ATHENS — Many years ago Bob Stoops, then the head coach at Oklahoma, took a sojourn down south to see how Alabama was preparing for an upcoming national title game. Stoops came away impressed with a young defensive coordinator named Kirby Smart.
“A great leader and a bright guy,” Stoops recalled early last year.
At that point, Baker Mayfield was Oklahoma’s quarterback and Stoops was the head coach. Stoops has since stepped down, but Mayfield and the team Stoops constructed, now coached by Lincoln Riley, have an important date with Smart’s new team.
Georgia and Oklahoma have been matched in the Rose Bowl, one of the two national semifinals in the College Football Playoff. The winner goes to the National Championship Game.
It matches two relatively new coaches: Smart is in his second year at Georgia and Riley is in his first year coaching Oklahoma.
It also matches two teams that got marquee nonconference road wins the second week of the season: Georgia at Notre Dame (20-19) and Oklahoma at Ohio State (31-16).
But on paper it’s pure offense vs. defense: Oklahoma has the nation’s most prolific offense with Mayfield, who is the Heisman Trophy favorite, while Georgia has a great defense led by linebacker Roquan Smith.
“I tell people all the time, [Mayfield] is entertaining to watch,” Smart said during ESPN’s selection show. “He’s unbelievably talented. He’s got great athletic ability. He seems like he’s been playing forever. He’s what college football is all about. He embraces it, he loves it. I love the way he plays the game. ….
“We’ll probably have a lot of sleepless nights over the next 30 days or so.”
Mayfield has put up video-game numbers this year: 4,340 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions, along with 310 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.
Four other Sooners were named this week to the All-Big 12 first team, including two offensive linemen, a fullback and tight end. Two other offensive linemen were named to the second team. Oklahoma also has sophomore tailback Rodney Anderson, who has rushed for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns this year, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Georgia’s defense ranks fourth nationally in fewest yards allowed, and second-best nationally against the pass, while 17th against the run.
So how does Georgia counter? Its offense is no slouch, and Oklahoma’s defense could be vulnerable.
There is the three-headed monster at tailback for the Bulldogs in seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and freshman D’Andre Swift. There’s quarterback Jake Fromm, who hasn’t been asked to throw much, but has been effective when he has passed it.
Oklahoma isn’t as strong defensively, but it does have good players: Linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was named the Big 12 co-defensive player of the year. Two other Sooners made the All-Big 12 second team.
Oklahoma’s key defensive numbers:
- No. 57 nationally in total defense, measured by yards given up per game.
- No. 44 in rushing defense, as measured by yards per attempt.
- No. 82 in pass defense, as measured by yards per attempt.
- No. 52 in scoring defense, yielding 25 points per game.
Oklahoma will be facing an SEC team for a second straight bowl: Last year the Sooners knocked off Auburn, 35-19, when Mayfield passed for 296 yards and 2 touchdowns. But that Oklahoma team, coached by Stoops, came in ranked No. 5 while Auburn came in No. 24.
So this becomes, on paper, a closer matchup for Oklahoma, and yet another test of whether a Big 12 pass-happy offense can beat an SEC team with a strong defense.
This year, the Sooners averaged 44.1 points in its 10 games against fellow Big 12 teams. They managed fewer points – 31 – when they played at Ohio State. But the Buckeyes will enter the bowl season ranked eighth nationally in total defense.
As for Georgia, it’s fourth in that category, and primed again for another test, clearly the biggest one of this season.