Monday, January 24, 2022

College Football Playoff 2021 prediction: Why the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs have the tools to win the title

Considering No. 3 Georgia is entering the College Football Playoff semifinal Orange Bowl game against No. 2 Michigan off of its first loss this season — a humbling 41-24 defeat at the hands of No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game — there is a temptation to fade the Bulldogs’ chances of winning their first national title since 1980. Michigan’s late-season surge with an impressive win over arch rival Ohio State and a total obliteration of Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game only fuel the idea that perhaps these Bulldogs are destined to come up just short again as they often have during sixth-year coach Kirby Smart’s tenure.

But to buy the idea that Georgia enters the CFP with a limited ceiling is to ignore all it proved throughout one of the most physically dominant regular seasons of football in the 21st century. Putting too much weight on Michigan’s last two games and Georgia’s dud performance in the SEC title game creates a recency bias that foolishly discounts how the Dawgs were clearly considered the best team in college football nearly the entire 2021 season.

With an all-time great defense and an offense that has chugged along despite a season full of injuries that would have crippled a lesser team, Georgia is primed to play its best football yet in the playoff and break through for a national title.

Here are the reasons why the Dawgs will emerge from the CFP as national champions.

1. Defense doesn’t lie

Opposing offenses scored a total of 14 touchdowns all season against Georgia. Four of those came from Alabama in the SEC title game. Remove that from the equation, and the Bulldogs defense allowed less than a touchdown per game. Among those they did let into the end zone, a handful came in garbage time of games that had already been decided. 

Dig into what happened to the Georgia defense against Alabama, and it becomes apparent that the Crimson Tide were uniquely equipped to exploit the Dawgs’ few vulnerabilities in a way that will be impossible for Michigan to replicate. Bama did it with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Bryce Young hitting a couple of elite wide receivers in Jameson Williams and John Metchie. While Michigan QB Cade McNamara is a fine player and WRs Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson are quality targets, the Wolverines don’t sniff the aerial excellence the Tide present. The Wolverines are a run-oriented team, and they will have a tough time thriving on the ground against the Dawgs. 

Even amid what seemed like a defensive collapse for Georgia in the SEC title game, it still allowed just 76 yards rushing on 22 carries to Alabama running backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders. Michigan managed to run for 211 yards against Iowa’s heralded defense in the Big Ten Championship Game, but Georgia’s defense is even better than that offered by Iowa. Interior behemoths Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt all weigh in at more than 300 pounds and are among the nation’s top run-stuffers. By contrast, Iowa did not have a single defensive lineman weighing over 300 pounds on its depth chart for the Big Ten title game. Georgia will wreak havoc up front against a Michigan squad unaccustomed to blocking such disruptive players.

2. Offensive explosiveness is possible

Because of the dominance of its defense, Georgia’s offense rarely needed to operate at peak efficiency this season. That was convenient since the Dawgs were wrecked by injuries and absences at playmaking positions. Even still, they enter the CFP with a greater number of explosive plays of 20+ yards (70) than Michigan (66). Georgia may not hit the massive gainers often — as title-winning teams for LSU and Alabama have the last two seasons — but the Bulldogs can move the football in 15-yard chunks and find another gear offensively.

With nearly a month since its last game to get even more healthy and develop more chemistry, expect some new wrinkles from Georgia’s offense. There is some big play potential with the likes of receivers Jermaine Burton, George Pickens, Adonai Mitchell and Kearis Jackson that has either remained dormant due to a lack of necessity or been untapped due to injury. Pickens could be due for a breakout in what will be just his third game back since suffering a torn ACL in spring practice. Pickens led the Bulldogs in receiving touchdowns in 2020 and is a former five-star prospect with big-play potential.

Georgia’s top pass catchers in receptions, yards and touchdowns are true freshman tight end Brock Bowers and redshirt freshman receiver Ladd McConkey. That would have been unfathomable before the season. Bowers entered preseason camp at least third in the pecking order at tight end behind junior John FitzPatrick and sophomore Darnell Washington. McConkey was the program’s lowest-ranked offensive signee in the 2020 recruiting class and was also buried on the depth chart back in early August. A primary reason why Bowers and McConkey have been the top targets of Georgia’s quarterbacks is merely because they’ve mostly stayed healthy while others have not. 

But Bennett — or backup quarterback JT Daniels, who has joined the team in Miami — will have plenty of healthy targets at his disposal against Michigan, and the Dawgs are absolutely capable of exploding offensively in a way that wasn’t possible or necessary before now.

3. There’s plenty in the chamber

Should Georgia beat Michigan and end up with a rematch against Alabama in the CFP National Championship, there are a few reasons why the second meeting could go differently. For all the talk about how Young wasn’t sacked by Georgia, you would think it was ineffective blitzing in the SEC title game or merely dropped eight men into coverage on every Alabama pass attempt. To the contrary. Georgia brought pressure, and it was effective. Young was just 8 of 20 for 104 yards when the Bulldogs sent five or more pass rushers, according to TruMedia data. That equates to an average of 5.2 yards per attempt, which is far below the 9.6 yards that Young averaged for the game. When Georgia rushed four players or fewer, Young thrived by completing 17 of 23 passes for 308 yards. All three of his touchdown passes came on plays when Georgia did not blitz, and he averaged a staggering 13.39 yards per attempt on those plays.

With that data in hand and with the Tide missing star WR John Metchie III, Georgia’s defense will be in much better position to play up to its potential in a rematch. The Dawgs have been playing their cards close to the vest all season, and they knew there was no need to unload everything in the chamber during the SEC title game.

Offensively, Georgia has a wild card in its back pocket with Daniels hanging around at backup quarterback and able to provide a different look to the Alabama defense. The Tide have not yet played against Daniels, who was still recovering from a knee injury when the they beat the Dawgs last season. The former five-star prospect and starter at USC was among the most efficient passers in the country last season once healthy and began the 2021 season as the starter before ceding the job to Bennett.

Daniels is just one wrinkle that Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken may have held back in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama had to show it all in the first meeting as it fought for a spot in the CFP. Georgia had the luxury of holding some schematic gems back that would make the difference in a rematch.

Making a CFP case for … No. 1 AlabamaNo. 2 MichiganNo. 4 Cincinnati

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