In a potential letdown spot, will Bulldogs match Longhorns' intensity?
It’s tempting to break down this year’s Sugar Bowl between the Texas Longhorns and Georgia Bulldogs as a litmus test of Texas’ “back-ness.” If you’re a hack writer, that is. Let’s not beat that trope to death any more than it already has been.
Cliches aside, Sugar Bowl executives must be thrilled to have two of college football’s most popular programs squaring off in their game. In a year replete with unappealing postseason matchups, Texas-Georgia stands out as one of the more glamorous games on the bowl slate.
The winning team should enjoy a serious bowl bump in 2019. Count on the winner opening next season at a lofty spot in the preseason polls.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Texas (9-4) vs. Georgia (11-2)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 8:45 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How Texas handles Georgia’s running game
The Bulldogs operate under a classic pro-style offensive identity. There isn’t much mystery to what UGA does. Kirby Smart’s team plays at a methodical pace and leans heavily on a physical running game led by backfield mates D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, who average 6.7 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively.
The transition from the Sony Michel-Nick Chubb combo to the new duo did nothing to chip away at Georgia’s rushing potency. The Bulldogs rank seventh nationally this season in Offensive Rushing S&P+, an opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, down all of one spot from last year.
UT defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has earned a reputation as one of the better tacticians when it comes to defending the spread. Texas’ standard defensive schemes deploy nickel and dime packages to handle all of the receiver-heavy offensive sets it sees on a regular basis. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, that’s not UGA’s style. Orlando will need to come up with an adjustment or risk his defense getting trampled.
2. Can Sam Ehlinger survive?
Texas thrives off the play of its sophomore quarterback, who developed as a passer this season and also provided a reliable short-yardage running option on the ground. Ehlinger has a knack for firing up his team with his bulldozing playing style. It also exposes him to significant punishment from defenses as witnessed with the shoulder injury that plagued him in the second half of the season.
Ehlinger has healed up since the Big 12 Championship Game. He faces easily his toughest test of the season in the Georgia defense, though. It’s a big, burly group that will rough him up if he gets too cavalier running the ball or trying to extend plays.
If the Bulldogs knock Ehlinger out of the game, send the Sugar Bowl trophy to Athens.
3. Resistable force versus movable object
The strength of the Georgia defense lies in its ability to shut down the pass. The Bulldogs rank No. 3 in the country in Defensive Passing S&P+ and No. 1 in Defensive S&P+ on passing downs. Texas receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey won’t find much room to roam in the Georgia secondary, even if Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker is sitting out.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs are susceptible to strong running games. They rank 51st overall in Defensive Rushing S&P+. Although UGA allowed a respectable 4.1 yards per carry throughout the season, the Bulldogs surrendered more than five yards per attempt against the better rushing attacks on the schedule — Auburn, LSU and Alabama.
The UT ground game doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents. It ranks No. 93 overall in Offensive Rushing S&P+. That’s far from imposing. The Longhorns have a few grinding backs on the roster, primarily including senior Tre Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram. Along with Ehlinger, they help the offense keep the chains moving, even if the explosive plays are few and far between.
If the Longhorns run the ball consistently, it puts an upset within their reach.
Motivation could play a huge role in determining the outcome of this game. Texas hasn’t made an appearance in a high-profile bowl in nearly a decade. Getting his team fired up shouldn’t pose much of a problem for UT head coach Tom Herman.
The Bulldogs are in a trickier spot. Georgia came achingly close to winning a national championship a year ago. A spot in the Sugar Bowl with nothing else on the line has to feel anticlimactic for the squad. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if Texas engineers a validating win for the Herman regime.
That being said, the actual football factors in this game all line up in favor of the Bulldogs. Assuming the Longhorns are getting UGA’s best effort — or even a pretty good one — they will have a tough time keeping Georgia’s offensive line from owning them up front. Mix in UGA QB Jake Fromm’s precision passing and the Bulldogs will put the pressure on UT to keep up.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Texas 27
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.