Georgia’s march to CFP championship starting to feel inevitable

Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart instructs in the second half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. Georgia won 41-17 over Tennessee. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart instructs in the second half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. Georgia won 41-17 over Tennessee. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia football’s march to a national championship has never felt so inevitable. The Bulldogs have had great teams in the past, but they were at the mercy of the various pollsters that picked champions. The College Football Playoff squeezed some of that subjectivity from the system.

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The Bulldogs are guaranteed a national championship if they make the CFP and then win twice. They’ve never done it, and there’s still the looming specter of Alabama, the team that’s denied them in the past. But no other team in college football has done more than the Bulldogs to prove that they are ready to win it all.

Every other top CFP contender has a loss along with some close calls. They have a tough game or two remaining before their conference championship games. The Bulldogs are undefeated, own nine consecutive wins by three scores or more and have no opponent to sweat before the SEC decides its winner at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That’s why Georgia has been the unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll for six consecutive weeks. The Bulldogs were No. 1 in the first two CFP rankings of the season. They’ll still be No. 1 when the third rankings are released Tuesday night. The Bulldogs just completed their first 8-0 SEC schedule and now will tune up with Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech before the SEC Championship game.

Caption
Georgia's running back James Cook (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia's running back James Cook (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia's running back James Cook (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Bulldogs are virtual locks to make the CFP and are seemingly everyone’s pick to win the national championship, including mine. That’s why coach Kirby Smart has warned against complacency creeping into his locker room. There’s been no evidence of that so far.

But if Smart is looking for dissension about Georgia’s invulnerability, he can point to the betting markets and statistical forecasts. Those measures indicate that the Bulldogs are favored to win it at all, but that it’s not as inevitable as their performance and the associated accolades makes it seem.

Bookmakers have set Georgia’s implied odds to win the national championship at about 54%. Next are Alabama (24%) and Ohio State (20%). The FiveThirtyEight.com forecast is even lower on Georgia’s chances. That projection gives the Bulldogs only a 39% chance of winning the national championship. There’s the Alabama effect again.

The Bulldogs are favored to win the national championship because of their defense. Tennessee’s offense is the best to face Georgia this season. The Volunteers had nine drives during the competitive portions of Saturday’s game (not including a short possession to end the first half). They produced 10 points and 4.9 yards per play with four punts, two turnovers on downs and an interception.

Georgia’s defense long has been elite with Kirby Smart as coach. Now it’s reached another level.

“The toughest thing is just the personnel,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Their front seven personnel is really good. They rotate guys in. There’s no drop-off from one to the next guy.”

Notice that Heupel limited his assessment to Georgia’s defensive linemen and linebackers. No mention of the secondary. Before the season, that group was a potential weakness for the Bulldogs because of attrition. During the season, the pass coverage has been good overall but occasionally vulnerable to big plays.

Part of that may be a function of Georgia not playing as many defensive backs as they would like. Smart said that’s a change from last season.

“We felt like it kept them fresh, and they were guys that were playing ‘above the line’ (as regular contributors),” Smart said. “Every year is different. It’s based on your depth chart. ... We have depth on the defensive line. We don’t have great depth in the secondary, so every position is different.”

It’s possible that an opponent with an accurate quarterback and a deep group of pass catchers can make plays against Georgia. (That assumes they can block Georgia’s pass rushers and fashion a credible running game, which no foe has done so far.) If Georgia faces Alabama or Ohio State, those teams have the personnel to make big passing plays.

There was no way Alabama would field a passing game as explosive as last season’s. NFL teams scooped up four key players: quarterback Mac Jones, left tackle Alex Leatherwood and wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took the head job at Texas. He was replaced by Bill O’Brien, who couldn’t produce a great offense for the NFL’s Texans with Deshaun Watson as his quarterback.

The result of that talent drain: Bama’s offense is merely excellent rather than all-time great.

Georgia doesn't have to face its own defense, a group that not even Alabama can match this season.

Alabama ranks tied for third among Power 5 teams in yards per pass attempt (9.2) after finishing first in 2020 (11.0). Its 34 touchdown passes rank No. 1. Quarterback Bryce Young is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s throwing to Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams (1,028 yards, 10 TDs) and junior John Metchie, who might have played himself into a first-round selection in the next NFL draft.

Among CFP contenders, only the Buckeyes can match Alabama’s passing game. They are the top-ranked Power 5 team in yards per passing attempt (10.0) and No. 3 in touchdowns (32). They are deeper at wide receiver than Bama even after Williams transferred from Columbus to Tuscaloosa.

That move gave sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba a chance. He’s become Ohio State’s leader in catches and yards (59 for 1,027 -- with five TDs). Smith-Njigba, Chis Olave and Garrett Wilson form the nation’s deepest receiving corps. Quarterback CJ Stroud, the successor to Justin Fields, strengthened his case for the Heisman Trophy with a fantastic performance against Purdue last weekend.

None of the other CFP contenders can match Alabama and Ohio State’s explosive passing game. With the exception of maybe ... Georgia? For all the handwringing about their offense, the Bulldogs rank between Ohio State and Alabama in yards per passing attempt (9.7). That’s the best mark in Smart’s six seasons.

The Bulldogs have just 22 touchdown passes on the season. But they’ve produced a higher percentage of them from 20 yards or longer (55%) than Ohio State (53%) or Alabama (44%). And Georgia’s passing game is trending up: quarterback Stetson Bennett had what was to my eye his best game of the season in Knoxville.

It’s not the case that the Bulldogs have to be as explosive as Alabama, Ohio State or any other postseason foe. Georgia doesn’t have to face its own defense, a group that not even Alabama can match this season. That’s the main reason Georgia’s run to the CFP feels so inevitable, even if it’s not.

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