Georgia’s defensive issues won’t get Bulldogs beat by TCU

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

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

TCU’s Horned Frogs won’t win the national championship because they can’t duplicate what Ohio State did to Georgia’s defense in the Peach Bowl. TCU can put up a lot of points, but no college team is as good with the ball as Ohio State. After the Buckeyes scored 41 points against Georgia, TCU won’t top 30 points when it matters in the College Football Playoff Championship game.

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That’s my view of how things will play out Monday in Southern California. It seems to be the consensus opinion. Georgia was favored by 13.5 points at most sportsbooks as of Tuesday afternoon, with an over/under of 62.5 points. If the point spread holds, it will be the largest in nine CFP title games. Alabama was favored by nine points over Ohio State in 2021 and won 52-24.

Maybe the Bulldogs won’t blow out the Horned Frogs. But they’ll beat them, and this time, it won’t come down to the final play at the stroke of midnight (West Coast time in this case). Still, it’s hard not to have a little bit of doubt about my forecast. How can I not after Georgia’s great defense has been below average in its past two games?

Elite defenses have been a constant for Kirby Smart’s Georgia teams. That group was openly questioned before the Peach Bowl. It immediately became clear that the doubts were warranted. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the first half and needed only 55 seconds to score another TD before halftime.

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For most of the season it seemed as if Georgia’s defense is better than last season’s all-time great unit, despite the loss of so many NFL-caliber players. Now we’ve reached the point where it’s reasonable to wonder if Georgia’s defense will show up against TCU. The Bulldogs followed a lackluster defensive effort against LSU in the SEC Championship game with a worse one against the Buckeyes.

Ohio State is tough to stop, but the Bulldogs were supposed to be the one team that can do it consistently. I picked the Buckeyes to win the Peach Bowl because of Georgia’s problems with long passes. I was wrong by the 2 inches or so of space between Brock Bowers’ thumb and the sideline.

I expect Georgia’s defense to perform much better against TCU, but if that doesn’t happen, the Horned Frogs are good enough to take advantage.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is a more accurate passer than TCU’s Max Duggan. Duggan is a better runner. If the Bulldogs deploy extra defenders against the pass like they did against OSU and don’t shut off Duggan’s running lanes, then he can burn them by running for the first-down marker or farther.

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TCU is adept at long passes, too. They’ve had 59 gains of 20 yards or more through the air, per cfbstats.com. That includes 30 gains of 30-plus yards and 17 for 40-plus yards. Star wide receiver Quentin Johnston has 13 catches for 30-plus yards. That’s more than Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison, who was having his way with the Bulldogs before leaving the Peach Bowl with a potential head injury.

Georgia hardly ever gives ground against the run, but the Buckeyes churned out 153 yards on 24 carries (excluding yards lost on sacks). The Bulldogs didn’t allow many big runs, with Stroud’s 27-yard dash being a notable and potentially game-losing exception. But Ohio State ran the ball effectively enough to stay on schedule with down-and-distance. The Buckeyes did that on 12 of 27 rushes (48%), which allowed them the breathing room to take shots downfield.

TCU is a better running team than Ohio State. The Horned Frogs have the same kind of explosive passing game. I just don’t think TCU’s offensive line will hold up as well as Ohio State’s did against Georgia. Also, the Horned Frogs rely heavily on quick passes to the perimeter, and the Bulldogs erase those plays with their speed and sound tackling.

At least that’s how it usually goes. Maybe that can’t be taken for granted now that Georgia’s defense is trending down. UGA’s defensive DNA is to allow next-to-nothing. Against LSU, it was bend-but-don’t-break. Against Ohio State, it was repeated breakdowns until making just enough plays at the end.

The Bulldogs beat Ohio State despite their defense, not because of it. Georgia’s offense saved the day. That’s why I didn’t understand why Smart was sharply critical of quarterback Stetson Bennett’s play in the Peach Bowl.

Bennett had some bad moments, but he wasn’t out there constantly losing wide receivers in coverage. Bennett wasn’t responsible for the lack of a consistent pass rush. He didn’t have anything to do with Stroud running free to put Ohio State in position to try a go-ahead field goal in the final minute.

All that was on Smart’s defense. In the Peach Bowl, there was little sign of the physical advantage that Georgia’s defensive front supposedly had against Ohio State’s offensive line. We had a month of assurances that Georgia’s defensive backs had worked out their issues with allowing long passes. Then Stroud consistently found open targets deep when he had the time, which happened more often than usual against Georgia.

Stroud passed for 348 yards on 34 attempts with four touchdowns. His big night made Georgia’s defensive struggles against LSU no longer seem like a matter of relaxing in garbage time. Also remember that Georgia Tech’s third-string quarterback completed two passes of more than 30 yards against the Bulldogs, with drops ruining a couple of more potential long gains. Georgia’s season-long problem with allowing deep passes has accelerated.

Now comes TCU, another opponent that’s good at going deep. The Horned Frogs may hit a couple of long pass plays against Georgia, but they won’t sustain enough drives to win. I believe Ohio State is one of only two teams that can do that to the Bulldogs. Alabama is the other.

If I’m wrong about that and TCU can do it, too, then the Bulldogs will have a tougher time than I expect in Southern California.