5:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Georgia -1.5, Over/Under: 60
What better way to bring in the New Year than with a pair of College Football Playoff National Semifinals, with a tantalizing matchup between the Third-Ranked Georgia Bulldogs and the Second-Ranked Oklahoma Sooners first up, from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Out of College Football’s Final Four, Georgia (12-1, 8-1 in SEC) would have to be considered the most unlikely, entering the year as Preseason N0. 15, en route to a magical run earning them their first Southeastern Conference Championship since 2005. In just his second year in Athens, Kirby Smart has done a tremendous job of rebuilding a Program that despite a good deal of success had struggled to meet lofty expectations in recent years. As a result, the Bulldogs had all but vanished from the National Conscience, evidenced by their meager standing in the Polls at the beginning of the season. However, the key to their remarkable run began with what many teams would label a disaster; Sophomore Starting Quarterback Jacob Eason suffered a nearly serious knee injury midway through the Season Opener against Appalachian State, replaced by True Freshman Jake Fromm (6.0%, 2,173 YDS, 9.4 Y/A, 21 TD, 5 INT), who ultimately went on to supplant the Upperclassman as the Starter. On that day, Fromm, a highly-ranked Recruit that had initially committed to Alabama, apparently swung the tide in the SEC (no pun intended), finishing the game 10-of-15 for 143 Yards and a Touchdown in the 31-10 victory. With that said, the true test would come in the following week, as Georgia met Notre Dame in South Bend in a matchup that would have massive ramifications for both sides. For his part, Fromm passed the test with flying colors, efficiently completing 16-of-29 Passes for 141 Yards and a Score in rallying his team from a 16-10 deficit to capture a season-defining 20-19 victory. From that point, neither he nor the Bulldogs would look back, winning each of their next seven outings before getting thrashed at Auburn (40-17). Fortunately, there was still time for Smart’s charges to save face with the CFP Committee, which they did by capturing the SEC East Division, ultimately setting up a rematch with the Tigers, who they absolutely dominated in a 28-7 affair in the Conference Championship Game. After the West Division Champions sprinted out of the gate to a 7-0 lead, Georgia took their measure and responded by running off Twenty-Eight Unanswered Points, effectively booking their trip to the Playoff. This game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would have suggested, folks, for Fromm and Co. moved the ball at will, compiling 421 Total Yards, with the three-headed monster of Nick Chubb (191 CAR, 1,175 YDS, 13 TD), D’Andre Swift (73 CAR, 597 YDS, 3 TD), and Sony Michel (131 CAR, 948 YDS, 13 TD) leading the charge on the ground, rolling up a whopping 238 Rushing Yards on Forty-One Carries. Defensively, the ‘Dogs relegated the Tigers’ potent Spread Attack to 259 Total Yards, while limiting a banged-up Karryon Johnson to Forty-Four Yards on Thirteen Carries, recovering a pair of Fumbles to boot. Look for Georgia to stick with a similar Gameplan against Oklahoma’s high-powered Offense; this team has been adept at enforcing their will on the opposition with their Ground Game, which has churned out a punishing 263.5 Yards per Game on a very healthy 5.8 Yards per Carry. Essentially, Smart has three Starting Tailbacks, with each of the triumvirate of Chubb, Swift, and Michel capable of carrying the load. Chubb, in particular has been a great story, after the Senior tore multiple ligaments in his knee back in October of 2015, though he finally looks back to being the talent that very nearly broke Herschel Walker’s school-record of consecutive 100-Yard Games (Fourteen). With Michel, who has been nursing a knee injury suffered in the SEC Title Game, likely to see less reps, expect Chubb and particularly Swift, who has averaged an explosive 8.2 Yards per Carry thus far, to see a more prominent role. Defensively, the Bulldogs have the requisite size, speed, and athleticism to battle the Sooners, limiting opponents to just 13.2 Points (4th Overall) on 270.9 Total Yards, including 158.3 Yards against the Pass, and another 112.6 Yards versus the Run. It should be interesting to see how Smart approaches this matchup for his troops haven’t faced a Passing Attack as prolific as Oklahoma’s this season; sure they smothered Auburn the second time around, but the Tigers are much more of a running team, while Missouri gave them arguably the biggest scare with the nation’s leader in Passing Touchdowns, Drew Lock, torching them for 254 Yards and Four Scores. Granted, at first glance those numbers may seem inflated, but a closer look would reveal that the gun-slinger was red-hot early, tossing three of those Touchdowns in the game’s first twenty minutes in which the score was tied at 21-21. However, Georgia would put their foot on the gas shortly afterwards outscoring them 32-7 the rest of the way en route to a 53-28 victory. With that said, this unit has generally wrecked havoc in opposing Backfields, amassing Seventy-Eight Tackles for Loss, including Twenty-Six Sacks, leading to Eighteen Takeaways.