Georgia dominated Auburn 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game to clinch the program’s first trip to the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs are in search of their first national championship since 1980 and bring one of the top defenses and rushing attacks in college football to the playoff. Georgia takes on Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in a national semifinal, with a trip to Atlanta for the national championship on Jan. 8 on tap with a victory over the Sooners.
Coach Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater and guided the program to an 8-5 finish last season. But the Bulldogs were significantly better in his second season at the helm, winning 12 games, an SEC title and victories over ranked teams in Mississippi State, Notre Dame and Auburn.
Can Georgia win the national championship? Here are five reasons why the Bulldogs will beat Oklahoma and then win the national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
5 Reasons Why Georgia Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. The Rushing Attack
Georgia’s success on offense starts with its rushing attack. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC by averaging 263.5 yards a game on the ground and was held only twice to performances of less than 200 yards in a contest this year. Additionally, Georgia pounded a standout Auburn front for 238 yards in the SEC Championship Game.
Leading the way for the ground attack is a pair of seniors. Nick Chubb is the top back for coordinator Jim Chaney, as he posted his third 1,000-yard season in Athens by recording 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Sony Michel wasn’t far behind on the stat sheet, recording 948 yards and 13 scores in 12 contests. Michel has been better at generating big plays (7.2 yards per carry to 6.2 for Chubb) and enters the College Football Playoff with four rushes of 40 yards or more.
Chubb and Michel form one of college football’s top tandems at running back this year, but Chaney has a couple of other weapons he can turn to if needed. Freshman D’Andre Swift is a future star in Athens and posted 597 yards and three touchdowns on 73 carries this fall. Swift flashed his potential by posting 88 yards on seven carries in the SEC Championship Game. Sophomores Elijah Holyfield (293) and Brian Herrien (265) are also capable of contributing. And it’s a good thing Smart and Chaney have assembled a deep group of running backs. Michel suffered a knee injury on Saturday night, which has added some doubt to his status for the playoff.
Simply, this is one of the best rushing attacks in college football, and a variety of backs can hurt opposing defenses. If Georgia can establish the line of scrimmage in the playoff, this team has an excellent shot to bring back the trophy to Athens.
2. Jake Fromm’s Development
True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was pressed into duty after an injury to starter Jacob Eason in the season opener against Appalachian State. Fromm ranked as a four-star prospect and a top-100 recruit by the 247Sports Composite out of high school, so talent wasn’t an issue – he just lacked experience.
However, as the season has progressed, Fromm continues to get better and more comfortable leading the Georgia offense. Through 13 games, Fromm has completed 63 percent of his throws for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns. In the SEC Championship Game win over Auburn, Fromm rebounded from his worst outing of the regular season (at Auburn) to complete 16 of 22 throws for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Fromm is doing a good job of minimizing mistakes. The freshman has just five interceptions and has not tossed more than one pick in a game this season. On first down, Fromm is completing 65.3 percent of his throws for 802 yards and eight touchdowns to zero interceptions. Those numbers could be critical as teams look to stack the box on first down and force Georgia to throw.
Fromm’s preferred target this season has been Javon Wims (38 catches for 631 yards and six touchdowns), with Terry Godwin (29 rec.) also in the mix. Sophomore Mecole Hardman (22 catches) and tight end Isaac Nauta (nine) are two other players to watch. The Bulldogs aren’t particularly deep at receiver, but these four players (and sophomore Riley Ridley) form a solid front-line group for Fromm.
With Georgia possessing a strong rushing attack and defense, Fromm won’t be asked to win a playoff game with his arm. However, the Bulldogs are going to need efficiency, make the post of their play-action game and also capitalize on some throws on early downs to keep the defense honest. As the season progressed, it’s clear the true freshman is up to the task and more comfortable than he was back in September.
3. Improved Offensive Line
While the play of quarterback Jake Fromm and the rushing attack garner the most headlines from Georgia’s offense, the improvement of the line has been a key factor in the improvement of coach Kirby Smart’s team. Line coach Sam Pittman is one of the best in college football, and it’s clear his second year with this group paid major dividends over the season.
