LOS ANGELES — There’s a peculiar dynamic to this week that the Georgia football team hopes it maintained. The Bulldogs were about to play the biggest game of their lives to this point, but they also had to — forgive the tweak of a pun – taste the roses, as a few players literally did during a Rose Bowl photo op.
They also went to the Improv to watch some comedy. They went to Disneyland. They walked the streets of downtown L.A. They sat for seemingly endless rounds of interviews.
That’s all over now. Here arrives a national semifinal game, against a marquee opponent in Oklahoma, in an iconic bowl and stadium.
“It’s the Rose Bowl game. The Granddaddy of them all,” Georgia star linebacker Roquan Smith said.
This is a matchup between two programs that have been aiming to play in Atlanta all season. Except they were different games.
Oklahoma, no stranger to marquee bowls and a playoff participant two years ago, had shirts printed out before the season that stated the goal was “ATL,” as in the national title game. Georgia, which hadn’t even won its division in five years, wanted to get back to the SEC Championship Game, and then go from there.
Well, here they are. But the Bulldogs swear that, even before the wins began piling up, they sensed they had something special.
“It’s weird, because we just knew it from the beginning,” Georgia senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “From the beginning of the season, we just knew we had a special team and we had to make sure we stayed focused on the goal, and not to get distracted.”
So both teams arrived here, relative strangers who quickly became with each other through film and preparation. Such as this game matches the nation’s top-ranked offense, led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, against one of the nation’s top defenses in Georgia.
“They’re very good,” Mayfield said. “I mean, it just stands out to you on film. They’ve got playmakers. They play well as a unit. I think just how they call plays, they disguise blitzes and their coverages very well. But they just have guys that pop out on film.”
“Obviously, No. 3 is the biggest one,” Mayfield said, meaning Smith.
Smith, meanwhile, made it clear what the goal for Georgia’s defense is on Monday.
“We are just going to try to keep the guy in the pocket,” Smith said. “Once you keep them in the pocket, then we go from there and making them one-dimensional and try to get them in third-down situations.”
The game that’s most similar is Notre Dame, when Georgia managed to force dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush to throw out of the pocket. The result: Notre Dame, which otherwise averaged 472 yards and 36.8 points this season, was held to 265 yards and 19 points by Georgia.
But Mayfield, all due respect to Wimbush, is playing on a different level this year, with coach Lincoln Riley’s play-calling and use of run-pass options unmatched.
“They’re the only one in the country that runs an offense like that,” Georgia junior cornerback Deandre Baker said.
Oklahoma is not one-dimensional: first nationally in yards per pass-attempt (12.0) and 13th in yards-per-rush (5.6).
But does that translate to when the Sooners leave Big 12 play? It did when they went to Ohio State in September, amassing 490 yards in a 31-16 win. Otherwise, this season Ohio State has held opponents to just 286 yards per game.
It also hasn’t escaped the notice of the Sooners that the Big 12 is 4-2 in bowl games so far, including a win in the one matchup with the SEC (Texas over Missouri).
“People always want to hate on the Big 12. They say that we don’t play defense,” Mayfield said. “But what they don’t realize is we have the best offenses in the country. That shows in the bowl games.”
The other side of the ball at least statistically favors Georgia, higher ranked as an offense than Oklahoma is as a defense. And Georgia’s special teams are also better overall — on paper.
But for those sure of an outcome, that’s a risky bet, given the lack of comparison between their schedules and unfamiliarity with each other. All that is known is that this should be a game that will have huge ramifications.
“We also know what could be and what’s possible to happen, too,” Georgia tailback Nick Chubb said. “But this game is the main focus. We have to win this game before we can think about that one.”