Underdog Ohio State has what it takes to beat Georgia in Peach Bowl

Credit: Jason Parkhurst/Abell Images

Credit: Jason Parkhurst/Abell Images

Beating Georgia essentially means figuring out a way to score enough points. The Bulldogs have bad days scoring. It’s rare that they struggle to get stops. Coach Kirby Smart’s defensive machine grinds up nearly all comers. The few teams to avoid that fate included Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, multiple future NFL first-round picks or both.

Ohio State fits that bill, and yet the Buckeyes are 6.5-point underdogs against Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN). One way to look at that is Ohio State’s offense is so good that the Bulldogs aren’t overwhelming favorites even with a quasi-home game. It’s the fewest number of points Georgia has been favored by since it beat Alabama 33-18 as a three-point favorite in last season’s College Football Playoff Championship game.

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Another way to view Ohio State’s underdog status is to wonder why a team with so much offensive talent and the deep passing game to give Georgia problems is projected to lose by a touchdown in their CFP semifinal.

“I don’t want to say that I feel like the underdog,” Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud said Tuesday. “I do feel like they are counting us out. That’s fine. We’ve been counted out plenty of times.”

The question was about the No. 4 Buckeyes being underdogs, so “they” presumably are the oddsmakers and betting public who determine the point spread. The Buckeyes aren’t used to getting points. They’ve been underdogs only six times during the CFP era, according to the OddsShark database. They won four of those games, by the way, and three of those victories were in the playoff.

“They” also could be the reporters who peppered Ohio State’s players with questions about the program’s recent slippage.

The Buckeyes didn’t make the CFP last season after losing to rival Michigan. They lost to Michigan again this season but still got into the playoff. It seems those two defeats have distorted perceptions about the Buckeyes. They were in the CFP final only two seasons ago, after all. They were handled by Alabama, but as Georgia knows, that happens sometimes.

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“They” certainly includes many of Georgia’s partisan supporters. There are good reasons for them to feel confident.

Georgia hasn’t been seriously challenged since coming back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win at Missouri in Week 5. The Bulldogs haven’t lost to an opponent outside of the SEC in nearly four calendar years (Texas on Jan. 1, 2019, in the Sugar Bowl). Georgia routed Michigan, the Big Ten champion, in last season’s CFP semifinals.

Still, even those people who are among the “they” who doubt Ohio State’s chances surely realize that Georgia’s most recent losses have come against teams with the same profile.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Georgia has allowed 30 points or more in only four of 52 games (excluding the garbage-time TD that LSU scored to total 30 in the SEC Championship game earlier this month). All those teams had a collection of NFL-caliber talent that included quarterbacks who can deliver precise passes into tight spaces and connect with big targets deep downfield. That describes this season’s Ohio State team.

Stroud will be no worse than the third quarterback off the board in next year’s NFL draft. Paris Johnson could be the first offensive lineman selected. Marvin Harrison probably would be the top drafted wide receiver if the rules didn’t require him to play another college season for no salary. Those players are why Ohio State has an explosive offense even with receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba barely playing this season because of a hamstring injury.

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The Buckeyes have totaled 30 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 12 games this season, per cfbstats.com. Only Tennessee had more (38) among Power Five teams to play 12 games. Georgia has allowed 21 pass plays of 30 yards or more. That’s tied for fifth most among Power Five teams that have played 13 games.

Surrendering long pass plays is Georgia’s only defensive weakness. That’s why I’ve long contended that the Buckeyes are the worst possible CFP matchup for Georgia. Hardly anyone runs on the Bulldogs. Opponents with elite skill talent have taken advantage of Georgia’s leaky pass coverage on the back end.

LSU put up 37 points on Georgia in the 2019 SEC title game. Quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase already have nine NFL Pro Bowl selections among them. Alabama scored 41 against the Bulldogs at home in 2020. Wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are starring for high-scoring NFL offenses, same as they did at Bama.

Ex-Bama quarterback Mac Jones and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood were first-round picks after beating Georgia 41-24 in the 2021 SEC title game. Florida beat Georgia 44-28 in 2020. Months later, the Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in history, and the Giants acquired wide receiver Kadarius Toney with the No. 20 overall pick.

Now just because the Buckeyes have similar talent to teams that conquered Georgia in the past doesn’t mean they’ll do the same. The Bulldogs can make great offensive teams look bad.

They got another shot at Alabama in the national championship game last season and held them to 18 points. This season Georgia held Tennessee, the No. 1 scoring team, to 13 points in November. Yes, the weather was bad and the Volunteers had problems with the noise at Sanford Stadium. Still, those factors don’t come close to explaining why the Vols failed to score a touchdown until they were hopelessly behind.

The Vols found out that the deep passing game doesn’t work so well when facing unfavorable down-and-distance situations. Said Stroud:

“You can’t take those (deep) shots in second-and-10, third-and-10. You can, but it’s not good football, I feel, if you are playing behind the sticks. I definitely think that is a key to us being us: having firm protection up front, tight ends doing their jobs, me making the right protection calls, our receivers getting the right play and doing their job and being dynamic in the run game as well.”

That’s a lot of boxes to check. The few teams that have done it against the Bulldogs have scored enough points to beat them. The underdog Buckeyes can do it, too.