Welcome back, my friends, to the CFP show that doesn’t seem to end if you’re a Georgia fan. The defending national champs are 13-0 and seeking to defend their title today (I know, Kirbs, I know) in the semi-finals. They’re favored to win today, but favored ain’t the same thing as guaranteed.
Cutting to the chase a little bit, I have to admit I like their chances not so much because of matchups here and personnel there (although those certainly don’t hurt), but because of the mentality, the toughness, this team has built and thrived on this season. No, they haven’t been a perfectly oiled machine game after game, but you know what you can say about them? They’ve stepped up in every big game they’ve played this season.
- Season opener against #11 Oregon? 49-3.
- First conference road game against a South Carolina team that wound up beating two top ten teams later in the season? 48-7.
- Cocktail Party? 42-20.
- #1 Tennessee? 27-13. (Vols last score came with four minutes left in the game, remember.)
- SECCG? 50-30.
Yeah, that’s how answering the bell time and time again looks.
I’d say tonight qualifies as another big game.
Perhaps the biggest factor that fuels that is Georgia’s quarterback. He’s been at his best this season when the games are at their biggest. As Matt Hayes pointed out, against Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU, Bennett amassed these stats: 1,183 yards passing, 13 TDs (3 rush), 0 INTs, good for a 197.6 passer rating.
So, yeah, I feel some confidence about Georgia winning.
As far as the aforementioned matchups go, sure, there are a few things I’ll be keeping an eye. Believe it or not, the first of these is how Ohio State’s running game fares. Don’t scoff, the Buckeyes do like to establish the run. But, as Matt Hinton notes, there’s something of a catch to that.
Contrary to what you may have heard lately, the Buckeyes can in fact still run the dang ball. As a team, they averaged a shade over 200 yards per game on the ground (not including sacks) on a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. But that output does come with a couple of caveats: 1.) They were far less productive against the top defenses on the schedule, running for just 66 yards against Iowa, 98 against Penn State, and 143 against Michigan. And 2.) The running back rotation has been plagued by injuries, with TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and true freshman Dallan Hayden all sidelined or limited in multiple games over the back half of the season. The leading rusher against the Wolverines, Arizona State transfer Chip Trayanum, was a converted linebacker who woke up that morning with exactly 1 carry to his name in an OSU uniform.
Henderson’s been ruled out and reports on Williams have been all over the place this week, although I do expect him to play. But forget all that for a minute. Defense under Kirby Smart starts with one thing, and one thing only: stop the damn run. And, boy, does Georgia do that. As Matt also notes, “only 2 opposing offenses in the past 4 years have managed more than 4 yards per carry against Georgia while also scoring more than 10 points: Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship Game and Missouri in an upset bid earlier this season, when half the Tigers’ output on the ground came on one play.”
If Georgia’s defense lives up to expectations, that makes Ohio State’s offense more one-dimensional and C.J Stroud’s life less easy. (Remember, Georgia held Tennessee to 94 rushing yards and the Vols’ lowest yards per carry number of the season. We know the rest of the story from that game.) On the other hand, if somehow the Buckeyes crack the code and are able to move the ball on the ground, the odds that Georgia’s will have to carry more of the weight to win grow considerably.
That’s because a comfortable Stroud, combined with OSU’s formidable wide receiving corps, will provide the biggest challenge of the season to Georgia’s pass defense. And while I think the coaches will have spend a considerable amount of time over the past four or so weeks cleaning up the mess left in the second half of the SECCG, facing a bigger challenge than a team that posted over 500 passing yards is something I’d prefer not to see the Dawgs face.
The other matchup I’m most keen on watching play out isn’t about personnel, but coaches — Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, versus Todd Monken. Both men have been around the block and seen plenty. Most of us believe Monken hasn’t shown anything close to his full playbook this season, and, on top of that, should have two healthy deep threats available in AD Mitchell and Arian Smith, neither of which have been around for much of the year, to add to the rest of his arsenal. Does Knowles stick with what he’s done all season long — at seventeenth in defensive ypp, the Buckeyes’ defense isn’t exactly shabby — or does he decide to break form and mix things up in order to counter Monken’s playcalling?
If you’re wondering what “all season long” means here, OSU’s base defense is a 4-2-5. The Buckeyes try to stop the run with six men in the box and play zone behind that. But that’s in their base. The thing is, Knowles is very aggressive and likes to blitz frequently. When that happens, the secondary plays man. Here’s what Graham says about that:
… OSU does not seem comfortable leaving their corners in man coverage very much. They only play Man Coverage on 36% of downs and when they do they are often blitzing. When OSU blitzes they don’t bluff. The Buckeyes come with 5 or 6 rushers on over 85% of their blitz packages. When they do that they play man on the back end. They’re only playing Man Coverage and NOT blitzing on very rare occasions. That is GREAT news for Georgia. UGA hasn’t been great against Man this year because the WR’s haven’t gotten loose very much. Bennett excels at picking windows against the Zone and he will do that a lot in this game. Worth noting, SBIV and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint have a strong report in this regard. I expect you will see MRJS make a big catch or two on 2nd/3rd & long in this game on deep in-breaking routes.
One other thing worth noting is that, generally speaking, 4-2-5 defenses don’t tend to handle 12 formations well. All of that makes me think it might be sensible to dial back the aggressiveness for a while and see if OSU’s defense is capable of doing what Georgia’s defense likes to do to other teams early in games, make them work methodically down the field in order to score.
There’s one other matchup of note, mainly because it’s evergreen, and that, of course, is the play in the trenches. OSU has plenty of good personnel on both of their lines, so I’m not claiming it’ll be a pushover, but if there’s been one satisfying trend for the Dawgs, it’s that line play on both sides of the ball has trended positively for the second half of the season (actually, since the Mizzou game for the o-line and since the return of Jalen Carter to the d-line). I think for the Buckeyes to win tonight, it may simply boil down to making Bennett uncomfortable and keeping Stroud comfortable. It’s just that I’m not sure how they get both done.
Getting back to Graham for a sec, he’s been consistently more optimistic about Georgia’s chances game to game (not in terms of winning, but in terms of the spread) than have I. I also have to admit he’s been more accurate, too. He’s picking Ohio State to lose by three touchdowns.
When you turn on the tape it becomes evident pretty quickly that UGA is equipped to play this game on any level. They can go fast, they can be methodical, they can play a ground and pound style, they can air it out and go tempo for 80-yard TD drives in five plays… That is the genius of the Monken/Smart partnership. They drilled this team all year to win games however they may need to be won. If something isn’t working they can pivot and adjust. This UGA offense is equally comfortable playing a game in the 20’s as it is in the 50’s. As for Ohio State, they spent all year doing what they do. If they can’t do that it feels like things could go south quickly. [Emphasis added.]
There’s a lot of truth there. The ugly win at Missouri said as much about this team’s make up as the blowout in the opener did. I have a feeling — and given my track record this season, you should definitely take that with a grain of salt — that the spread isn’t too far off from what we’ll wind up seeing tonight. It’s a talented Ohio State team that makes me a bit cautious. I’d certainly be happy to be proven wrong with a three-touchdown lead at halftime, though.
Add your thoughts in the comments, as always.
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