Long one of the most talented teams in the SEC, and therefore the country, the Georgia Bulldogs finally put everything together in 2017. Second-year head coach Kirby Smart led the Bulldogs to a 12-1 record, with a loss to red-hot Auburn as the only blemish, which Georgia made up for with a victory in the rematch in the SEC Championship Game.
That win earned Georgia a date with Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff. A victory over the Sooners would give Georgia its first shot at a national championship since 1980, and would put Smart on the doorstop of joining Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Gene Chizik among 21st century coaches to win it all in Year 2 on the job.
But first, the Bulldogs must get by the Sooners and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Fueled by a suffocating and physical defense and powered by a punishing running game here are five reasons to like Georgia’s chances of beating Oklahoma in Pasadena.
5 Reasons Why Georgia Will Win the Rose Bowl
1. Defense wins championships
The maxim may not have held true during the College Football Playoff era to date, in which the national champion allowed an average of 30.3 points in the national championship game, but defense still wins championships. Georgia has one of the best defenses in the nation, which not only gives the Bulldogs a good chance of beating Oklahoma in the semifinal, but of winning in Atlanta as well.
Led by Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith (above, right) and fellow veteran defenders Lorenzo Carter, Aaron Davis, Trenton Thompson, Dominick Sanders and John Atkins, the Georgia defense has held opponents to 13.2 points and 270.9 yards of offense per game, both of which rank in the top five in the FBS. Opponents have gained just 4.47 yards per play against the Bulldogs, which is good for sixth overall, and Georgia also ranks second overall against the pass (158.3 ypg, 5.6 ypa). Diving into more modern analytical statistics, Georgia ranks No. 8 nationally in defensive S&P+, including top-10 marks against the run (No. 8) and pass (No. 6).
Regardless of their success, the Dawgs will face their toughest test of the season in the Rose Bowl as the Sooners have the Heisman winner at quarterback, and also boast the nation's most productive offense at 583.3 yards per game 8.44 yards per play. Oklahoma is fourth in scoring at 44.9 points per game and is balanced attack that not only is third in passing (362.4 ypg) but also averages more than 200 rushing yards (215.9 ypg, 27th) per contest.
Nevertheless, Georgia held all but one opponent (Auburn in the first meeting) to 312 yards or fewer, and no opposing offense threw for more than 253 yards in a game. And though the Bulldogs have yet to face a quarterback as productive as Mayfield, Georgia fared well in wins against some quality signal-callers, including Taylor Lamb, Drew Lock and Jarrett Stidham (all of whom rank in the top 20 nationally in passer rating) and dual-threat QBs Brandon Wimbush and Nick Fitzgerald, whose offenses averaged 437.4 total yards per game in the regular season but managed just 272.5 against the Dawgs.
2. The rushing attack
Sometimes the best defense is an efficient offense, and the Bulldogs have exactly that. A stable of talented running backs and one of the most underrated offensive lines in the nation has produced 263.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the SEC and 10th in the country. Georgia averages 5.8 yards per carry, also good for 10th overall.
Running backs Nick Chubb (1,175 rushing yards, 13 TDs), Sony Michel (948, 13) and D’Andre Swift (597, 3) are one of the most explosive trios in the nation, averaging a combined 6.89 yards per carry. Chubb has five 100-yard games this season and as many multiple-touchdown efforts as well. Michel has hit the century mark three times and scored multiple times in three contests. Swift has yet to reach 100 yards in a single game, but he had an impressive 64-yard touchdown in the SEC title game and a 71-yard scoring run against Missouri.
Chubb, Michel and Swift have benefitted from a talented unit up front, led by All-SEC left tackle Isaiah Wynn and solid center Lamont Gaillard. Wynn, Gaillard, left guard Kendall Baker and right tackle Andrew Thomas have all started every game at their respective positions this year, giving the Bulldogs one of the most consistent units in the country.
3. Jake Fromm vs. Oklahoma's mediocre defense
Georgia has proven itself capable of managing the game on the ground, either grinding out yardage or exploding for big plays. Given the fact Oklahoma allowed an average of 144.2 rushing yards per game (42nd in the FBS) and have surrendered 5.66 yards per play — 69th in the country and by far the worst among the playoff teams - the Dawgs should have great success on the ground in Pasadena.
