- Who will move on to play for a national title: Georgia or Oklahoma? The answer could come down to quarterback play—or two defenses that sit on opposite ends of the FBS statistical spectrum.
The two teams squaring off in the second of two College Football Playoff semifinals, No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Alabama, would have been easy preseason picks to reach this stage. By contrast, both No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia faced major questions entering Week 1, and neither squad was viewed as the favorite to win its respective conference. But after watching the Sooners and Bulldogs roll through the regular season while suffering only one loss apiece, it wouldn’t be surprising if either of them were celebrating on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf on the night of Jan. 8 after winning the national title. Here are four things to watch when Georgia and Oklahoma meet in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day.
Baker Mayfield doing Baker Mayfield things
No college quarterback has turned in a more efficient passing season than Mayfield’s last two at Oklahoma. He hasn’t been padding his box scores in meaningless games, either. After guiding the Sooners to 11 wins and a conference championship in 2016, he pushed them into the final four this winter by taking a blowtorch to most of the Big 12 teams standing in his way and delivering clutch performances against Ohio State, Texas and Oklahoma State.
The Heisman Trophy recipient knows what to expect on Monday because he’s already found himself on this same stage, and this Sooners team is far better equipped to advance to the title game than the one that was blown out by Deshaun Watson-led Clemson two years ago. Georgia will present much stiffer resistance than what Mayfield typically faces in the Big 12, but it also hasn’t encountered any passers in Mayfield’s orbit this season.
Oklahoma has a deep cast of perimeter threats capable of turning any Bulldogs blunder into a big play and, in Mayfield, the most accurate distributor of the ball in the country. Mayfield won’t be fazed if Oklahoma’s running game bogs down against the Bulldogs, and he’s already proven this season that he can slay a top-end D. In two of Oklahoma’s last four games, he lit up TCU for 576 yards and seven touchdowns against zero interceptions on 33-of-50 passing. Simple completions will be hard to come by against the Bulldogs, but Mayfield wouldn’t have played his way onto the short list of this century’s greatest college QBs without regularly making high-level-of-difficulty throws.
Roquan Smith doing Roquan Smith things
Before this season, Smith was best known for a bizarre National Signing Day saga in which he committed to UCLA on national TV but never actually signed with the Bruins. Nearly three years later, he’s a first-round NFL draft prospect and the headliner of a stifling defense that has powered a different program 2,250 miles east of Westwood to the doorstep of the national championship game. Smith’s ability to seek and destroy unsuspecting quarterbacks, stone ball-carriers in space and range across the field to snuff out would-be big plays made him the clear choice for the Butkus Award given to the top linebacker in the country. In a parallel universe where the title of “the nation’s most outstanding player” didn’t translate to “best quarterback or running back on a good team,” he would have been heard from in the Heisman race, too.
Over 13 games this season, Smith tallied 113 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and he saved one of his best efforts for a must-win showdown earlier this month, racking up 13 tackles, a sack and two fumble recoveries to help the Bulldogs limit Auburn to seven points in the SEC championship game less than a month after giving up 40 to the same team. Sound execution and a lack of mental mistakes isn’t enough for Georgia to contain Mayfield and shut down Oklahoma’s high-octane attack, but if Smith is operating at peak capacity, the Sooners will need to account for him on every snap. They won’t be able to settle into an offensive rhythm if they’re preoccupied with minimizing the risk that Smith poses as a havoc-wreaker.
How good is Jake Fromm?
This season will go down as a resounding success for Fromm no matter what happens against Oklahoma. When he enrolled in Athens last January as the No. 3 pro-style passer in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite, Fromm looked like a strong candidate to take over as Georgia’s starter after incumbent Jacob Eason left campus for the NFL in a couple of years. That timeline was pushed up when Eason went down with a knee injury in September, but the offense operated so smoothly with Fromm at the wheel that Eason was relegated to the bench even after recovering and is now the subject of heavy transfer speculation.
Though the running game is the foundation of Georgia’s offense—the Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in passing attempts per game—offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has done a good job utilizing Fromm as a mobile playmaker who can complement tailbacks Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift by tormenting defenses in RPOs and hitting on short and intermediate throws. Chaney hasn’t put too much on Fromm’s plate, so it’ll be interesting to see how the true freshman responds if Georgia gets down early against Oklahoma and needs to move the ball downfield in chunks to keep up. The Bulldogs would prefer to use their multi-pronged rushing attack to soften up the Sooners’ defense, eat clock and keep Mayfield off the field as long as possible while letting Fromm stick to the manageable throws he made with aplomb during the regular season. That may not be feasible if Oklahoma gets on the board early.
Can Oklahoma’s defense hold up?
Two of the four defenses in the playoff rank in the top three of Football Outsiders’ S&P+ Ratings (Clemson at No. 2 and Alabama at No. 3), and Georgia ranks eighth. At 95th, Oklahoma’s D is so far out of the picture that comparing its strengths and weaknesses to that trio’s feels like a big waste of time. If the Sooners claim their first national title since 2000 next month, it won’t be because they bottled up Georgia and either the Tigers or Crimson Tide in a pair of low-scoring slugfests.
Oklahoma allowed three Big 12 teams to put up at least 35 points against it, and it gave up 52 to in-state rival Oklahoma State in a 10-point win in Stillwater on Nov. 4. The Sooners’ D did stiffen down the stretch, including when they yielded only one score after halftime across two pivotal fixtures against TCU, and the path to defensive success against Georgia feels relatively straightforward. Rather than needing to fret over the possibility of being gashed with a deep pass to, say, Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver James Washington, Oklahoma can put the Bulldogs in a precarious position by stacking the box to tame their running game and forcing Fromm to make throws. That strategy sounds a lot simpler than it will be in practice given the Bulldogs’ personnel. They could use any of five backs (Chubb, Michel, Swift, sophomores Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien) to wear down the Sooners’ front, and if Georgia can stay in manageable down-and-distance situations, ace pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo won’t have many opportunities to get after Fromm.