ATLANTA - When the clock hit 0:00 and the confetti began to drop from the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the 2017 SEC Championship, the fans and students who made up the “sea of red” within the stadium could finally take a sigh of relief and embrace the moment.
The Georgia Bulldogs had just defeated the Auburn Tigers, 28-7, and the Dawgs were going to the College Football Playoff.
The Bulldogs captured their first conference title since 2005 behind the stellar defensive play of Butkus Award recipient Roquan Smith, the play of quarterback Jake Fromm and running backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift, who combined for a total of 210 yards on the ground against the Tigers’ defense.
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A revenge win against Auburn was the perfect way for Georgia (12-1) to cap a magical regular season and earn a spot in the 104th Rose Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal game, with hopes of getting back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the National Championship Game.
For Georgia, however, it will not be an easy task.
The Bulldogs have completed half of the journey, but the hardest part is just beginning.
Georgia will be tasked with stopping a high-powered, widespread offense in Oklahoma featuring quarterback Baker Mayfield, who could wind up this year’s Heisman Trophy winner.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has much respect for Mayfield and his ability to lead the Sooners’ offense.
“I tell people all the time, [Mayfield] is entertaining to watch,” Smart said during ESPN’s selection show. “He’s unbelievably talented. He’s got great athletic ability. He seems like he’s been playing forever. He’s what college football is all about. He embraces it, he loves it. I love the way he plays the game. We’ll probably have a lot of sleepless nights over the next 30 days or so.”
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Mayfield has torched opposing defenses with eye-popping numbers, throwing for 4,340 yards, 41 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. He also rushed for 310 yards and five touchdowns.
In Oklahoma’s 41-17 win against TCU in the Big 12 Championship, Mayfield finished with 243 yards and four touchdowns passing, and 65 rushing yards.
As a unit, the Sooners are first in total offense per game (average 583 yards), third in pass offense (average 392 yards) and fourth in scoring offense (nearly 45 points per game).
While the running game is always in the shadows of the Sooners' deadly passing attack, Oklahoma (12-1) ranks 27th in rush offense, averaging 216 yards on the ground.
Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson has rushed for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns this year, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
The Sooners’ offensive dominance will be put to the test against Georgia’s physical defense.
Led by Smith, the Bulldogs will enter the semifinal game ranked fourth in total defense, giving up an average of 271 yards to their opponents per game.
Against the run, Georgia is 12th nationally (giving up 113 per game) and second in passing yards allowed (158 yards per game) and 17th against the run.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will need to get pressure on Mayfield, not allowing him to sit in the pocket and pick apart the secondary.
The likelihood for the Sooners to accumulate more than 150 yards through the air is very high, even if Georgia does get pressure up front from the defensive line.
The key for Georgia, however, will be limiting the big pass plays over the top, preventing the Sooners from running up the scoreboard for 30 points before halftime.
If Georgia can keep from getting in a high-scoring match with solid defense, things will be very favorable for the Bulldogs to punch their ticket to Atlanta to play for all the marbles.
Part of keeping the Sooners’ offense off the field is Georgia controlling the time of possession in the game and the Bulldogs’ offense staying on the field. Georgia ranks 17th in time of possession (32:00) while Oklahoma sits at 25th (31:00).
To remain on the field, it means Fromm must be consistent and efficient in the passing game. In order for the freshman quarterback to pass the ball, the running game must be locked and loaded from the very start of the game.
Considering the Sooners' defensive stats -- 57th in total defense, 44th in rush defense, 82nd in pass defense and 52nd in scoring defense -- Smart’s Bulldogs could see very balanced day on offense on New Year’s Day in Pasadena.
If Oklahoma’s defense is vulnerable, much like it has been all season, it could make for a major advantage for Georgia.
Oklahoma is no stranger to SEC match-=ups in bowl games, as they're 2-3.
In the Sooners' bowl game last year, Oklahoma defeated Auburn, 35-19. Going further back, however, Oklahoma lost to LSU and Florida in the 2004 and 2009 BCS Championship games and Texas A&M defeated the Sooners 41-13 in the 2013 Cotton Bowl.
This will be the first time these two programs have played each other and the second time both teams have played in a Rose Bowl.
Mayfield versus the Bulldogs’ defense will be the difference-maker as to which team wins and makes its long-awaited trip to downtown Atlanta for the national championship game on Jan. 8.
Kickoff for the Rose Bowl is set for 5 p.m.
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