Last season, Georgia’s offensive line gave up 24 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per rush. Fast-forward to 2017, and the Bulldogs have showed marked improvement in both totals. This season, Georgia’s rushers are averaging 5.8 yards per carry, including a 6.1 mark against Power 5 teams. This unit has been considerably better in pass protection, as the Bulldogs have allowed only 16 sacks through 13 games.
After struggling to win the battle up front against Auburn in the first meeting in November, the Bulldogs dominated in the trenches in the SEC Championship Game. The front five cleared the way for rushers to post 238 total yards (5.8 per carry) on 41 attempts. The play of the offensive line allowed for Chubb, Michel and Swift to attack the interior but also get to the edge on perimeter runs.
Tackle Isaiah Wynn anchors the left side of the line and should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Center Lamont Gaillard has started all 13 games in the interior, with freshman Andrew Thomas anchoring the right side all season. In Football Outsiders’ offensive line rankings, Georgia ranked No. 12 in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 16 in Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry and eighth nationally in opportunity rate.
With a few more weeks to work with this front, Pittman will continue to develop Georgia’s offensive line into a group that can meet the challenge of Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl or Clemson/Alabama in the national championship.
4. Standout Defense
If the adage of “defense wins championships” holds up in the College Football Playoff, Georgia should be in great shape.
Led by Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker, the Bulldogs have assembled one of the best defenses in the nation. Georgia is second in the SEC in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 13.2 points a game. Just two opponents – Missouri and Auburn – scored more than 20 points against this unit. Additionally, seven opponents were held to 10 or less points against the Bulldogs.
Georgia’s front seven revolves around arguably the best set of linebackers in the nation. Roquan Smith was one of college football’s top defenders in 2017 and leads the team with 113 stops. He’s joined by Lorenzo Carter (47 tackles), Davin Bellamy (29) and D’Andre Walker (31) as key contributors at linebacker, with the status of Natrez Patrick uncertain after an arrest following the SEC Championship Game. The line doesn’t feature a bunch of statistical standouts, but the front three is a standout group. Junior Trenton Thompson (three tackles for a loss) is the headliner, with Jonathan Ledbetter, Tyler Clark and Julian Rochester rounding out a solid unit in the trenches. The standout front seven is a big reason why Georgia has allowed only 112.6 rushing yards a game. Also, the Bulldogs are limiting opponents to 3.5 yards a carry and just six rushing scores.
Georgia’s defense is allowing only 4.5 yards a play and doesn’t give up much in the way of big plays. Through 13 games, the Bulldogs have allowed just six plays of 40 yards or more. The pass defense has given up a few big plays but still ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense. One area Smart and Tucker will look to improve upon over the next month: Pressure. Georgia has just 26 sacks through 13 games this year. With a secondary that will be tested (and could give up some yardage), the Bulldogs need to get to the quarterback and disrupt the timing of Oklahoma’s passing game in the Rose Bowl.
With speed, athleticism and depth across the board, Georgia’s defense is capable of carrying it to a victory over Oklahoma and a win in the national championship.
5. Kirby Smart/Special Teams
Smart worked from 2007-15 under Nick Saban at Alabama. Considering Saban’s meticulous preparation and knack for developing game plans and finding weaknesses for opponents in bowl games and the CFB Playoff, Smart probably picked up a couple of tips that will help the Bulldogs in prepping for the Rose Bowl (and potential national championship). Smart also has a veteran staff, which includes defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and offensive play-caller Jim Chaney. This staff will have the Bulldogs prepared for the playoff.
Special Teams is another area where Georgia has made significant progress from 2016. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has connected on 15 of 17 field goals this season, with a long of 49 yards. Columbia graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek has been a key addition at punter. He’s averaging 44.5 yards a punt, boomed 14 of 50 yards or more and placed 22 inside of the 20-yard line. In the return department, Mecole Hardman averages 10.8 yards per punt and 27.3 on kickoff returns. In a tight game, solid special teams’ play could be the difference in a win or a loss for Georgia.