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma (12-1, 9-1 in Big XII) too, is a bit of a surprise to be in the College Football Playoff, if that’s even remotely possible when they’re headlined by reigning Heisman Quarterback Baker Mayfield. After all, there was a great deal of uncertainty around this Program coming into the season, particularly after the shocking resignation of long-time Head Coach Bob Stoops, who had led the Sooners to Fourteen 10-Win Seasons over the previous Eighteen Years, including four trips to the BCS National Championship Game, and an undefeated, National Title campaign in 2000. Taking over his post was Lincoln Riley, who became the nation’s youngest Head Coach at Thirty-Four Years of Age, with the former Broyles Award Winner (given to the nation’s top assistant) keeping the good times rolling in Norman, leading his charges to their third consecutive Big XII Title, overcoming a 38-31 upset to Iowa State to string together eight consecutive victories, including a 41-17 thumping of TCU in the Conference Championship Game. For the second time in under a month, the Sooners hammered the Horned Frogs, jumping out to an early 17-Point Lead that they would not relinquish despite their opponent’s best efforts; with the lead dwindling to 17-14 midway through the Second Quarter, Mayfield and Co. would once again put their proverbial foot on the gas, outscoring Texas Christian 24-3 the rest of the way. Of course, as he has all season, Mayfield (71.0%, 4,340 YDS, 11.8 Y/A, 41 TD, 5 INT) was the man of the hour, completing 15-of-23 Passes for 243 Yards and Four Touchdowns, with the latter two traveling Fifty-Five and Fifty-Two Yards respectively. Mark Andrews (58 REC, 906 YDS, 8 TD) hauled in Seven Receptions for Fifty-Eight Yards and Two Scores, while Marquise Brown (49 REC, 981 YDS, 6 TD) caught three for Eighty-Seven Yards and a Touchdown of his own. On the ground, the league champions punished TCU’s overwhelmed Defense for 218 Rushing Yards on Forty-Three Carries, led by Rodney Anderson’s (162 CAR, 960 YDS, 11 TD) Ninety-Three Yards, with Mayfield chiming in with Sixty-Five more. Offensively, Oklahoma just might be the most explosive team in the country, averaging 44.9 Points per Game (4th Overall) on a staggering 583.3 Total Yards, led by Mayfield, who topped the nation in a slew of categories including Completion Percentage (71.0%), Yards per Attempt (11.8), Passer Rating (203.8), and Total Touchdowns (Forty-Six), all the while adding to his considerable Trophy Case with this year’s Big XII Offensive Player of the Year, Davey O’Brien, Maxwell, and Walter Camp Player of the Year Awards, along with the Heisman, of course. While he’s certainly been a polarizing figure among many in the sport due to his at times childish antics on the field, his otherworldly production and competitive drive cannot be overlooked or overstated, with the Senior Gun-Slinger going down as arguably the top Quarterback, if not player, in the history of the Program, which is really saying something given all the legends that have traveled through Norman, Oklahoma. While we already know what we’re getting with the other National Semifinal, this particular matchup between the Mayfield-led Attack and arguably the toughest Defense in the Southeastern Conference has all the makings of blockbuster. Riley’s charges are a big-play machine, averaging a whopping 8.4 Yards per Play, operating at a furious pace that has consistently overwhelmed their opponents. While he gets the ball out of his hands quicker than most, Mayfield is also adept at buying time for his Receiving Corps to shake their coverage and get downfield, which will be paramount against the Bulldogs’ Defense, which has specialized in creating chaos in opposing Backfields. The most underrated feature of his game is his feet, which have helped him to rush for 310 Yards and Five Touchdowns. If he realizes that the Defense is locked into Man Coverage, he’ll attempt to escape the Pocket and pick up the First Down himself. Don’t make the mistake of discounting him against a unit of Georgia’s caliber, for when he faced Ohio State’s formidable Defense (which has sent a litany of players to the NFL over the years), he posted arguably his most defining performance; after getting embarrassed by the Buckeyes in Norman a year ago, Mayfield gained sweet revenge, eviscerating them on 27-of-35 Passing for 386 Yards and Three Touchdowns in a 31-16 triumph in Columbus. With all that said, Riley needs to make sure he stays on the field, for if his Defense is getting repeatedly trampled over by Chubb and Co. then the Hesiman will be relegated harmlessly to the sideline. Oklahoma’s Defense has allowed 144.1 Rushing Yards this season on 4.0 Yards per Carry, though many of their opponents have had to abandon the run altogether after falling behind by such a significant margin. To ensure that that doesn’t happen, they must create negative plays earlier in Downs, setting up Third and Long situations, which Fromm and Co. haven’t seen too many of. If anyone is going to make an impact, the safe bet is that it’ll be Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (70 TKL, 17.0 TFL, 8.0 SK, 3 FF, 2 FR), for the Senior Edge-Rusher has been a nightmare this season, with the second-most Tackles for Loss (Seventeen) and Sacks (Eight) in the Big XII in 2017.