ATHENS, Georgia — Georgia and Ohio State are two powerhouse programs that have been watching each other closely for the past few years, battling recruiting rankings, seeing Justin Fields move from program to program, but for all this time not meeting. on the same football pitch.
That changes in the college football playoff semifinals this year, where they face off in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. This is the game that for a while seemed destined for the championship, but will instead be a chance to get there. Plenty of analysis awaits the marquee game, but here are the first thoughts from Georgia’s perspective.
Did Georgia get a raw deal?
Many people, including those not inclined to think about conspiracy, will always assume that the members of the playoff selection committee made sure not to create a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the semifinals. The result being first-seeded Georgia ended up with what is perceived to be the toughest game (than Michigan-TCU) against fourth-seeded Ohio State.
Still, committee chairman Boo Corrigan came armed with data points when asked about it on Sunday.
“When you look at TCU, 6-1 over .500 teams, 2-1 against ranked teams,” he said. “Ohio State had good wins over Penn State and Notre Dame, played close to Michigan for three quarters of the game, but at the end of the day we came back to TCU, and nothing happened for that game against Kansas State (in the Big 12 Championship game) that we didn’t think we got them out of third place.
Convincing? Not really. But there isn’t exactly a huge chasm between TCU’s and Ohio State’s resumes. It’s just the brand name and perceived talent base that makes Ohio State the better team.
Plus, Georgia and Michigan aren’t miles apart on their resumes. Both are undefeated. Michigan has the most impressive victory (at Ohio State) while Georgia has more wins over ranked teams (five to two).
So it almost feels like a split-the-difference situation: Michigan gets (perhaps) the easier game, but Georgia can basically play on a home court. Speaking of what…
Hometown factor will be real but not decisive
This will be Georgia’s third time playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in four months, but it’s almost certain that Georgia won’t have the dominant crowd they had for their first two times. Oregon still had a lot to do, and LSU fans saw their enthusiasm wane by being out of the hunt for the playoffs.
Ohio State, however, will receive a guaranteed allocation – it was 12,500 for Michigan State last year in the Peach Bowl – and its fans are likely to hit the secondary market hard, given the stakes. Game.
Still, Georgia should have the majority of the crowd, it’s just a matter of how many. And he will know the stadium and feel comfortable there.
“You play against the defending national champions in their backyard. It’s going to take everything we have to win this game,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, later clarifying that he was not complaining. “When you get to that point in the season, that’s what you have to do. You’re going to be in these electric moods. If you had asked me at the start of the season that you would play Georgia in the Peach Bowl for the national semi-finals, of course, you would cut off your right arm for this opportunity.
Well, probably not literally.
Kirby Smart, for her part, pointed out that on Georgia’s previous two trips to the semifinals, she had been to Los Angeles and Miami. It happened to be the year of the rotation where Atlanta was in the semifinals. Smart also went a little Norman Dale on the zoom call.
“The pitch is exactly the same length as any other pitch we play them on,” Smart said.
By reputation, this is a sexy game between Ohio State’s offense and Georgia’s defense. Peach Bowl chairman Gary Stokan pointed out Sunday that Ohio State has the second scoring offense in the nation and Georgia has the second scoring defense.
But it would be a bit simplistic to see it that way. For one thing, the Georgia defense is coming off a game in which they gave up over 500 passing yards to LSU. It was an anomaly — Georgia entered the game ranked first in the SEC in pass defense — but it gave Smart something to talk about for the next few weeks.
“We can’t play defense like we did last night, or we’re not going to be champions,” Smart said.
Georgia’s offense, of course, had 50 points in the same game, and that was only the second most points scored this season. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in yards per game, behind only Tennessee, and against the five ranked teams they’ve faced, they’ve scored 49 points (Oregon), 48 (South Carolina), 27 ( Tennessee in a game where the rain hit in the second half), 45 (Mississippi State) and 50 (LSU).
Ohio State, meanwhile, certainly looked vulnerable on defense against Michigan. But the Buckeyes still rank 18th nationally in defensive yards per play and 13th in scoring defense. They’re not perfect — ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense — but it’s not exactly Southern California’s defense either.
State of mind
Smart told his team on Sunday that Georgia’s team last year “had a different mindset than maybe our team does right now.” The point was obvious: Last year’s team was emotionally fueled by the SEC championship loss, while this year’s team had to make sure being 13-0 led to no complacency.
Smart also pointed out that Ohio State felt something different. Critics may say the Buckeyes fell back in the playoffs, but they just suffered a loss and were humiliated. It’s similar to what Alabama had going into the 2017 playoffs, and look how it went.
“With Ohio State, there’s a breath of fresh air of opportunity,” Smart said. “The excitement that it brings and the energy, it’s like it’s a boost that we have to understand, and we have to be able to match that and understand that there’s a part of that which you must know.”
It will be tough for Georgia
Those two programs have only met once, and that was 29 years ago, but Smart saw the Buckeyes last decade: the 2014 CFP Semifinals when he was in Alabama.
“Long day. Long day,” Smart said. “That was Ezekiel Elliott, wasn’t it?”
Yes, replied an Ohio-based reporter.
“He shredded what was a pretty talented Alabama defense,” Smart said.
Day didn’t join the Ohio State program until the 2017 season. But he kept the same basic, explosive approach to the program. He also recruited at a high level: Ohio State has the third-most talented team in the nation, according to the 247Sports Talent Composite, behind only Alabama and Georgia.
Last year, there was a feeling entering the playoffs that Georgia was headed for a rematch with Alabama if it didn’t stumble against Michigan. This year, the perception in some quarters may be that the toughest opponent is first, which may be the result of paying too much attention to preseason perceptions. Either way, it looks like Georgia will have to go through both Big Ten powers. If this year’s Georgia team repeats as national champions, they will have earned it.
(Top photo by Kirby Smart: Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
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