Is Georgia Good Enough to Stay No. 1?

The Bulldogs have the nation's best non-conference win and one of the nation's best advanced statistical profiles, but the brunt of their playoff case is still in front of them.
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Clinching the top spot in the first College Football Playoff ranking is an accomplishment worth celebrating. It reflects a high level of performance against stout competition and augurs an enviable postseason destination. The previous two squads to earn No. 1 in the initial midseason rankings (Alabama in 2016, Clemson in ’15) reached the national championship game. The inconsistent and often vague criteria the selection committee uses to evaluate teams shouldn’t obscure the fact that, on balance, it does a good job identifying the best ones.

Coaches tend to downplay the significance of wins and losses, and they routinely scoff at polls and media chatter, but Kirby Smart was unusually blunt on the SEC teleconference last week in expressing how unimportant he believed it was that Georgia sat atop the official CFP hierarchy. “It really means nothing right now,” Smart said of his team getting the No. 1 ranking. “It’s really nothing more than a distraction.” Those comments are straight out of the Nick Saban playbook.

Smart, of course, coordinated Alabama’s defense for seven seasons before taking over in Athens, and there’s a good chance he’ll face his old boss in about a month in the SEC championship game. But before the Bulldogs get there, they’ll need to navigate a treacherous closing stretch to the regular season that begins Saturday with a trip to No. 14 Auburn and also includes in-state rival Georgia Tech. Georgia has made a huge leap in Year Two under Smart, but we’re about to find out whether it belongs in the same elite contender class as its probable opponent in the conference title game.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs beat South Carolina 24–10 to clinch the SEC East and move to 9–0 for the first time since 1982. They check in at No. 2 in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls, with six combined first-place votes, and No. 1 in the only poll that really matters; they have the second best title odds behind Alabama, according to Bovada; they rank second in the country in average point differential (adjusted for strength of schedule); and they haven’t played a game in which they were seriously challenged since Week 2’s 20–19 win over Notre Dame. Certain power ratings are less flattering: Bill Connelly’s S&P + system pegs them fourth and ESPN’s Football Power Index has them sixth.

There may not be complete alignment between the advanced stats and voters’ opinions on the Bulldogs’ overall quality, but one thing we know to be true about Georgia is that it defends really well. The Bulldogs’ defense ranks fourth nationally in yards per play (4.22), and only Alabama (9.8) and Washington (11.1) have allowed fewer than their 11.7 points per game. Georgia also is one of only three teams, along with Alabama and Auburn, to rank in the top five in the country in both defensive rushing and passing S&P+, according to Football Outsiders.

True, the Bulldogs haven’t had many chances to demonstrate their defensive prowess. The SEC has served up a string of impotent offenses, but Georgia handled the three decent ones—ranked in the top 50 of offensive S&P+—it did face with minimal fuss. The Bulldogs handled Notre Dame tailback and Heisman candidate Josh Adams to 53 rushing yards on 19 carries in South Bend, held Appalachian State to 10 points in a 21-point Week 1 victory in Athens and kept Missouri below its season yards-per-play average in a 53–28 rout at home last month.

Georgia can count on linebackers Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith, along with a seasoned secondary, making life difficult for every opponent it faces from here on out, but it’ll have the offensive horses to stay in games even if it springs a few leaks on the other side of the ball. Though the Bulldogs may not have the firepower to match a team like Oklahoma score-for-score, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s unit is churning out an SEC-high 7.37 yards per play against conference competition, and it ranks fourth in the country in FPI’s offensive efficiency.

A quarterback situation that threatened to destabilize Georgia’s attack was settled without controversy. Jake Fromm is clearly the right guy. He’s both exceeded any reasonable expected level of performance for a true freshman and proved a more capable manager of the Bulldogs’ offense than sophomore Jacob Eason was at full strength. Fromm is completing 63.3% of his throws, leads all qualifying SEC passers at 9.7 yards per attempt, has tossed 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions and posted pass efficiency ratings of at least 190 in three of his last four outings to rise his season-long rating to 172.7, third among all qualifying FBS quarterbacks.

Georgia isn’t asking Fromm to do more than he can handle; he’s averaging only 16.7 attempts per game, which ranks 13th among qualifying SEC signal-callers. Yet with ace running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to lean on in high-leverage situations, the Bulldogs may be able to get by without calling on Fromm to consistently beat defenses with his arm. Chaney can deploy Fromm as an RPO playmaker who mostly sticks to high-percentage throws and lean on Chubb, Michel and underclassmen D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield—all of whom have recorded at least 30 carries this season, and only one of whom (Herrien) has registered fewer than six yards per carry—to do the heavy lifting.

Georgia’s defensive dominance, efficient quarterback play and multifaceted ground attack have put it in position to claim an invitation to the final four for the first time, but any false step now would be crippling. Auburn’s defense rates out three spots ahead of Georgia’s, according to S&P+, and it’s coming off an emphatic 15-point road win over Texas A&M in which starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham went 20 of 27 for 268 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, looking like the top-end passer that his recruiting pedigree and one-season stint at Baylor suggested he’d develop into over the course of his college career. The Bulldogs will be tested in Jordan-Hare Stadium by a Tigers team that can close in on its own playoff bid by upending Georgia and Alabama over the next three weeks.

Perfection isn’t necessarily required for Georgia to make the playoff. If the Bulldogs finish the regular season undefeated and then lose to Alabama in the conference title game, they would still have a really strong case. Even if they have largely feasted on soft competition in the SEC East, a division rated eighth out of nine in the Power 5 by Jeff Sagarin, that win over Notre Dame is going to stack up favorably against pretty much any other result the committee takes into consideration on Selection Sunday. Things could get dicey, though, if they lose before heading to Atlanta.

Georgia looks capable of controlling its own fate by downing Auburn and then taking care of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. Unfortunately for Smart, that would prolong the distraction he pointed out last week.