The 15 winners of College Football Playoff games have averaged 38.4 points. Only three times has a winning team scored in the 20s; all three times, that winner was Alabama. Point totals for the prevailing side in championship games — 42, 45, 32, 26 (in overtime) and 44.
Georgia is ranked No. 4 by the CFP committee. The Bulldogs are second nationally in points against. They’re 41st in points scored. The teams ranked ahead of them — LSU, Ohio State and Clemson — are second, first and fifth in scoring.
If we take away September games against Murray State and Arkansas State, Georgia has averaged 25.8 points. It hasn’t scored more than 27 since beating Tennessee 43-14 on Oct. 5. Against the three opponents ranked in the CFP’s Top 25, the Bulldogs have managed 23, 24 and 21 points. Granted, they’ve won all three games. (That’s why they’re No. 4.) They also scored 17 in losing at home to a South Carolina team that has won once since. (That’s why they’re only No. 4.)
Once upon a time, we’d have said that Georgia has a championship-level defense. Thing is, championships nowadays tend to be claimed by offenses. Take Alabama, which has played nine CFP games. Three wins — semis against Washington and Clemson; the final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium versus Georgia — bore old-timey scores: 24-7, 24-6, 26-23 after regulation ended 20-all. There was also a 38-0 semifinal crushing of Michigan State. Here were the other five: 42-35 (loss), 45-40 (win), 35-31 (loss), 45-34 (win) and 44-16 (loss).
LSU/Ohio State/Clemson mightn’t score 40 against Georgia. But what happens if one gets 30? Could the Bulldogs keep up? Maybe against LSU, which will surely be their opponent in the SEC title game, which for one-loss Georgia is essentially a CFP quarterfinal. LSU is 44th nationally in scoring defense; five of its opponents have scored 28 points or more. But what about Clemson, which is No. 3 in points against? What of Ohio State, which is No. 1?
Georgia has played 10 games without getting involved in anything resembling a shootout. It led Notre Dame 20-10 with seven minutes left, led Florida 16-3 after three quarters, led Auburn 21-0 with 10:05 to play. The Bulldogs won by six, seven and seven points. They averaged 329 yards in those victories.
You can say, “Look, that’s the way Kirby Smart wants to play football,” and you’d be right. After the South Carolina loss, Georgia’s coach identified his offense’s strengths as its line and running backs. He did not identify Jake Fromm, three years a starting quarterback. As both freshman and sophomore, Fromm averaged 9.0 yards per pass. As a junior, he has averaged 7.5 yards. His passer rating in 2017 was 160.1; in 2018, it was 171.2. This year it’s 146.0.
(Oh, and about Georgia’s running game: It’s good, but it’s not great. The Bulldogs rank 24th in rushing yards. They were 16th in 2018, ninth in 2017.)
For a time, it seemed Fromm’s elders — James Coley, in Year 1 as offensive coordinator, and Smart — were doing him no favors: run on first down, run on second, then ask the QB to convert on third-and-6. Fromm’s performance against Florida was — 20 completions in 30 attempts, 279 yards, two touchdowns — was a callback to Vintage Jake. The past two games, however, have been tepid. He completed 13 of 29 passes for 173 yards against Missouri, 13 of 28 for 110 at Auburn.
Yeah, he also threw for five touchdowns with no interceptions those two Saturdays, and yeah, Georgia won both games. Still, these were the fourth and fifth games of his collegiate career in which he had completed under half his passes. (Two of the others were losses at Auburn in 2017 and LSU last year.) In passing efficiency, Fromm ranks 41st nationally – one spot ahead of Jacob Eason, lately of Washington. As a freshman, Fromm was ninth. As a sophomore, he was fifth.
Of the quarterbacks ranked among this season’s top nine, eight work — or, in the case of Tua Tagovailoa, worked — for teams included in the CFP’s top 10. Which brings us to this: How many big-time quarterbacks has Georgia seen? South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Missouri had lost their No. 1 QBs to injury by the time each played the Bulldogs. By the third quarter in Athens, South Carolina was down to its No. 3. In Knoxville, Georgia faced the just-promoted freshman Ian Maurer. At Auburn, it faced another freshman in Bo Nix.
As spiffy as Georgia’s defensive numbers are — third against the rush, seventh in pass efficiency — it hasn’t faced a Murderers’ Row. Going by total offense, the Bulldogs’ highest-ranked opponent has been Arkansas State, which is 45th. (Texas A&M, which comes to Sanford Stadium on Saturday, is 43rd.) Defense has kept the Bulldogs in every game, but Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence and — oh, yeah — Justin Fields would present a tougher test. That’s not to say the Bulldogs couldn’t pass, as it were, but they’ll have to score more to do it.
Smart knows how this works. His first CFP game — he was Alabama’s defensive coordinator — saw Ohio State amass 537 yards and 42 points behind No. 3 quarterback Cardale Jones. The top-seeded Crimson Tide lost that night. Fifty-three weeks later, Deshaun Watson led Clemson to 550 yards and 40 points, but Smart flew from Glendale, Ariz., to Athens to begin his new job as a mostly happy man. His defense had wobbled all over creation, but he’d earned another ring because the Bama offense scored 45.
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