By the Numbers: UGA probably underrated as No. 5 team in country
Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. Today’s edition of By the Numbers looks at how UGA compares to other College Football Playoff contenders.
Georgia faces a huge challenge in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. That’s been stated over and over by now, but what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that UGA may be more capable of threatening the Crimson Tide than any other team in the country.
In other words, this year’s title game may have a lot in common with 2012 — which was the last time these programs met in the SEC Championship and was largely treated as a matchup of the two best teams in the country.
Of course, the College Football Playoff rankings don’t reflect that reality yet, but maybe they should.
The Bulldogs were once again No. 5 in the latest release from the committee — a spot behind Michigan, who was ranked fourth for the second-consecutive week. On a conference call this week, Playoff committee chairman Rob Mullens was asked why the Wolverines were placed ahead of UGA. Saturday Down South reported his answer.
“Michigan has a very strong resume, Mullens said. “They’ve won nine games in a row. Only loss is to the No. 3 ranked team on the board in the first game of the year, and again, they’ve got wins over Northwestern at Northwestern, at Michigan State, and a dominant win over Penn State, the No. 1 defense in the country. Strong resume.”
Mullens makes a compelling argument, but it’s hardly the last word.
There are multiple sites that attempt to craft rankings that go beyond the so-called “eye test” — which is just a fancy way of saying which team looks best when you watch them play. Three of the most prominent are Bill Connelly’s S&P+, ESPN’s Football Power Index and Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings. All three of these rankings have Georgia ahead of Michigan.
The reasoning behind the placement for all three is similar. It’s true, as Mullens pointed out, Michigan has a great defense, but the Wolverines are merely good on offense. For UGA, the opposite is true. The Bulldogs have rounded into form as a good defense, but offensively have been among the best in the country — and on paper, better on that side of the ball than Michigan’s been defensively.
For instance, ESPN’s FPI has the Bulldogs as the No. 3 offense in the country and the No. 5 defense. It has the Wolverines defense at No. 3 and Michigan’s offense at No. 8. It’s not a great deal of difference, but it’s a slight advantage for Georgia.
It’s not the only Playoff contender for which UGA has the edge in comparisons.
Football Outsiders’ FEI — tabulated by Brian Fremeau — has Georgia (No. 2) a spot ahead of Clemson (No. 3).
Another interesting tidbit from the FEI rankings is that Clemson — which is No. 2 in the Playoff top 25 — hasn’t yet played a team ranked in the top 30 in FEI. On the other hand, UGA (along with Alabama and Michigan) is one of three teams to have already beaten three top 30 teams.
Its not said on TV much, but Clemson — despite being undefeated — probably has a weaker resume than the Bulldogs.
Another undefeated team stat guys view less favorably than Georgia is Notre Dame. Bet DSI posted a theoretical point spread on a possible Playoff game between UGA and the Fighting Irish and made the Bulldogs a 5.5-point favorite.
None of this data suggests Georgia is overwhelmingly better than the other top teams in the country, but sometimes it seems that UGA — because it has a loss, and because it’s in Alabama’s shadow — is an afterthought in the national conversation.
That’s a mistake.
Unfortunately, for many UGA fans this information is of little comfort. Being possibly better than all the other Playoff contenders doesn’t matter if the Bulldogs don’t get a shot to play them, and getting a chance against Michigan, Clemson or Notre Dame will require getting through Alabama.
Make no mistake, that’s probably going to be as hard as it seems. Unsurprisingly, S&P+, FPI and FEI all have Alabama as the No. 1 team in the country. However, just because beating the Crimson Tide is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
A closer look at Bill Connelly’s data from Football Study Hall might provide the blueprint for how it could happen.
Connelly has Alabama with the No. 2 offense, ahead of the Bulldogs at No. 3. Defensively, he has Alabama No. 5 and Georgia No. 8.
Yet, special teams is a huge advantage for UGA. The Bulldogs — and their excellent kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship — are No. 10 in Connelly’s special teams rankings. Alabama — which has missed six extra points this season — is 96th.
It’s not enough data to assume UGA will win the SEC Championship, but it shouldn’t be ignored either.
And neither should Georgia.
The Bulldogs surprised a lot of so-called experts by crashing the College Football Playoff party a year ago. They might be getting ready to do it all over again.