ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia and Ohio State are two power programs that have been watching each other from a short distance the past few years, contesting each other in the recruiting rankings, seeing Justin Fields go from one program to the other, but for all this time not meeting on the same football field.
That changes in this year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, where they face off in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. It’s the game that for a while seemed destined for the championship but instead will be for a chance to get there. Plenty of analysis awaits the marquee matchup, but here are initial thoughts from Georgia’s angle.
Did Georgia get a raw deal?
Plenty of people, including those not given to conspiracy thinking, always will assume the members of the Playoff selection committee made sure not to create a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the semifinals. The result being that top-seeded Georgia ended up with what’s perceived as the harder game (than Michigan-TCU) against fourth-seeded Ohio State.
Still, committee chairman Boo Corrigan came armed with data points when asked about it Sunday.
“When you look at TCU, 6-1 over teams over .500, 2-1 against ranked teams,” he said. “Ohio State had the good wins over Penn State and Notre Dame, played Michigan close for three quarters of the game, but at the end of the day, we came back to TCU, and there was nothing that occurred during that game against Kansas State (in the Big 12 championship game) that we didn’t believe moved them out of the No. 3 spot.”
Convincing? Not really. But there’s not exactly a huge chasm between TCU’s and Ohio State’s resumes. It’s just the name brand and perceived talent base that makes Ohio State seem like the much better team.
What’s more, Georgia and Michigan aren’t miles apart in their resumes. Both are unbeaten. Michigan has the most impressive win (at Ohio State) while Georgia has more wins over ranked teams (five versus two).
So it almost seems like a split-the-difference situation: Michigan gets (perhaps) the easier matchup, but Georgia gets to play on essentially a home field. Speaking of which …
Hometown factor will be real but not decisive
This will be Georgia’s third time in four months playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it’s almost certain Georgia won’t have the dominant crowd split it had for its first two times. Oregon had much farther to come, and LSU fans saw their enthusiasm dampened by being out of the Playoff hunt.
Ohio State, however, will receive a guaranteed allotment — it was 12,500 for Michigan State last year in the Peach Bowl — and its fans are likely to hit the secondary market hard, considering the stakes of the game.
Still, Georgia should have the majority of the crowd, it’s just a matter of how much. And it will know the stadium and be comfortable there.
“You’re playing 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, making clear later he wasn’t complaining. “When you get to this point of the season, this is what you’ve got to do. You’re going to be in these electric atmospheres. If you’d asked me at the beginning of the season you’d be playing Georgia in the Peach Bowl for the national semifinals, of course, you’d cut off your right arm for this opportunity.”
Well, probably not literally.
Kirby Smart, for his part, pointed out that in Georgia’s two previous semifinal trips, it traveled to Los Angeles and Miami. This just happened to be the year in the rotation that Atlanta was a semifinal. Smart also went a bit Norman Dale on the zoom call.
“The field is the exact same length as any other field we play them on,” Smart said.
By reputation, this is a sexy matchup of Ohio State’s offense versus Georgia’s defense. Peach Bowl chairman Gary Stokan pointed out Sunday that Ohio State had the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense and Georgia had the second-ranked scoring defense.
But it would be a little simplistic to look at it that way. For one thing, Georgia’s defense is coming off a game in which it gave up more than 500 passing yards to LSU. That was an anomaly — Georgia entered the game ranked first in the SEC in pass defense — but it gave Smart a talking point for the next few weeks.
“We can’t play defense the way we did last night, or we aren’t going to be any kind of champions,” Smart said.
Georgia’s offense, of course, put up 50 points in the same game, and that was only the second-most points it has scored this season. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in yards per play, behind only Tennessee, and against the five ranked teams they have faced, they have scored 49 points (Oregon), 48 (South Carolina), 27 (Tennessee in a game where 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 are 13th in scoring defense. They aren’t perfect — ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense — but this isn’t exactly Southern California’s defense, either.
Smart told his team Sunday that last year’s Georgia team “had a different frame of mind than maybe our team right now.” The point was obvious: Last year’s team was propelled emotionally by the SEC championship loss, while this year’s team needed to make sure being 13-0 didn’t lead to any complacency.
Smart also pointed out Ohio State is feeling something different. Critics may say the Buckeyes backed into the Playoff, but they’re coming off a loss and were humbled. That’s similar to what Alabama had entering the 2017 Playoff, and look how that turned out.
“With Ohio State, there’s a breath of fresh air of opportunity,” Smart said. “The excitement that provides and the energy, it’s like it’s a kick of momentum that we have to understand that, and we have to be able to match that and understand that there’s a piece of that that you’ve got to know.”
This will be hard for Georgia
These two programs have met only once, and that was 29 years ago, but Smart has seen the Buckeyes within the past decade: the 2014 CFP semifinal when he was at Alabama.
“Long day. A long day,” Smart said. “That was Ezekiel Elliott, right?”
Yup, an Ohio-based reporter replied.
“He shredded what was a pretty talented Alabama defense,” Smart said.
Day didn’t join Ohio State’s program until the 2017 season. But he has kept the program’s same basic, explosive approach. He also has recruited at a high level: Ohio State has the nation’s third-most talented team, per the 247Sports Talent Composite, behind only Alabama and Georgia.
Last year there was a sense entering the Playoff that Georgia was headed for a rematch with Alabama if it didn’t trip up against Michigan. This year, the perception in some quarters may be that the tougher opponent is first, which may be a product of looking too much at preseason perceptions. Either way, it looks like Georgia will have to go through both of the Big Ten powers. If this year’s Georgia team repeats as the national champion, it will have earned it.
(Top photo of Kirby Smart: Steve Limentani / ISI Photos / Getty Images)