INDIANAPOLIS – When Alabama receiver John Metchie III crumpled to the ground during last month's SEC championship game, the questions came hard and fast.
How would the Crimson Tide suddenly adapt without its most reliable receiver? Who would fill the void? Could No. 1 Alabama overcome the loss to win another national championship?
Over the past month, coach Nick Saban and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young have found creative workarounds without Metchie to finish off Georgia for the SEC title, beat No. 4 Cincinnati and reach yet another College Football Playoff championship game. If Alabama can continue to thrive without Metchie in Monday night's rematch against No. 3 Georgia, it will likely have a second straight national title.
Metchie had six catches, 97 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game against Georgia near the end of the first half. In the rematch, Alabama will play four quarters without him.
“Metchie is someone you just can’t replace," Young told reporters on a video call after arriving in Indianapolis earlier this week. “Losing Metchie was huge for us. That definitely hurt. It’s really tough. But as coach is always saying, that creates opportunity for other people and we've had people step up in the wake of that."
Few teams are better prepared to absorb such a devastating blow as Alabama (13-1).
Metchie and the game-breaking Jameson Williams formed one of the nation's top receiving tandems.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Metchie - born in Taiwan and raised in Canada - did the dirty work for Alabama's passing game. He had 96 catches for 1,142 yards, eight touchdowns and consistently moved the chains. Before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, NFL draft experts expected Metchie to be one of the top 10 receivers chosen in this year's draft.
Williams, a transfer from Ohio State, is the big-play receiver. Despite catching only 75 passes, he ranks in the top five nationally in yards receiving (1,507) and TD catches (15) and is sixth in yards per reception (20.1). At 6-2, 185 pounds and blessed with breakaway speed, many believe he'll be one of the first 10 players picked.
After Metchie went down, Young leaned heavily on Williams, who finished with seven receptions, 184 yards and two TDs.
“Excellent speed, excellent route runner, very competitive guy. He’s a very instinctive player, he’s a very smart player," offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said. “I can’t say enough about his competitiveness. He’s a player that goes out and practices every day like it’s a game. and I think that’s something that the great ones have."
They’ll need him to be just as productive Monday night.
Alabama, of course, has other options, too.
Freshman Ja'Corey Brooks, one of the nation's top recruits last fall, replaced Metchie in the starting lineup. The 6-2, 190-pound Miami native had four catches for 66 yards and one score in the win over Cincinnati.
With almost two more full weeks of practice to get acclimated to his new role, teammates expect even more this time.
“I would say Ja’Corey, he’s doing excellent right now, he’s a real good ballplayer," Williams said. “I think you guys are going to see very much more from him in his coming days."
After Young threw for 421 yards and three scores in the SEC title game, the Crimson Tide opted to challenge Cincinnati with a run-heavy attack. The result: Brian Robinson Jr. wore down the Bearcats with 26 carries for a career-high 204 yards.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former assistant under Saban, took note though he expects Alabama to rely on a more balanced approach Monday.
“They’ve got really good skill players on the outside, they know how to use those skill players," Smart said. “They put them in different positions, change things up. Brian Robinson, seems like he’s been there for 100 years and he is physical, runs with purpose, intent, a traditional Alabama back. They do a good job, especially against Cincinnati of committing to the run. It’s a double-edged sword. You do too much of this, they can hurt you."
And that's exactly how the Crimson Tide intends to game-plan without Metchie. Saban will rely on the arm and legs of Young, hoping to the keep Georgia's strong defense guessing.
“That’s the ultimate challenge. When you look across the board at the efficiency with which Bryce Young has played with," Smart said. “He's got good weapons around him, he’s got a really good team around him, but make no mistake about it, he is elite at what he does. To have the number of touchdown passes, the interception ratio, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen really anything like it."