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Sunday, March 19, 2023

College Football Playoff Semifinal Preview: The Rose Bowl

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Second-seeded Oklahoma (12-1) and third-seeded Georgia (12-1) have fielded college football teams for over 100 years, but when they face each other in Monday’s Rose Bowl, it’ll be the first ever meeting between the two programs. It’s also the first Rose Bowl in history to feature an SEC vs. Big 12 matchup. With unfamiliarity brings uncertainty, as both coaching staffs try to come up with game plans to combat schemes, players and tendencies they’ve never seen before.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart coached against Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, when Smart was the defensive coordinator for an Alabama team favored by 17.5 points against the Sooners. That game didn’t go as planned for Smart, as Oklahoma beat the Tide by two touchdowns and shredded his defense to the tune of 45 points and nearly 350 yards passing.

A lot has changed for Oklahoma and Kirby Smart since that game nearly four years ago. In Norman, Okla., 34-year-old offensive wunderkind Lincoln Riley took over for long-time head coach Bob Stoops, and the Sooners added quarterback Baker Mayfield via transfer from Texas Tech.

Mayfield has since become a star in college football, leading the Sooners to two playoff appearances in the last three years, winning 22 of his last 23 games and this year’s Heisman Trophy.

Smart was hired by Georgia, his alma mater, following the 2015 season, becoming the next in a long line of Nick Saban assistants to get head coaching jobs. It’s fair to say Smart has the SEC-champion Bulldogs ahead of schedule; at 12-1, he’s led the program to its best record through 13 games since 2002 in just his second season.

This game is a classic matchup of offense versus defense. The Sooners’ offense, designed by Riley and executed by the Mayfield, enters the game ranked No.1 in the nation in total offense (583.3 yards per game), percentage of possessions ending in a touchdown (47.2). It’s also the fourth highest-scoring unit in the country at 44.9 points per game and the second-best passing offense (367.4 YPG). In contrast, Georgia is led by its strong defense, which ranks second nationally in passing defense, fourth in scoring defense and total defense.

Mayfield, who won the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year for the second time in his career this season, undoubtedly has redemption on his mind after what happened in his first trip to the College Football Playoff. In 2015, the Sooners faced Clemson in a semifinal played at the Orange Bowl, and the Tigers had their way with the Oklahoma offense. The Sooners gave up five sacks and were held to a meager 378 yards and 17 points — while Mayfield threw two interceptions.

It’s worth mentioning that the Heisman winner has more help this time around. In addition to its potent passing attack, the Sooners led the Big 12 in rushing yards per game, averaging 215.9 points per game. During Oklahoma’s current eight-game winning streak, sophomore running back Rodney Anderson leads the Power 5 in touchdowns with 15 and scrimmage yards with 1,182.

Perhaps the most important thing Oklahoma can do in this game is to run the ball effectively, which would slow down Georgia’s pass rush and keep Mayfield from running for his life when protection breaks down. Mayfield has also been sick with flu-like symptoms over the past few days, so we’ll have to see how his energy and hydration levels have been affected, especially in the second half.

Giving Kirby Smart a month to prepare for Oklahoma’s offense should help Georgia immensely; in the previous two Playoff semifinals Smart’s defenses allowed a total of seven points (Alabama beat Washington 24-7 last year and Michigan State 38-0 in 2015). Linebacker Roquan Smith, a unanimous All-American this season, figures to be at the center of Georgia’s plan for stopping Baker Mayfield. The 6-foot-1, 230 pounder, who will probably be the the best player in the game not named Baker Mayfield, was first-team All-SEC, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year and winner the Butkus Award (given to the top linebacker in the country).

To put it simply, Roquan Smith has the potential to dominate this game single-handedly. Smith’s sideline-to-sideline speed and agility makes him the ideal player for Smart to use as a spy on Mayfield, and to blow up the wide running plays and quick passes Oklahoma’s offense is built on.

For Georgia the offensive game plan figures to be simple: pound the ball with the dynamic duo of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to protect true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, control the clock and keep Oklahoma’s offense on the sidelines. This is nothing new for the Bulldogs, which led the SEC in rushing offense this season with 265.7 yards per game. In the regular season, Chubb and Michel combined for over 2,000 yards on the ground and 26 touchdowns. Oklahoma was middle of the pack in the Big 12 when it came to stopping the run in the regular season, so the Bulldogs should have their chances to open up some running lanes.

Oklahoma has faced what most consider good defenses three times this year and won all three: Ohio State and TCU (twice). Against the Buckeyes, which finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense, Mayfield went 27-of-35 for 386 yards and three touchdowns while the Sooners won 31-16. In the two games versus TCU, Oklahoma scored 41 points and 38 points with Mayfield combining for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.

While Georgia’s defense is terrific, how much of its high rankings are a product of beating up on the offensively inept teams of the SEC East (Florida, Tennesee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky all ranked worse than 100th in total offense this year)?

In the end, this should be a spectacular game that hopefully goes down to the wire. It’s a toss-up, but Oklahoma has the best player in Mayfield and the playoff experience from two years ago, which will give them the edge over Georgia.

Prediction: Oklahoma 30, Georgia 28

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