Georgia carrying Power 5 banner in Peach Bowl matchup vs. Cincinnati

Georgia running back Zamir White (3) was among the young players that made a strong impression for the Bulldogs during last year's Sugar Bowl appearance against Baylor. No. 9 Georgia faces eighth-ranked and undefeated Cincinnati on Friday in Atlanta's Peach Bowl.

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Georgia running back Zamir White (3) was among the young players that made a strong impression for the Bulldogs during last year's Sugar Bowl appearance against Baylor. No. 9 Georgia faces eighth-ranked and undefeated Cincinnati on Friday in Atlanta's Peach Bowl.

ATHENS -- Georgia plays in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl for the sixth time Friday and the first time since 2006. But this is not your father’s Peach Bowl, or even that one the Bulldogs played in 14 years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of Peach Bowl Inc., the Atlanta Sports Council and the Metro Atlanta Chamber over the years, the Peach Bowl has since 2014 been a “New Year’s Six” event. That means it annually matches some of the best teams in the country and is in the College Football Playoff rotation on a semiannual basis.

And while the Peach is not in the semifinal or finals mix this year, it could be argued it got one of the best matchups of the truncated bowl season. It will match the home-state and ninth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (7-2) against an unbeaten and No. 8-ranked Cincinnati team. The noon ESPN game will serve as the undercard to the national semifinals in the Rose and Sugar bowls, which will be played later in the day.

ExploreGeorgia-Cincinnati: TV, online, radio information

Many believed the American Athletic Conference-champion Bearcats (9-0) deserved a chance to compete in that playoff. Meanwhile, Georgia appears to be a surging team since elevating JT Daniels to starting quarterback after midseason losses to No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Florida.

“With the exception of Alabama and Clemson, the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country, I don’t know that anybody is playing better than Georgia right now,” Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan said. “And Cincinnati is unbeaten and as well-rounded a team as you’ll find offensively and defensively.”

Here are some other factors to consider:

‘Blue bloods’ vs. paupers

The national narrative surrounding Friday’s game is that it will be pitting the big guy against the little guy. Cincinnati is considered a “Group of Five” team, a distinction that Fickell hates, while Georgia, as a member of the SEC, represents one of the country’s elite “Power 5” programs.

Cincinnati players appear to be reveling in that distinction. Several Bearcats referred to Georgia as a “blue-blood football program.” Indeed, the Bulldogs are extending the nation’s longest active bowl-appearance streak, now up to 24 in a row.

“They talk about this as big guys versus little guys, and we’re always out to prove everyone wrong,” Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “We go out and play with a chip on our shoulder every game, and that won’t change this game. We’re going up against one of the big guys in the country, and we’re going to see and feel that unlike we have all season.”

The Peach Bowl has pitted the nation’s best Group of Five team against a traditional Power 5 program two times previously. The Group of Five representative won both, with Houston defeating Florida State 38-24 in 2015 and Central Florida beating Auburn 34-27 at the end of the 2017 season.

In or out

Georgia will play without seven of its best players. NFL prospects Eric Stokes, Ben Cleveland, Monty Rice, Tre’ McKitty and D.J. Daniel voluntarily opted out of the game to heal injuries and start preparing for the NFL combine.

Also, senior outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson, the team’s second-leading pass rusher with five quarterback sacks, decided to enter the transfer portal at the conclusion of the regular season and decided to transfer to Florida State.

Then the Bulldogs lost running back James Cook on Wednesday. Cook’s father, James Cook Sr., died of diabetes complications Tuesday. He was 46. The Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher returned home to Miami on Wednesday and will not play Friday.

What remains unknown is how many Georgia players might miss because of COVID-19 infections or exposures. Coach Kirby Smart expressed concern about that this week after he dismissed the players for three days for Christmas. The Bulldogs were tested three times this past week. Smart declined to say Thursday if there would be any more absences as a result.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati has not reported any unexpected absences as a result of opt-outs or illness. However, leading rusher Gerrid Doaks and safety James Wiggins are considered questionable because of injuries sustained in the conference title game.

Young pups unleashed

Georgia’s senior class will look to tie as the class with the most wins in school history by winning a 44th game. They enter with a 43-9 record. The 2005 and ’19 teams also won 44. The best overall class was the seniors of 1983. They went 43-4-1 with a national championship and three SEC titles.

Since they were unable to be honored with a proper Senior Day on campus, the seniors from both teams will line up on the field to be recognized in pregame ceremonies.

But as has increasingly become the case in recent years, the bowl game will be more about young players. Several underclassmen who have seen little playing time are expected to play extensively Friday. Among them will be center Sedrick Van Pran, offensive tackles Xavier Truss and Broderick Jones, defensive linemen Nazir Stackhouse and Warren Brinson, outside linebacker M.J. Sherman and defensive backs Major Burns, Jalen Kimber and Darren Branch.

Also expect to see juniors such as linebackers Channing Tindall and Quay Walker, defensive backs Latavious Brini and Ameer Speed get more playing time.

Fickell coach

One of the great up-and-coming head coaches in the country, Luke Fickell is in his fourth season at Cincinnati. A former Ohio State player and longtime defensive coordinator, Fickell took over for the Bearcats and after a 4-8 start, has led them to 31 wins and two AAC titles over the past three seasons.

Fickell is Ohio through-and-through. He was born and grew up in Columbus and actually earned his athletic reputation as an unbeatable wrestler. He went 106-0 and won three consecutive state titles while wrestling for DeSales High School. He tried to wrestle for Ohio State after signing with the Buckeyes as a nose guard, but lost his only match to an eventual national champion at Penn State and decided to stick with football.

Black is back

The Bulldogs will wear black jerseys in a bowl game for the first time since they played Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008. Georgia won that game 41-10 to finish with a No. 2 national ranking.

Why the Bulldogs decided to go with black was a matter of great debate. During Thursday’s Peach Bowl coaches’ news conference, Smart put it on the Peach Bowl president. But Stokan countered that he had nothing to do with it beyond suggesting that both teams wear their home uniforms.

“I just think the field looks great when you have both teams wearing colored uniforms; looks great on TV and on the field,” Stokan said. “At the end of the day both coach Fickell and coach Smart made their decisions on their uniforms.”

As both Cincinnati’s and Georgia’s primary colors are red, the Bulldogs simply chose to go with black.

“That was the way it was presented to me,” Smart said. “It wasn’t a narrative where we died to wear black. It was where we had to wear one of two dark colors.”

The Bulldogs are 4-1 in black jerseys. They last wore them in their last home game this season against Mississippi State, winning 31-24.