ATHENS — Georgia football is a brand like few others, even more so since Kirby Smart took over as head coach five years ago and has led the Bulldogs to the brink of four consecutive Top 10 finishes and a run of three straight SEC Championship Game appearances.
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This year’s trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be different, as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl serves as more of a consolation prize, albeit an elite one as part of the prestigious New Year’s Six Bowl rotation.
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The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs (7-2) have an interesting opponent in No. 8-ranked Cincinnati, a program that made a case for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and now aims to prove its American Athletic Conference affiliation should not have gotten in the way.
Chad Brendel, who covers Cincinnati for the 247Sports-affiliated Bearcat Journal, took time to answer five big questions about the Bearcats leading into the noon game on Friday:
1. Where does this game rank in terms of “biggest in Cincinnati football program history?
CB: Even with a win, it would take a heck of a lot for this game to pass the UC/Pitt 2009 Big East Championship game that was rated one of the top 100 games in college football history. A loss and it gets bunched in with the 2008 loss to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and the 2009 season-ender against Florida in the Sugar.
A win would likely vault it to #2 on the list as it would cap the first undefeated season in school history and it would give a full validation to what Luke Fickell has built in his 4 years at the helm. Plus it would be a win over an SEC blueblood program in the process. And if it happens to be an epic 60 minutes along the way, it would certainly enter the conversation for #1.
2. What’s the one thing this Bearcats team does better than anything else, on offense or defense?
CB: Pass defense would be their primary calling card. It’s a big reason why Marcus Freeman’s unit is the #1 team in the country in yards gained per play for a defense that is 2nd in the country in pass defense efficiency. They turn you over, get pressure with edge rushers Myjai Sanders and Elijah Ponder and can play on an island with 2nd team All American CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner covering the opponent’s top option outside.
3. If Cincinnati has a matchup concern against Georgia, what would it be?
CB: I think the most difficult task for this Cincinnati team will be the ability to run the ball between the tackles. It is a staple of Mike Denbrock’s offense and you know Fickell wants to control the point of attack on both sides of the ball. With a redshirt sophomore starting at LG and a true freshman in the middle, you know Georgia is going to look to limit anything the RB duo of Gerrid Doaks and Jerome Ford come looking for between the tackles.
This is important because Cincinnati uses those gut punches up the middle to set up opportunities for QB Desmond Ridder to find some space outside as the game wears on. Bottle up the run game without having to commit 7 and 8 bodies in the box and you win the numbers game as Cincinnati attempts to wear opponents down over 4 quarters.
4. Luke Fickell has had job opportunities but he has stuck around. Where does he rank among the recent great Bearcats coaches who have gone on to bigger success: Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones?
CB: I think with staying beyond year 3, and completing an undefeated regular season capped by a conference title, you have to move Fickell to the top of the list. At worst he is now an equal to Kelly with the impending peach Bowl result the tiebreaker, but the reality is when Fickell turned down Michigan State back in February he did something none of the three mentioned could manage.
He stayed. Or more likely, he stayed and he continued to win. Continued to build. Continued to recruit at unprecedented levels in school history. Those building blocks are uncharted territory for the Cincinnati fan base, where winning big had led to the heartbreak of divorce and seeing your new ex move on to “bigger” and “better” things.
5. What is the key matchup in this football game?
CB: I’ll go with Desmond Ridder against the elite Georgia defense. The Cincinnati star has changed games with his arm when the defense took away the run, and made huge plays on the ground if opportunities presented themselves on the edge as teams have stacked the box.
If Ridder takes care of the ball, continues to be accurate over the middle and makes some plays deep to Alec Pierce on the outside, this Cincinnati team can be a nuisance to an elite Georgia defense. If he struggles to stay ahead of the sticks and we see a lot of James Smith punting the ball it could be a long day for Cincinnati.
When Ridder plays at a high level, it puts this Cincinnati team in a position to beat anyone. When he struggles, there is a ton of pressure placed on the defense. Ridder extending drives with his diverse skillset will tell the tale for Cincinnati. If he’s effective in all phases of the game, it will be an electric afternoon in Atlanta. If he struggles, Georgia is a decided favorite to control the action from start to finish.
Georgia football Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl