NEW ORLEANS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has heard the narrative about last year’s Sugar Bowl, but he refutes it and points instead to one key facet: turnovers.
“Turning the ball over last year really hurt us early and didn’t help us in that game,” Smart said. “Anytime you have turnovers, it’s going to be one of the greatest indicators, that and explosive plays. We had that last year.”
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) can’t afford that in this year’s Sugar Bowl against No. 7-ranked Baylor (11-2) when the teams meet at 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Bears, one win away from becoming the winningest program in a single-season in Baylor’s football history, have feasted on turnovers and quarterback sacks this season.
The Bears are the only program in the nation with 30 takeaways and more than 40 sacks, and they’ll come loaded against a Georgia football team that’s missing three offensive line starters along with its top receiver and likely, it’s top two running backs.
Here are the three keys to the game for Georgia:
It’s critical for every team in every game, but even more so with this particular Georgia football team as the Bulldogs’ personnel dictates a more deliberate and conservative style.
Even with Swift likely out or limited by his shoulder injury, and Brian Herrien unable to make the bowl trip, Georgia’s strength remains in the backfield.
Tailbacks James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and Zamir White will look to make the most of their carries, but also, protect the football.
Jake Fromm was intercepted in only two of 13 games, and he’ll be careful throwing the ball around against opportunistic Baylor.
Establish the run
The Bears play a three-man front that they expect Georgia will attack on the ground.
It’s an important element to the game for the Bulldogs, as it sets up play-action passes and forces the defenses to move more players closer to the line of scrimmage and be more aggressive in run support.
All those defensive adjustments open up things for a Georgia pass game that has needed all the help it can get.
An effective first-down running game — 4 yards or more — keeps the offense “on schedule” and provides an opportunity for James Coley to call run or pass on second down and prevents the defense from coming after the quarterback.
One reason Georgia had the best defense in the SEC — and when you consider the schedule, quite possibly the best defense in the nation — is that UGA didn’t allow any plays of 30 or more yards the second half of the regular season.
Conversely, the Bulldogs’ offense has not produced explosive plays, and with receivers Cager and Dominick Blaylock out with injuries, and Swift likely out or very limited, UGA is missing three of its most explosive players.
In fact, only three Georgia players expected to suit up have plays of over 40 yards this season: McIntosh (62-yard run), Eli Wolf (47-yard catch) and George Pickens (43-yards catch) — and none came against SEC competition.
UGA has other players capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, most notably James Cook and Tyler Simmons.
Hitting big plays provides a bolt of confidence and energy and puts defenses on their heels.