It’s the most wonderful time of the year for fans of college football. Bowl season is in full swing, daily offerings of weird and wonderful matchups, some well-attended, some less so. Certain players have chosen to eschew a potential bowl victory as they begin preparations for the NFL Draft, while others fight to the last, looking for the perfect end to their college career. Bowl games are more jovial affairs than the battles of the regular seasons, and some teams seem to revel in the more relaxed affairs of this time of year: Boise State’s tribute to Anton Du Beke in the Las Vegas Bowl a particular highlight.
Of course for four teams the year is far from over. Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama are all lining up a tilt at the national title, the quartet preparing for battle in the College Football Playoff semi-finals on New Year’s Day. Clemson and Alabama will meet in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma and Georgia head to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. The winner of each game will head to the National Championship Game in Atlanta on January the 8th.
The Rose Bowl
The Rose Bowl is the oldest of the bowl games, and perhaps the most-storied. Traditionally featuring the Pac-12 champions battling the winners of the Big 10, the rotation of the ‘New Year’s Six’ leaves the Rose Bowl as a semi-final and thus the departure from the normal arrangement, with the Sooners of the Big 12 meeting the Bulldogs of the SEC. Prior to the introduction of the Playoff, the Rose Bowl served as the National Championship Game twice under the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system. The 2006 Rose Bowl was such an affair, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest games of college football. No.2 Texas bested No.1 USC 41-38 after a game-snatching fourth-down touchdown scamper from Vince Young in a game watched by over 35 million people, the highest viewing figure for nearly 20 years.
Last year’s Rose Bowl saw a similarly entertaining encounter, again featuring the Pac-12 Champion USC Trojans as they met the Big 10’s Penn State Nittany Lions. This game had little riding on it as it was not a Playoff semi-final, but the pair racked up 101 combined points with the Trojans eventually prevailing 52-49 behind Sam Darnold’s five touchdown tosses. Such a high-scoring game is unlikely this year given the more consequential implications of victory, but the 2018 Rose Bowl Game looks set to be another cracker.
Baker Mayfield vs Georgia’s Defense
The headline matchup features the most enigmatic quarterback in college football against one of its most stout defensive units. Baker Mayfield has tore through all in front of him this year, collating over 4,600 yards and 46 touchdowns and completing over 70% of his passes. The deserved Heisman-winner, Mayfield has turned some away with his antics but his ridiculous talent is captivating to watch and I am sure many will be excited to see if he can lead the Sooners to the National Title.
To do that he will have to get past Georgia’s outstanding defense. The Bulldogs gave up the fourth-fewest points per game during the regular season. Outstanding linebacker Roquan Smith leads a ferocious front seven which caused chaos for even the best offensive lines in the vaunted SEC. Smith rightly earned a First-Team All-America nod but he is far from a lone ranger defensively, with Lorenzo Carter and co. capable of making Mayfield miserable. The backend of the Bulldogs defense is not full of star names but are equally effective, and Mayfield will have a job picking them apart.
Mayfield is not alone, however, as the QB can count on some offensive studs to help gorge Georgia. Talented tight end Mark Andrews and gargantuan offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. joined Mayfield as All-Americans and both are likely early draft picks should they depart for the NFL after their season concludes. How Brown handles the Bulldogs linebackers will be a fascinating battle to watch. Mayfield’s excellence as a deep-ball thrower has led to big years for CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown, and if the Oklahoma offensive line can give their star quarterback time, either has the ability to blow by the Bulldogs defensive backs to make a game-changing play.
Georgia’s run game vs Oklahoma
When Georgia has the football, look out for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the senior running back tandem who have devastated defenses throughout their college careers. For those unacquainted with the pair, think Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, with Chubb more of the between-the-tackles bludgeon and Michel the shifty change-of-pace with excellent vision, though that is understating both men’s all-around abilities. Over 2,000 combined rushing yards this year, and nearly 8,000 combined in their college careers, is testament to the duo’s quality, and they will be a stiff test for the Sooners. With aptly named freshman D’Andre Swift another potential superstar, Georgia has assembled a frightening triumvirate who will have to play a huge role if the Bulldogs wish to make the National Championship game in their home state.
Aiming to stop them is the Sooners’ defense, which is the weakest of the four defenses in the college football playoff. While the other three participants all rank in the top-four in points per game, Oklahoma ranks 52nd after averaging 25 points allowed through the 2017 season. It is a group that is light on standout names, but Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is a name to know. The speedy edge-rusher has embarrassed offensive linemen with his whirlwind spin move at times this year. Isaiah Wynn (Georgia’s starting left tackle) will have his hands full, but the Bulldogs will feel confident about moving the football against the rest of the Sooners defensive unit.
Jake Froom – game changer or liability?
Jake Fromm entered this year as Georgia’s number two quarterback, which is hard to believe. Only 19 and still just a freshman, Fromm took advantage of Jacob Eason’s injury and usurped the sophomore as the starter. Fromm has since put together an excellent season, displaying a live and accurate arm and impressing with good decision making.
A composed performance in the SEC title game against Auburn’s active front showed considerable poise and suggests Fromm is not afraid of the big occasion. If Mayfield gets going the Bulldogs may need strong play from their starting quarterback to keep pace, and it is vital Fromm doesn’t crumble in the spotlight. Oklahoma will try and force Georgia to win the game on the arm of their true freshman quarterback.
Kirby Smart vs Lincoln Riley
The coaching battle could be crucial, and the edge must go to Georgia in this regard. Kirby Smart may be in only his second season as a head coach, but he was previously defensive coordinator at Alabama, cultivating four National Championship winning defenses.
Lincoln Riley has had just three seasons as a coach at a Power 5 school, and while his debut head coaching season has been outstanding, this lack of experience on the big stage cannot be discounted. In a game that could come down to key coaching decisions, this may be vital and ultimately, I think Georgia prevails in this game.
Mayfield will put up points even against such a stern opponent, but Oklahoma will find it hard to stop Chubb and Michel. The Bulldogs defense will tighten down the stretch, clamping a comeback attempt and winning by two scores. It is sure to be an entertaining affair whatever the final result, however, and one well worth watching.
Follow Harry Latham-Cole on Twitter @Hlc1221