record and turned the momentum of the game at the stroke of halftime in last week's win over Oklahoma.
Alabama features Andy Pappanastos, who is 16-of-21 on field goals with a long of 46.
Georgia also has shown a penchant for blocking kicks in the clutch, swatting four on the season, including one field goal attempt apiece in the SEC Championship game against Auburn (in Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and against Oklahoma in the second and seminal overtime during last week's CFP semifinals. Both blocks proved crucial. Alabama has blocked two kicks but also has allowed a blocked punt and a blocked field goal on the season.
For Nizialek, almost no matter what happens, his fairy-tale college journey will end on Monday night and he’s just enjoying the ride.
“I didn’t know we were going to be (in the title game) when I came down here to Georgia, but it’s really been an experience of a lifetime for me,” he said. “I came to Georgia to play in the big games, and this is the biggest game of them all. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Hardman, however, was a little more bold saying they are looking to be that impact group to bring home Georgia’s first title in 38 years.
“Special teams is always the X-factor in the game,” he said. “We’ve got a great special teams unit; we always work hard every day in practice to improve. We definitely can be the X-factor in the game.”