- Baker Mayfield and the Sooners will square off against Roquan Smith and the Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl. Who has the edge in what promises to be a thrilling semifinal?
Three years ago, when the Rose Bowl last hosted a College Football Playoff semifinal, the game was able to keep at least some portion of its precious tradition. A stellar Marcus Mariota-led Oregon team earned the No. 2 seed following the 2014 season and ensured that a Pac-12 representative would play in Pasadena, only instead of the customary Big Ten opponent the Ducks faced (and beat) unbeaten Florida State.
For the first time since the end of the 2001 season (when Miami pounded Nebraska for the national title), both the Pac-12 and the Big Ten will watch the Rose Bowl from home, as Oklahoma and Georgia secured the committee’s No. 2 and 3 rankings, respectively, and were sent west after top-seeded Clemson was given geographic preference and assigned the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. With just under a month until kickoff, consider this your first look at an unorthodox matchup that nevertheless has all the makings of a Rose Bowl classic.
How both teams got here
Oklahoma: Simple: Nurture a walk-on quarterback into a Heisman favorite over four years, surrounding him with an endless supply of blue-chip weapons and a young, fearless coach who trusts him to make it all hum. So maybe the process is easier said than done, but after two seasons of spirited contention, the duo of quarterback Baker Mayfield and offensive coordinator turned head coach Lincoln Riley tore up Big 12 defenses at the helm of the nation’s fourth-highest scoring attack, putting up 44.9 points per game. The Sooners stunned Ohio State in Week 2 to dispel their preseason doubters, then brought them all back with a shootout loss to Iowa State in October. When contenders in other conferences hit a wall in November, Oklahoma kept improving, cruising to double-digit wins in their final six games. Mayfield threw 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions in November.
Georgia: Simple: Hire a Nick Saban assistant away from Alabama on the faith that he’s one of the few coaches with the leadership skills to operate Saban’s system outside of Tuscaloosa, and then find yourself proven right in just two years. Kirby Smart has gotten the most out of the Bulldogs’ seasoned front seven and benefited from healthy campaigns from senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to produce a 12–1 campaign in Year Two. After starting quarterback Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury in the season opener, true freshman Jake Fromm took the reins and piloted the offense to a nip-and-tuck road win over Notre Dame and emphatic Ws over the Bulldogs’ SEC East competition. Georgia topped the initial playoff rankings but was promptly humbled by Auburn, only to get acceptable revenge last weekend with the SEC title on the line in Atlanta.
Storyline you’ll get tired of hearing about
The best offensive player in the country (Mayfield) against the best defensive player in the country (Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith). Mayfield likely will be riding post-Heisman hype and a wave of takes on his hyper-competitive, line-toeing personality; Smith already has the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, and could bring home the Nagurski and/or Bednarik (each awarded to the nation’s top overall defender) soon. Few linebackers have the sideline-to-sideline speed to give Mayfield something to think about as he moves the pocket and darts around the field, but Smith has it in spades.
Matchup to Watch
Lorenzo Carter vs. Orlando Brown. Carter is second only to Smith among Georgia defenders with 4.0 sacks, and he’s half of an imposing senior outside linebacker tandem with Davin Bellamy that will try to keep Mayfield from getting comfortable. But there’s a reason Mayfield took to Twitter to express his frustration that his O-line was snubbed for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best line in the country. The Sooners have an experienced, imposing front five, anchored by their hulking redshirt junior left tackle Brown, who stands 6’ 8” and is listed at 345 pounds. Carter and Brown will see each other on Sundays after they square off in Pasadena.
Georgia’s defensive backs. Rare is the team that has enough time to let downfield passing plays develop against Georgia’s defense, which ranks second nationally behind Alabama with just 5.58 yards allowed per pass attempt. But Missouri’s Drew Lock proved that big plays are there for the taking with enough time and the right athlete on the other end of the throw, and no quarterback on the regular season schedule was closer to what Georgia will see from Mayfield. The likes of J.R. Reed, Dominick Sanders and Deandre Baker will be tested; can they hold up for four quarters?
With little to separate either team four weeks out from the opening kick, it’s tough to go against the player just days away from winning the Heisman Trophy. If Oklahoma’s defense can find a big play or two, the pressure could mount quickly on Fromm and the Georgia offense to get points out of nearly every drive, putting the Sooners in control.