Bulldogs draw undefeated Cincinnati in Peach Bowl

Credit: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

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Coaches Kirby Smart (Georgia) and Luke Fickell (Cincinnati) comment on their players’ motivation to participate in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021.

Credit: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

ATHENS — Georgia’s motivation to play a non-playoff postseason game versus an undefeated Group of Five team is expected to draw a lot of national interest as the Bulldogs accepted a bid to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Sunday.

No. 9-ranked Georgia (7-2) will face the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats (9-0) on New Year’s Day in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (noon, ESPN). It’s the fifth consecutive year under coach Kirby Smart has led the Bulldogs to a New Year’s Six Bowl or the College Football Playoffs.

But it’s really Cincinnati that’s getting all the attention in this matchup. At least a half-hour of ESPN’s selection day programming on Sunday was devoted the Bearcats and coach Luke Fickell as the smaller classification team that deserved a shot to join the big boys in the playoffs.

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“Our guys are incredibly excited,” Fickell said on the Peach Bowl coaches’ video conference call Sunday. “I want to make sure everybody knows, there’s no disappointment over here. We are incredibly happy and excited to be where we are.”

But will the Bulldogs be as excited? This is the first year in the last four that Georgia didn’t play in the SEC Championship game, and it has been out of the playoff conversation since early November. Smart said the Bulldogs “learned a valuable lesson” about overcoming disappointment last year when they beat Baylor in the Sugar Bowl after losing to Texas under similar successes the previous season in the same bowl.

“I’ll be honest, when your intention is to win the game, that’s not going to change between his guys and your guys,” Smart said. “Every coach is going to try to find an angle that gives their guys an edge or competitive advantage, whether that’s them being ranked ahead of us or whatever. I don’t know Group of Five, Power 5, all those languages, that’s for (media). My language is football, and they’ve got a good team. They haven’t been beaten.”

Cincinnati capped off its season by defeating No. 23 Tulsa 27-24 on a game-winning field goal in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) championship game late Saturday night in Cincinnati. The Bearcats other Top 25 wins came against then-No. 22 Army (24-10) and 16th-ranked SMU (42-13).

But the CFP selection committee not only dropped the Bearcats where they were coming into the championship weekend (No. 7), but jumped them with two-loss Oklahoma (8-2) after it won the Big 12 title on Saturday and the three-loss Florida Gators.

Likewise, Georgia was dropped to No. 9 in the last College Football Playoff rankings released on Sunday despite not playing in two of the last three games and winning two SEC road games by a combined total of 64 points in the ones it did play. The Bulldogs also fell in the coaches (No. 9) and Associated Press (11) polls.

Credit: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

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Georgia football coach Kirby Smart responses during Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl press conference announcing matchup against undefeated Cincinnati in Atlanta.

Credit: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

So both programs are heading into the postseason feeling some pangs of disrespect. Meanwhile, Peach Bowl officials are thrilled to settle another Power 5-vs.-Group of Five argument in an early New Year’s Day game that will precede the Rose and Sugar Bowl semifinals. They’ve staged two such contests before, and the Group of Five team won them both.

“This gives a well-rounded Cincinnati team their chance to dance against a Power 5,” Peach Bowl President Gary Stokan said. “As we’ve seen in our two previous matchups, Houston won against Florida State from the ACC and UCF won against Auburn from the SEC. But on the other side, I really think Georgia’s hitting its stride and is getting some high-scoring offense and playing great on defense.”

It will sixth time the Bulldogs have played in the Peach Bowl, which was elevated to New Year’s Six status with the advent of the college football playoff in 2014. UGA defeated Virginia Tech 31-24 when it last played in the bowl in 2006. It is 3-2 overall.

The Bearcats are in their fourth season under Fickell, an Ohio State alum and longtime defensive coordinator. They are led by dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, who was named the AAC offensive player of the year after compiling 2,090 yards passing, 609 rushing (7.3 ypg) and 29 touchdowns. Ridder has recorded at least one passing and rushing TD in six straight games.

But Cincinnati is best known for its defense, which comes in ranked in the Top 10 nationally in points (16.0 pg, No. 7) and yards (310.8 pg No. 10) allowed. That’s expected to be a good challenge for the Bulldogs’ offense, which will be playing their fourth game under redshirt sophomore quarterback JT Daniels.

“Every week is an opportunity for us to make a statement,” Fickell said. “That’s the great thing about college football is it’s unlike pro football, it’s unlike basketball that has a tournament. Every week means so much and most of us can’t make any slip-ups and still have an opportunity and get to the ultimate goal. We didn’t, but we didn’t get that opportunity. ... But we have an opportunity to make a statement here.”

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Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder holds the trophy following the American Athletic Conference championship against Tulsa, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 27-24. (Aaron Doster/AP)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder holds the trophy following the American Athletic Conference championship against Tulsa, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 27-24. (Aaron Doster/AP)

Credit: Aaron Doster

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Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder holds the trophy following the American Athletic Conference championship against Tulsa, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 27-24. (Aaron Doster/AP)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

Earlier Sunday, the four playoff slots went to No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Notre Dame. Texas A&M (8-1) remained fifth despite its 34-13 win over Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday and its only loss being to the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Aggies accepted an Orange Bowl bid as the SEC’s highest-ranked team not in the playoff and will play No. 13 North Carolina (8-3).

No. 7 Florida (8-3), which lost to Alabama 52-46 in an SEC Championship game thriller Saturday night, will play No. 6 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

Georgia was unable to play its final home game of the season after Vanderbilt canceled — twice — due to COVID-19 protocol and player opt-outs. That meant the Bulldogs twice had to cancel Senior Day.

Stokan said Sunday they plan to help UGA honor its seniors before the game.

“That may be the most important thing for Georgia,” Stokan said. “They have a chance to finish No. 7 or maybe No. 6. But in these bowl games, the underclassmen always want to send the seniors out the right way. And if they win, these Georgia seniors will tie as the winningest class in school history, and that’s saying something.”

The question for the Bulldogs is how many of those seniors are going to stick around. The last two seasons when Georgia fell short of a playoff berth, several seniors and underclassmen skipped the bowl game. Senior linebacker and defensive captain Monty Rice is among at least five UGA upperclassmen who already have opted out.

“We don’t know exactly who’s in or who’s out,” Smart said. “There’s still water to go under that bridge in terms of kids making decisions. We’ve got several seniors that are draft prospects; we’ve got several juniors that are going to have to make decisions. We’re trying to help them get good information to make that decision, but in a timely manner so that we can prepare and get ourselves ready. I’ve asked them to let me know as soon as possible because we’ve got a lot to do to get ready.”

Smart said the team remains together in Athens. The Bulldogs will practice next week before being released to go home for Christmas for “three or four days.”

Georgia is 2-0 against Cincinnati, having beaten the Bearcats 31-17 in 1976 in Athens and 35-13 in 1942 in Cincinnati.

The Peach Bowl is officially sold out of its allotment of about 18,000 tickets, though many are available via TicketMaster. UGA donors will have access to about 1,600 that will be distributed through the school.