It’s Heisman winner Baker Mayfield versus the Georgia backfield. What more could you ask of a Playoff game?
Welcome to the College Football Playoff! The first game of the CFP features reigning Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and the vaunted Oklahoma offense against run-heavy, defense-oriented Georgia. When Bob Stoops surprisingly retired in June, questions arose about whether or not Oklahoma would be able to live up to its potential under the leadership of 34-year-old, first-time head coach Lincoln Riley. Georgia entered the year as the fourth-highest-ranked team in the SEC, with a high ceiling but a middling floor.
Both teams have lived up to — and exceeded — the hype, and will now face each other for the first time in these storied programs’ histories. Who will earn a spot in the National Championship: the high-flying, prolific passing attack of the Sooners or the ground-and-pound Bulldogs?
Storylines Heading Into the Game
1. Baker Mayfield Wins the Heisman - Baker Mayfield had a season to remember and ran away with this year’s Heisman Trophy. Mayfield won the Heisman by more than 1,000 total points over Stanford’s Bryce Love and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, last season’s Heisman winner. Mayfield received 732 first-place votes out of a possible 929. The next highest amount was received by Love, who garnered 75 first-place nods.
Mayfield blew away the competition on the back of an outstanding statistical campaign. Among qualified passers, he led the FBS in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio, and was second in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Mayfield also added five rushing touchdowns during the season for good measure. Love and Jackson had wonderful seasons, but Mayfield was the obvious choice for the 2017 Heisman. Now he’ll set his sights for, arguably, the more-coveted trophy.
2. Georgia Takes Down Auburn to Win SEC, Earn Playoff Berth - Georgia got demolished during its first matchup of the season against Auburn. The Bulldogs entered Jordan-Hare Stadium as the No. 1 team in the nation and 2.5-point favorites against the No. 10 Tigers, and left broken and humiliated. Kirby Smart’s team was beaten in every facet of the game and lost, 40-17. Auburn totaled 488 yards, including 237 on the ground, and Georgia managed a measly 46 rushing yards of its own.
A completely different Bulldog team showed up in the rematch in Atlanta. Auburn scored on the opening drive of the game and then never scored again. Georgia finished with 238 rushing yards, held the Tigers to 259 total yards, and forced two turnovers. That is the version of the Bulldogs that Georgia hopes to bring to Pasadena to shut down Oklahoma’s FBS-leading offense and head to its first-ever national championship game.
3. Lincoln Riley vs. Kirby Smart: A Battle of Young Head Coaches - The Sugar Bowl, the other half of the CFP semifinals, features two head coaches with an average age of 57 years young, a combined six national championships, and 31 years head coaching experience at the collegiate level. That is not the case in the Rose Bowl. Georgia’s Kirby Smart is 41 years old and in his second season as a collegiate head coach. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is just 34 years old and finishing up his first-ever season as a collegiate head coach. Both coaches were tutored by two of the greatest college football coaches of all time, Nick Saban and Bob Stoops, but neither has ever “been here before” as a head coach. Youth and inexperience from the coaching staff could show itself in this game.
11.76 - Baker Mayfield’s yards per attempt, which is first in the FBS by more than a yard. What makes this even more amazing is that he is also completing 71.0 percent of his passes, which also leads the FBS by almost 2.0 percent! Generally, quarterbacks with completion percentages that absurdly high throw for very few yards per attempt, generally between 6.0 and 7.0; in order to attain such a high completion percentage, these quarterbacks mostly throw the ball short or checking down to third or fourth-option receivers/running backs. Mayfield on the other hand is completing 71.0 percent of his passes while still taking a ton of shots down the field and completing a significant amount of them.
This is what makes Baker Mayfield so dangerous. Not only is he a mobile quarterback that leads his team with unadulterated and charismatic swagger, he is an extremely potent combination of efficiency and potency as a passer. Georgia ranks second in passing yards allowed per game and sixth in pass defense S&P+, but it has not faced a quarterback anywhere near Mayfield’s caliber so far this season, and it will be interesting to see how they fare against the reigning Heisman champion.
263.5 - Georgia’s rushing yards per game, 10th in the nation and sixth among teams that do not run a triple-option offense. The Bulldogs’ three-headed monster backfield of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift is the best backfield in the country. It’s really not even close. Chubb is one of the most overlooked superstars in college football. The senior is second all-time in rushing yards for Georgia, behind only the legendary Herschel Walker. When healthy, Chubb has consistently been one of the best backs in the nation.
This year Chubb posted 1,175 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry, all stellar marks, especially considering he shares the backfield with two other backs, one of whom is Georgia’s third all-time leading rusher: Sony Michel. Also a senior, Michel has logged 948 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns this season on just 131 carries, good for 7.2 yards per carry. The duo are the most fearsome pair of backs in the nation, and they also have a young padawan in Swift, a true freshman, to give them spells when necessary. A change of pace back this season, Swift is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and has three touchdowns on the year. Together, these three men wreak havoc on a football field and power the Georgia offense. So long as they get going –- which is likely against this Sooners defense -– the Bulldogs will score plenty of points in this game.
