In the six days since Georgia and Oklahoma were paired in a College Football Playoff semifinal, I’ve gone back and forth on which team has the greatest advantage.
Will the Bulldogs’ menacing defense be too much for Oklahoma, accustomed to scoring at will in the points-happy Big 12? Or can Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield outduel Roquan Smith and company with his Heisman-worthy playmaking? And if that scenario occurs with Oklahoma forcing a shootout, can true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm keep Georgia in the game?
No clear answer has emerged in my mind, and while that may reflect poorly on my predictive prowess, it’s a promising sign for the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl.
The Bulldogs’ matchup with Oklahoma might be the most intriguing game the CFP system has produced in its four years. It features the likely Heisman Trophy winner, one of the best defensive players in the country and a pair of 12-1 teams with extremely different philosophies.
And that’ll be just half of what looks like the most balanced four-team field to date.
The other semifinal features No. 1 Clemson against fourth-ranked Alabama in a rematch of the last two national championship games. Hype is naturally baked into the Sugar Bowl like a delicious holiday treat.
Regardless of your feelings toward the current system, the four best teams are participating in the two best possible pairings. While I’m an advocate of playoff reform — you’ll never convince me an undefeated Group of 5 conference champion doesn’t deserve a shot at a national title — it’s hard to complain about the two semifinal matchups (unless you’re an Ohio State fan).
Clemson-Alabama is undoubtedly the headliner for this year’s playoff, but Georgia’s tilt with Oklahoma will be a fascinating case study in old-school, smashmouth football versus the new-age spread.
Making the contrast even more pronounced is the fact that these two national brands have somehow never met on the gridiron despite both programs beginning in the 1890s.
Georgia, for the most part, would fit right in that era.
Behind the two-headed ground attack of seniors Nick Chubb (1,203 yards) and Sony Michel (916), along with effective cameos by true freshman D’Andre Swift, the third-ranked Bulldogs have rushed for about 263 yards per game.
That has allowed Georgia coach Kirby Smart to largely take the ball out of Fromm’s hands, but the true freshman has played well beyond his years. The former Houston County star showed he’s capable of making big-time throws, though he was rarely asked to do so, and minimized mistakes as the Bulldogs blew out the majority of their SEC competition.
Then there’s the defense, which is tied for third nationally in allowing 13.2 points per game. Smith, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and was one of three finalists for the honor recognizing the country’s best defensive player, is the heart of Smart’s defense.
It all adds up to a team designed to control the clock and wear opponents down, like it did against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
And that makes Oklahoma the perfect foil for the Bulldogs.
The No. 2 Sooners score nearly 45 points an outing behind Mayfield, who tonight will almost surely add the Heisman Trophy to his list of accolades after earning the Davey O’Brien, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards.
He’s a maestro at the wheel of Oklahoma’s wide-open offense, the likes of which Georgia hasn’t seen this year. While the Bulldogs have faced some spread attacks like Mississippi State, Auburn and Notre Dame, those teams are more run-oriented.
But the same principle applies to the Sooners. You could watch hours of Big 12 football and never spot a fullback or a quarterback under center, and Oklahoma has not lined up against a team as physically imposing as Georgia.
That Big 12 association, however, has given first-year coach Lincoln Riley’s squad a bit of an unfair reputation on defense.
The Sooners are in the top half of FBS in scoring defense, giving up just 25 points per game. Their 62-52 shootout against Oklahoma State sticks out for a lot of folks, but that was a classic Bedlam game against perhaps the best collection of offensive skill players in the country.
Oklahoma seems to be rounding into form at the right time, too, having most recently given up 17 points to No. 15 TCU in the Big 12 title game.
There’s also an element of intrigue in the coaching matchup, which pits the defensively minded Smart against Riley, a young offensive mastermind who took over following Bob Stoops’ surprise retirement in June.
With all that in mind, the game will likely come down to how well Mayfield performs. His success, or lack thereof, will determine if the contest becomes the shootout Oklahoma thrives in or the physical slog Georgia prefers.
My gut tells me Georgia can do enough to limit Mayfield, but we’ve seen how important having a smart, explosive quarterback is in the playoff. Look no further than what Gainesville’s Deshaun Watson did against Alabama’s all-world defense the last two seasons.
On top of that, the senior showed he can light up a defense of comparable talent during Oklahoma’s road win against Ohio State back in September. Granted, that’s the same defense capable of massive lapses like the 55-24 loss against Iowa that kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff (again, sorry to all the Ohio State fans out there).
So who has the edge? I don’t have an answer right now, and I’m sure that once I do I’ll flip-flop several more times over the next three weeks.
But there’s an intrigue that comes with the unknown, an open-endedness that will make Georgia’s first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1943 must-see TV.
Marcus Rodrigue is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RodrigueReport on Twitter.