Making the case for Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The Georgia Bulldogs opened their season ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Four months and 13 games later, the defending national champions are again No. 1.

That honor is supposed to come with some advantages once the College Football Playoff begins. But as fate – and the selection committee – would have it, the top-seeded Bulldogs (13-0) ended up with what Las Vegas oddsmakers consider the tougher of the two semifinals matchups.

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Georgia draws Ohio State (11-1), which spent most of the season ranked No. 2 in the nation but sneaked into the playoff as the No. 4 seed despite losing badly at home to Michigan in the regular-season finale. The Bulldogs have won their games by an average of almost 27 points, but they were only about a 6.5-point favorite over the Buckeyes heading into the Christmas break.

None of this matters a bit to Georgia’s seventh-year coach Kirby Smart or his charges. Their focus has been lasered on tightening loose ends left over from a 50-30 win over LSU on Dec. 3 that clinched UGA’s 14th SEC championship. That’s second only to Alabama (28).

“Our players are excited for the opportunity to play in a CFP semifinal against an opponent that we all have immense respect for,” Smart said. “Ohio State is one of the premier teams in the country. Coach (Ryan) Day has done a fabulous job with his team in terms of recruiting across the country, putting out NFL talent, and playing in the CFP over recent history. So, the challenge lay in front of us, and our guys are excited to do it.”

Here are some reasons why Georgia should go 3-for-3 in reaching the championship game in three appearances in the playoff:

1. Home, sweet home

Georgia is playing in Atlanta – again.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the Bulldogs have played in Atlanta a lot. Not just lately, but forever.

Georgia played in the state’s capital city in the football program’s first season of existence in 1892 and very often through those formative years. All told, the Bulldogs would play in the city 50 times over the first 36 years it fielded a sanctioned college football team.

That became less frequent in the latter half of the 20th century, reducing to basically every other year when the Bulldogs would play against archrival Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field. Overall, Georgia has suited up in the A-T-L 126 times.

But Georgia’s appearances in Atlanta have cranked up lately. Among games against Tech, the SEC Championship game, the Peach Bowl and the national championship game, the Bulldogs have teed it up in the state capital 28 times in the past 21 years. The city has been mostly good to them during that span, with Georgia going 19-9.

The Atlanta scene has been decidedly more intense since Smart showed up. Most of the games Georgia has played inside Fulton County since 2016 have been in an SEC Championship game, a New Year’s Six Bowl or a road game at Tech. There also have been two Chick-fil-Kickoff games, both Georgia victories.

As for Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Bulldogs will play Dec. 31 for a third time this season, Arthur Blank’s building alternately has been a House of Horrors and Homecooking. In Georgia’s first game there in December 2017, the Bulldogs beat Auburn 28-7 to win their first SEC championship in 12 years. But, one month later, it was the scene of one of the program’s most gut-wrenching defeats, the “Second-and-26″ overtime loss to Alabama for the national championship.

Georgia was 2-4 in the Benz coming into this season. But they’ve evened the score with two wins, having walloped Oregon 49-3 in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 3 and overwhelmed LSU 50-30 to win the conference championship Dec. 3.

“I mean, we like this place,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said after earning MVP honors in the SEC title game. “We play pretty good here. I don’t know if it’s the turf, heat or humidity, but it it gets pretty hot in here.”

2. Got to shore up

LSU’s offense got pretty hot against Georgia the last time out. That has to be disconcerting for the Bulldogs, with Ohio State and hard-throwing quarterback C.J. Stroud coming to town.

The Tigers threw for 502 yards against Georgia’s vaunted defense in what ended as a 20-point victory. What’s hard to determine is whether the Bulldogs just relaxed after building an early 35-7 lead or if LSU exposed some weaknesses in scheme and personnel.

“I don’t have a concrete answer on that,” said sophomore linebacker Smael Mondon, who had an interception in the game. “I’m not really sure.”

Alas, Georgia never really felt the need to panic against the Tigers, who rolled up some yards but never cut Georgia’s lead to within three scores. And, statistically at least, LSU’s production would seem more of an anomaly than a trend.

The Bulldogs are ranked 50th in the FBS against the pass (215.1 ypg), but they’re a more stingy 14th nationally when examined as yards per attempt (6.26). That loosely translates to opponents being behind a lot in games and having to throw the ball a lot in an attempt to catch up.

As for Stroud, there would seem to be no alternative than getting after him. While the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist hasn’t been sacked much – only eight times all season – his accuracy numbers diminish considerably when under pressure. In the Buckeyes’ only loss of the season at home against Michigan, Stroud was pressured on 25 of his 53 drop-backs, or 47%. He completed 64% of his passes, but also threw two interceptions and was sacked once. For the year, Stroud’s passing grade drops to 62 versus pressure.

“I think they kind of rattled him a little bit,” Georgia defensive tackle Zion Logue noted of the Michigan game. “Actually a lot of teams got in his face and got him off his point a little bit, and I think that kind of rattles him. So, we’ve got to do a lot of different things and get in his face.”

That’s not exactly a Georgia specialty. The Bulldogs rank 77th nationally in QB sacks with 26. But those numbers have increased significantly in the past one-third of the season with the return of All-American tackle Jalen Carter from a knee injury. Ask LSU’s Jayden Daniels about that.

3. The Stet Factor

This just in: Georgia has a pretty good quarterback, too. The Bulldogs have moved the ball well under Bennett’s leadership. That’s why the sixth-year senior joined Stroud in New York as a Heisman finalist.

The Bulldogs average 39.2 points and 491.9 yards per game under his guidance. And Georgia is converting third downs into firsts at a high rate of 51.6%.

But the strength of Georgia’s offense is not necessarily in Bennett’s play or any of the individually talented skilled players. It’s the collective whole that makes them difficult to defend. Thanks especially to Georgia’s sophisticated use of tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, opposing defenses are in a constant state of run-pass, left-or-right or short-or-long uncertainty with the wily veteran under center.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are bringing a wild card into their semifinal. Bennett has been without his top target all season. But after making a brief appearance with a two-point conversion completion in the SEC Championship game, split end A.D. Mitchell apparently has recovered from an ankle injury to the extent of being close to full-go against the Buckeyes.

That prospect excites Bennett.

“Me and ‘5′ got to get back,” Bennett said in New York, referring to Mitchell’s jersey number. “We have to get back to being us.”