31.5 - Oklahoma’s defense-specific adjusted scoring average, 95th in the country. The Sooners do not have a great defensive unit. They rank 52nd in scoring defense, 57th in total defense, 40th in rushing defense, and 88th in passing defense. They gave up 38 points to Iowa State (52nd in scoring offense), 41 points to Baylor (96th), and 35 points to Kansas State (37th). Those are not exactly inspiring results. They’re also not particularly adept at turning the ball over or getting after the quarterback. The Sooners accrued just 24.0 total sacks (tied for 62nd), eight interceptions (t-87th), and nine fumble recoveries (t-34th).
In defense of Oklahoma’s defense, it occasionally rises to the occasion in important contests. Against Ohio State in Columbus, the Sooners allowed just 16 points, and in two combined games against TCU they allowed just 18.5 points per game. Then again, they also allowed 31 points to West Virginia while they were playing with their backup quarterback, and 52 points against Oklahoma State. They won both of those games, but it wasn’t because of the defense. Don’t expect Oklahoma to suddenly become staunch defensively during the Playoff. To win games, this defense just needs to find a way to be average and not completely horrendous.
Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia - Roquan Smith is one of the exciting college football players you may or may not know about. Defensive players rarely get the hype and national attention that offensive skill players do, particularly linebackers. But Roquan Smith is not an ordinary linebacker. Roquan Smith deserves your attention before he is taken with a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Smith does more than your average inside linebacker. He is more than competent in pass coverage, he hits gaps better than most everyone at the collegiate level, and he flies around the field with phenomenal closing speed. He’s one of those players that seems to be in on every single play whether it’s at the line of scrimmage, down the sideline, or 30 yards downfield.
I first noticed Smith during Georgia’s matchup against Notre Dame. Roughly midway through the first quarter, the Irish ran an otherwise forgettable toss to the outside that looked like it would gain about five yards, until a large blur came from nowhere into the screen to make the tackle two yards behind the line of scrimmage. I didn’t know who No. 3 was when made that tackle, but he looked like an NFL linebacker playing with high school kids, and throughout that game and in every one since, he has made his presence known. Statistically, he has totaled 113 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 17 QB hits, two pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble. He does everything, and against this Oklahoma offense, Georgia will need him to use every tool at his disposal.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma - There is no person on the Oklahoma roster, coaching staff, administration, or fan base that is more important than Baker Mayfield. The Sooners do not ever win games with their defense — they win with their offense, and Baker Mayfield is their offense. As I wrote earlier, Mayfield has been a lethal combination of potency and efficiency all year. He has had a statistical season to marvel at. If Mayfield has a game worthy of a Heisman-winner, Oklahoma will absolutely stand a chance to advance to the national championship. If he doesn’t, and Georgia’s defense slows him down, there is no way that the Sooners win this game. It all comes down to Mayfield.
Why Georgia Could Win
Georgia’s defense is great. It ranks eighth in defense S&P+, fourth in scoring defense, fourth in total yards allowed per game, second in passing defense, and 12th in rushing defense. It has plenty of top-notch players and, as a unit, has been able to shut down pretty much every offense it has faced thus far. To win this game, the Bulldogs need that vaunted defense to slow down Mayfield. They don’t need to shut him down completely (an almost impossible task), but need to prevent him from dropping 50 points.
On the other side of the ball, Chubb, Michel, and Swift should have a phenomenal day on the ground against the porous Oklahoma defense. Outside of the backfield, though, there is one player that needs show up and have a solid outing: true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm stole the job from incumbent Jacob Eason after Eason was injured at the very beginning of the season, and Fromm has played well enough to keep the job. He averages 9.45 yards per attempt and has thrown 21 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Because Georgia’s running backs are so good, Fromm isn’t asked to do too much, but he’ll need to be able to convert some third downs and keep the Sooners honest in order for the Bulldog backfield to be truly maximized and beat Oklahoma.
Why Oklahoma Could Win
How Oklahoma wins this game is simple: Baker Mayfield, Baker Mayfield, Baker Mayfield, and just a splash of defense. Oklahoma can win this game if Mayfield does what he has done all season long and torches the Bulldogs. Georgia’s defense is great, but Mayfield has to be better. This will be his toughest test of the season, by far. He has had a month to prepare, though, and should be up to the task.
However, even if Mayfield has a career outing, Oklahoma may not win unless its defense can string together a few stops. If Chubb, Michel, and Swift are given license to run wild, Fromm executes what little is asked of him, and Georgia scores on all or nearly all of its drives, it probably won’t matter if Mayfield throws for five touchdowns and 500 yards. The Sooners need to secure a couple turnovers and force a few punts to win this one.
Mayfield is going to put points on the board. Barring an inexplicable collapse, he is too good at this sport and has had too long to prepare to not find a way to put up at least 30 points. Georgia’s defense is definitely strong enough to frustrate him, make him work for every yard, and prevent him from carrying out a scorched earth campaign against them, but he will find a way to get his.
That said, Georgia’s offense should be able to have its way with Oklahoma’s defense all day long. I anticipate Chubb, Michel, and Swift combining for more than 300 rushing yards, and several touchdowns, and Fromm is good enough to get the job done through the air against a Sooners’ defense that ranks 88th against the pass. Mayfield will keep it close, but at the end of the day, Oklahoma won’t be able to get the stops it needs to win the game.
Georgia wins, 38-37, and heads to the National Championship.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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