Furthermore, while the stats may be slightly skewed due to the quick-strike nature of the Sooners' offense, as well as the cost of doing business in the pass-happy Big 12, Oklahoma has struggled against the pass. The Sooners rank 87th nationally with 240.6 passing yards per game and 81st in yards allowed per pass attempt (7.5), and the unit isn’t particularly good forcing turnovers with just eight interceptions thus far.
That’s good news for Georgia, who is starting a true freshman at quarterback — even if that freshman is the super-talented Fromm. After taking over for an injured Jacob Eason in the opener against Appalachian State, Fromm threw for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He posted a 168.18 rating during the regular season and averaged 9.4 yards per pass attempt, both of which rank fifth among qualified FBS quarterbacks.
4. Third downs
The top three reasons on our list are fairly obvious, but when digging deeper into the stats, we see a few advantages for Georgia that might go more unnoticed, including the success the Bulldogs have had on third down. Leading up to the Rose Bowl, Georgia converted 78 of its 165 third down opportunities — a 47.27 percent success rate that leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally. The Bulldogs were even better in SEC play, converting nearly half (49.09 percent) of their third down opportunities. Including the game against Notre Dame, the Dawgs converted 50.42 percent of their third down opportunities against Power 5 opponents, which was the best rate among ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC teams.
Chubb and Michel, along with the offensive line, can take credit for much of Georgia’s success on third down, having often put the offense in short-yardage situations with positive results on first and second down. But some credit should also go to Fromm, who despite posting relatively low passing numbers (UGA ranks last in the SEC and 110th nationally with 170.1 passing yards per game), has been very efficient.
Of course, the Georgia defense also has done well holding the line on third down. The Bulldogs have allowed opponents to concert just 33.15 percent of the time on third down, a rate that places them among the top 25 teams (23rd) in the country. SEC opponents fared even worse (31.71 percent) and Power 5 foes were still held below 35 percent (34.06).
5. Red zone
In addition to its proficiency on third down, the Georgia offense also is one of the most efficient units in the country when it comes to capitalizing on scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs rank seventh in the FBS with 5.26 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, and were even better in the red zone. Georgia has put points on the scoreboard 48 times in 50 attempts when reaching its opponents’ 20-yard line, a 96.0 percent success rate that is the fourth-best average in the country. The Dawgs have put the ball in the end zone 70.0 percent of the time in the red zone, which ranks 25th nationally.
Georgia converted each and every red zone scoring opportunity through its first eight games during the regular season (scoring on 31 straight red zone trips to open the season) before the Bulldogs lost a fumble on the 4-yard line against South Carolina. The Dawgs then scored 17 straight times in the red zone before turning the ball over on downs on the final full offensive drive of the SEC Championship Game.
Again, the rushing attack has played a big role in Georgia’s success, as well as Fromm’s efficiency, but the Bulldogs' receiving corps also deserves recognition. Javon Wims, the 6-foot-4 senior, broke out with six touchdown catches — three of them in the red zone. Furthermore, two of Mecole Hardman’s three TD grabs came in the red zone, as did both of Riley Ridley’s TDs. Isaac Nauta also hauled in an important touchdown in the SEC Championship Game, and big-play receiver Terry Godwin came up with one of the biggest plays of the season with his red zone touchdown against Notre Dame. Each playmaker will have opportunities against Oklahoma as the Sooners allowed 40 scores in 46 red zone opportunities or 86.96 percent of the time. That placed them 96th in the FBS during the regular season.
Also, the Georgia defense was solid in the red zone. The Bulldogs have allowed scores on 78.57 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20 — 29th among FBS teams — but the Dawgs were at their best against Power 5 foes, limiting them to points on 76.19 percent of trips. Only five other Power 5 defenses fared better during the regular season. Georgia also held Power 5 offenses to a 42.86 percent touchdown success rate, which was third best among major conference defenses.
There are many, many factors to consider when looking ahead to the Rose Bowl, but with its dominant defense and efficient offense, Georgia has what it takes to win.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.