Arguably the best offense will face the best defense in the nation January 1 in the Rose Bowl as No. 2 Oklahoma squares off against No. 3 Georgia in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
Georgia, champions of the Southeastern Conference, will try to shut down OU’s offense with its stifling defense and slow the game down. Oklahoma, Big 12 champions, will try to speed up the game with their offense and force the Bulldogs to defend the entire field.
The prize for the winner is a January 8 trip to the National Championship game in Atlanta.
OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, winner of the Heisman Trophy, said Georgia’s defense is unlike any Oklahoma has played.
“You can’t compare them to anybody,” Mayfield said. “They are in a league of their own. There is a reason they are in the playoffs and there’s a reason they follow behind that defense. You can’t compare them to people because they are so talented and they play so well together. To say they are like anyone else would downplay how good they are.”
And as good as the Georgia defense is, Mayfield said you can’t overlook the Bulldog offense, particularly the running game.
“People forget how talented their offense it,” Mayfield said. “You don’t see a freshman (Jake Fromm) commanding an offense very often for many reasons but he’s special. He’s got the talent but he has that charisma.”
“I don’t know if we’ve seen anybody with the caliber of the running backs that they have there,” OU head coach Lincoln Riley said of Georgia. “Ohio State had two pretty good backs and ended up having good years, but the two backs or really the three backs they have there are all tremendous.
“That’s definitely going to be a challenge. We’ve been lucky enough here over the last few years to have some great backs of our own. You realize how special those guys are and how difficult they can make it to defend. So that’s certainly going to be a big challenge for us here with the quality of backs that Georgia has.”
This will be the first meeting ever for Oklahoma (12-1) and Georgia (12-1). The winner plays the winner of the other semifinal between No. 1 Clemson (12-1) and No. 4 Alabama (11-1).
The trip to Pasadena is a long way from Georgia.
“A lot of our kids haven’t even been to the West Coast, so they’re going to get an opportunity to go out and play a wonderful team in Oklahoma,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “(Oklahoma is) a very storied program. I’ve followed Lincoln (Riley) for a long time. I know he and his staff do a tremendous job. Been very fortunate to visit with their defensive staff before. They do a great job. We obviously know about the quarterback they have, who is a tremendous player.”
Riley is the youngest head coach in Division I football but he says age is not a factor.
“I think you can either relate to players or you can’t,” Riley said. “You can either lead people or you can’t. Some of the people, they’re going to say, He’s young, he can relate to players, closer to his age. Some of the best coaches I’ve ever seen that relate to players are 55, 60 years old because they’re gifted at it.
“I don’t think our team, our staff thinks a whole lot about it. I certainly don’t. I said it when this happened and I got this job: if we do well, it’s not going to be because I was young. If we don’t do well, it’s not going to be because I was young. We either get it done or we don’t.”
Riley, who replaced Coach Bob Stoops this season, was offensive coordinator two years ago when OU lost to Clemson in a semifinal.
“I definitely think it helps,” Riley said of the experience. “I learned a lot I think that first year going through it, going against Coach Swinney and those guys at the Orange Bowl a few years ago, again, how you prepare the team for a game with this kind of magnitude.
“Also it certainly helps me having been there with a guy in Bob Stoops that was in a lot of games like this for many, many years. Certainly a lot of things that I picked up from him and will continue to lean on him for.”
While Smart has been in the playoffs as an assistant for Alabama, this is his first trip as a head coach.
“I wouldn’t say it feels any different,” Smart said. “I would say the pressure I put on myself as a defensive coordinator and trying to win championships, when with Alabama, is very similar or the same.”
Besides beating Auburn in the SEC Championship, Georgia’s biggest game arguably was against Notre Dame.
“We went on the road to Notre Dame with a true freshman quarterback,” Smart said. “We rose to the occasion. There were a lot of opportunities in that game for us to. Bad things happened. They just kept responding, kept responding, kept giving him an opportunity with some mistakes he made in that game.
“I thought from that point forward, Look, we’ve got a good football team. If he continues to grow as a quarterback, we get better defensively, keep improving on special teams, we’ll have a shot to win the games we play.”
Besides beating TCU for a second time to win the Big 12, a turning point for OU was a road win at No. 5 Ohio State.
“Part of me wants to say going and beating Ohio State in Columbus week two, that was a big game there in a great venue against a really, really good football team,” Riley said. “… You get to a point where it’s every single game. You lose one, you’re probably out. You know it. Your kids know it. That’s all that’s talked about, ESPN, everywhere else.
“I felt like at that point we had a chance, but there was certainly a lot of work to be done and a lot of work that it took to get to this point.”
This is the second trip to Rose Bowl for both Oklahoma and Georgia.
“To get a chance to come do it at the Rose Bowl is very, very special to us,” Riley said. “We’re certainly very appreciative of the opportunity. Really looking forward to playing a great Georgia team. I’ve been able to keep up with them a little bit throughout the year. Coach Smart has done just an obviously tremendous job with that group in such a short amount of time.”
“I’ll second that statement,” Smart said. “It’s an honor anytime you get to play in a College Football Playoff or coach in it. For Lincoln and I both, first time in this type atmosphere in the College Football Playoff. I think it’s awesome that it’s in the Rose Bowl, so you get to go out to The Granddaddy of Them All and play in a venue that a lot of these kids in the southeast don’t get an opportunity to go to.”
Smart was an assistant who coached in a Rose Bowl but this will be a first for Riley, both as a head coach or assistant.
Smart has some familiarity with the Sooners.
“I got to watch quite a bit of Oklahoma throughout the year,” Smart said. “An electric team, a very good team, a team that I’ve had experiences with, and know a lot of their defensive coaches and defensive staff.”
Smart was an assistant coach in the 2014 Sugar Bowl when OU beat Alabama.
“The experience of the Sugar Bowl was miserable, to be honest with you,” Smart said. “They attacked us and did a great job. We didn’t play really well. It was one of our probably most disappointing bowl performances at the time. Thought they did a tremendous job offensively. The kid had a phenomenal fake and that quarterback came out on fire and lit us up pretty good. That was a different team, different program, different time.
“They’ve always done a tremendous job at Oklahoma.”
Smart is impressed by Mayfield.
“He’s such a good athlete, and he’s got a thick build, and he stretches and extends plays, extremely explosive,” Smart said. “(He’s) not afraid to make any throws. It’s really like when you watch Brett Favre back in the day. Obviously he’s a better athlete, and he’s got the gunslinger mentality that he can make all the throws. He enjoys the game and plays the game with so much passion. I’ve enjoyed watching the games he’s played in, and just the pageantry and the passion with which he plays with. It’s really what college football is about, and he’s obviously a phenomenal player that makes everyone around him better.”