ATHENS — It’s often said big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That’s why Georgia is a big-time favorite over Nick Saban’s big-time program.
Ok, that’s a bit much, but so is this Georgia defense. Once known as the “No-Name Defense” this selfless group features size, speed, depth and arguably the top coaching brain trust on this side of the ball at the collegiate level.
It starts with head coach Kirby Smart, who built his reputation as a defensive guru working at Saban’s side, winning four national championships before returning to his alma mater to launch his own football dynasty in the making.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are a 6 1/12-point favorite to beat No. 3-ranked Alabama at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The line would probably be more if not for the public perception that Saban simply has Smart’s number.
A closer look reveals this is much more than Saban vs. Smart.
Dan Lanning is the Georgia defensive coordinator and the “up-and-comer” name on most every athletic director’s secret, rainy day head coaching list.
Lanning, 35, has turned away head coaching opportunities to remain at Georgia for this season and win a national championship. Lanning calls the plays and motivates players like few others.
The addition of Will Muschamp to the staff after last season has truly helped put the Georgia defense over the top. The former Florida and South Carolina head coach — and LSU, Texas and Auburn defensive coordinator — is one of the most well-liked and positive people in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
There’s a lot to be said for that sort of juice in a building that’s otherwise brimming with intensity; spotlessly clean, yet with an omnipresent scent of sweat.
Muschamp is also a great defensive mind, and his friendship with Smart and coaching track record has made him an invaluable resource.
Muschamp has aided in developing a young and injury-riddled secondary, in addition to assuming special teams duties after Scott Cochran unexpectedly vacated his on-field coaching role to deal with a personal issue before the season.
Of course, it circles back to the players.
To be clear, the Tide has great players, too -- Bryce Young is the Heisman Trophy favorite, linebacker Will Anderson is a Heisman Trophy finalist and Evan Neal is a first-round NFL draft pick.
But Alabama doesn’t have as many great players as Georgia this season, and its team is not as seasoned after losing six first-round picks off last year’s CFP championship squad.
Georgia’s list of soon-to-be NFL millionaires off the defense is long, starting with nose tackle Jordan Davis and fellow projected first-rounder and middle linebacker Nakobe Dean.
UGA defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt and linebackers Quay Walker and Channing Tindall are three other sure-fire NFL picks.
Other underclassmen on the Bulldogs’ defense could come out in the draft. But Smart might re-recruit them to stay for their senior years, as he did with 2021 cornerstones Davis and Wyatt.
The potential for players to land lucrative NIL deals could play a factor in their decisions to return. College football is changing before our eyes.
If Georgia were to convince two or three talented defensive underclassmen to return, the Bulldogs could be back at No. 1 next season -- depending on the quarterback situation. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
The pick: Georgia 34, Alabama 24
Oklahoma State - 5 1/2 over Baylor
Georgia football fans will giddy-up and get some Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State if chalk holds, the Cowboys suddenly have an edge for the No. 4 (or No. 3) CFP spot after Brian Kelly bolted Notre Dame for LSU.
It wasn’t too long ago the Cowboys and the Bears represented two of the highest-scoring offenses in college football. Now, they are No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in scoring defense and No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in rush attempts.
The game kicks off at noon (TV: ABC) from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where many believe Smart would choose to bring Georgia for the CFP semifinal should the Bulldogs beat Alabama as expected.
Yes, Oklahoma State is much closer to the stadium than Georgia, but the climate-controlled indoor setting takes weather elements — a potential equalizer — out of the equation favors the better team.
Oklahoma State beat Baylor once this season and is the better team in this game.
The pick: Oklahoma State 20, Baylor 14
Cincinnati -10 1/2 over Houston
The Bearcats simply must get in the playoff if they run the table and have a second-straight undefeated season.
Cincinnati’s 24-13 win at Notre Dame in October carries enough weight that the CFP committee wouldn’t dare elevate the Irish over the Bearcats. Cincinnati held a 17-0 lead over the Irish at halftime in South Bend, forcing three Notre Dame turnovers.
After hearing recent talk that they weren’t winning impressively enough, Cincinnati won its past two games over SMU and East Carolina by an aggregate margin of 83-27.
Houston has won 11 in a row, but at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, the Cougars will face a team of destiny.
The Bearcats could finish No. 3 or No. 4 with a win, depending on how the CFP committee sees it.
The pick: Cincinnati 38, Houston 27
Pitt - 3 over Wake Forest
It’s only the second-ever meeting between Pitt and Wake Forest in football, even though the Panthers began to play in the ACC in 2013. Wake Forest ranks third in the nation in scoring and Pitt ranks fourth.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is a name that has been associated with openings, but the former Michigan State defensive coordinator might just be content trying to lead the Panthers back to the football glory they once enjoyed. Quarterback Kenny Pickett ranks among the contenders in a wide-open Heisman Trophy race entering championship weekend.
Dave Clawson, meanwhile, has transformed the Demon Deacons into a scoring machine. Clawson’s version of the spread offense is proven, and if Wake Forest can elevate its recruiting the program could take another step up. That won’t happen in this 8 p.m. game on Saturday (TV: ABC).
The pick: Pitt 47, Wake Forest 42
Michigan -11 over Iowa
The Wolverines are still talking about Jim Harbaugh’s first win over Ohio State, with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis reportedly saying on radio that the Buckeyes are “a finesse team, they’re not a tough team.”
Iowa is a tough team. But the Hawkeyes are not as talented as Ohio State. Iowa is an opportunistic team, however, ranking third in the nation with 28 turnovers forced.
If this game were played outside, in rain and snow, the Hawkeyes would stand a chance. But inside, at Lucas Oil Stadium, it’s all Big Blue starting at 8 p.m. on Saturday (TV: Fox).
The pick: Michigan 31, Iowa 10.
Utah - 2 1/2 over Oregon
This game mattered where CFP implications were concerned the first time it was played. Now? It’s all about the Rose Bowl.
Utah eliminated Oregon from the CFP hunt with a 38-7 win over the Ducks back on Nov 20 in Salt Lake City. It was convincing enough to pick the Utes to beat Oregon again, even as the game shifts to Las Vegas with an 8 p.m. start on Friday (TV: ABC).
The pick: Utah 24, Oregon 16