The College Football Playoff for the 2017 season officially kicks off on Monday in Pasadena, Calif., as Georgia meets Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl for a trip to the national championship. This is the first time these two teams have met on the gridiron, and this matchup isn’t short on intrigue. The Bulldogs used a strong defense and ground attack to claim the SEC title, while Oklahoma’s high-powered offense under the direction of Heisman winner Baker Mayfield has rarely been stopped during the 2017 season.
Oklahoma’s run to the Rose Bowl got off to an interesting start in 2017. Coach Bob Stoops decided to retire in early June, with Lincoln Riley promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach. The transition has been seamless for the Sooners. Riley guided Oklahoma to a 12-1 mark in the regular season, claimed the Big 12 title with a victory over TCU, won at Ohio State and defeated rivals Texas and Oklahoma State. Riley didn’t relinquish play-calling duties on offense, and Oklahoma finished fourth nationally by averaging 44.9 points a game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield capped a prolific career by winning the Heisman Trophy in 2017, with left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews picking up first-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. While the offense had no trouble putting up points on the scoreboard, the defense had its share of ups and downs under the direction of coordinator Mike Stoops.
After an 8-5 season last year, the pieces fell into place for coach Kirby Smart in his second season at Georgia. The Bulldogs navigated an injury to quarterback Jacob Eason in the opener against Appalachian State due to the emergence of freshman Jake Fromm under center. Fromm was steady as a true freshman throughout SEC play and didn’t make many mistakes, allowing Georgia’s offense to lean heavily on its ground game and defense to win. The only defeat suffered by the Bulldogs came at Auburn in early November, but Smart’s team got revenge in the SEC Championship with a convincing 28-7 victory over the Tigers. With Smart recruiting at a high level and a strong foundation in place in Athens, Georgia should be a fixture for appearances in CFB Playoff over the next 10 years.
As mentioned above, this is the first meeting between Georgia and Oklahoma on the gridiron. Additionally, the Bulldogs only have one previous trip to the Rose Bowl, which took place in 1943. The Sooners also have one appearance in this game, as Stoops’ program knocked off Washington State in 2003.
Rose Bowl: Oklahoma (12-1) vs. Georgia (12-1)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Georgia’s Ground Game Against Oklahoma’s Defense
This battle is likely to decide which team can establish its preferred style of play and control the tempo. Georgia wants to utilize its physical ground game and offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage and keep Oklahoma’s high-powered offense on the sidelines. When the Sooners have the ball, this offense wants to press the tempo, wear out the Bulldogs’ defense and get Smart’s team out of its comfort zone.
Georgia’s ground game features one of the deepest collections of running backs in college football. Senior Nick Chubb ran for 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, with Sony Michel adding 948 yards and 13 rushing scores. Third-string running back D’Andre Swift is a future star in Athens and rushed for 597 yards and three touchdowns on just 73 attempts. Leading the way for Georgia’s ground game is an improved offensive line. Assistant Sam Pittman is one of the best offensive line coaches in college football and was crucial in helping this group clear the way for rushers to average 5.8 yards a carry (up from 4.6 in 2016).
Of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma’s defense is the group with the most question marks. The Sooners gave up 144.2 rushing yards a game in the regular season, with opponents averaging 4.02 yards a carry. The front seven is the strength of coordinator Mike Stoops’ group, but this unit surrendered 251 yards on the ground to West Virginia, 213 to Oklahoma State and 268 to Kansas State. How will this front seven handle the Georgia rushing attack? The Sooners need to keep Michel, Chubb and Swift from consistently churning out yardage and force the offense into obvious passing downs. If the Bulldogs are in third-and-short downs all night, Oklahoma is going to face an uphill battle to win in the Rose Bowl.
Related: 5 X-Factors for the Rose Bowl
2. Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma’s Receivers
Oklahoma’s passing game had a few voids to fill in the pass catching department this offseason. Receiver Dede Westbrook (80 catches) and Geno Lewis (32) expired their eligibility, and running back Joe Mixon (37) made the early jump to the NFL. Despite a few missing faces at receiver, the Sooners haven’t missed a beat in the passing game. Marquise Brown (49 catches for 981 yards and six scores) emerged as a weapon downfield, tight end Mark Andrews was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports, with freshman CeeDee Lamb, fullback Dimitri Flowers, and Jeff Badet rounding out the other key targets. Of course, the transition at receiver was eased largely due to the play of quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield delivered another prolific season in 2017, which resulted in the senior claiming the Heisman Trophy and first-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. Mayfield threw for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He also completed 71 percent of his throws and added 310 yards and five scores on the ground. With Mayfield at the controls, Oklahoma averaged over 40 points a game (44.9) for the third consecutive year). The Sooners also averaged 8.4 yards a play, which was the highest mark of any team in college football. Mayfield garners the accolades from this high-powered attack, but Oklahoma also possesses one of the nation’s top offensive lines and a standout running back in Rodney Anderson. Georgia’s defense limited opponents to just 13.2 points a game this season, so the chess match between Smart and Riley will be one of the top coaching battles of the 2017 campaign.
How will Georgia’s defense counter Oklahoma’s passing game? The Bulldogs don’t give up too much in the way of yardage or touchdowns through the air. However, Missouri’s offense found success attacking downfield against the Bulldogs’ defensive backs. Georgia doesn’t get to the quarterback often (26 sacks), so it will be interesting to see how coordinator Mel Tucker and Smart choose to attack Mayfield. Will the Bulldogs drop players into coverage and force Mayfield to be patient in finding the right target? Or will Georgia bring pressure and force Mayfield to get rid of the ball quickly, with the defenders making tackles in space? And if the Bulldogs key too much on the pass, that opens up Oklahoma’s run game. Another factor to watch is Mayfield’s ability to make plays with his legs against one of college football’s top defenders in linebacker Roquan Smith.
3. Georgia QB Jake Fromm
Fromm is the x-factor in Monday’s game. Georgia wants to establish the run and dominate in the trenches to prevent Oklahoma from enforcing its style of play. But if the Sooners stack the box and slow Chubb and Michel on early downs, Fromm will be faced with third-and-long situations all night. With Oklahoma likely gearing up to stop the run, coordinator Jim Chaney could have Fromm come out throwing early to loosen up the defense.
How will the freshman perform under pressure? So far, Fromm has aced every test. The true freshman was pressed into duty after Jacob Eason suffered a knee injury in the opener and proceeded to throw for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns to just five picks. Additionally, Fromm completed 63 percent of his throws en route to leading Georgia to a SEC Championship. The freshman’s favorite targets are Javon Wims (38 receptions), Terry Godwin (29), Mecole Hardman (22) and tight end Isaac Nauta (nine).
While the focal point of Georgia’s offense will be the ground game, Fromm is going to have opportunities to push the ball downfield. Oklahoma’s secondary gave up 17 passes of 40 yards or more in 2017.
This is a tough game to get a read on. Georgia’s defense is the best Oklahoma has seen this season. And on the flipside, this is the best offense the Bulldogs have faced this year. Whichever team can establish its style of play and tempo is likely to come out on top. Will Georgia get its power rushing game on track? Or will Mayfield and his receivers simply have too much firepower for the Bulldogs to contain on defense? Expect both sides to land their share of punches. But the pick here is Oklahoma due to the edge at quarterback.