Over the last few days, the biggest news story out of the Rose Bowl has been the health of Baker Mayfield. Apparently Mayfield has been fighting some sort of illness that has kept him away from the media and team activities. Things then hit a fever pitch when Mayfield made an unexpected appearance at Rose Bowl media day. On Saturday morning, Mayfield stated that he’s not 100% but is improving and will be ready to play come Monday afternoon. On top of this, Mayfield has been practicing with the team all week and according to stud tight end Mark Andrews, the offense has been sharp.
A bit about the Dawgs
While Oklahoma lost unexpectedly to Iowa State in October, Georgia lost late in the season to Auburn. In their 40-17 loss to Auburn back in November, Georgia was held to 46 yards on the ground while allowing Auburn to run for 237 yards. This game showed the blueprint for beating the Bulldogs - keep Sonny Michel and Nick Chubb contained while forcing Jake Fromm to beat the defense from the pocket. In the loss to Auburn, Jake Fromm had an anemic 15.8 QBR, which was by far his worst of the season.
Aside from their November loss to Auburn, Georgia had an impressive season that culminated with a resounding revenge victory over the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. This success was due to mainly a strong defense, power running game and solid quarterback play from freshman QB Jake Fromm. As I mentioned in an article a couple weeks ago, Jake Fromm steadily improved in each month of the season and is not necessarily defined by his first performance against Auburn.
Unfortunately for Georgia, the same could be said for Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma defense, which turned in some solid performances following the benching of Jordan Thomas, which seemed to be the turning point.
As these two historic programs square off in beautiful Pasadena, California on Monday, here are some of the keys to the game for both teams.
Contain the Georgia ground game
While I think there are a lot of factors that will influence the final result of the Rose Bowl, no factor is more important than the play of the Oklahoma front seven. If the Oklahoma front seven plays well and contains the Georgia rushing attack, I think the Sooners will win in a blowout. This all starts with the big boys up front, who have played well recently but have had an up-and-down season overall. In games against Ohio State and TCU, the front seven looked dominant and set the tone for the entire team. However, there where also times in which the Sooners got gashed on the ground, although that obviously doesn’t fall completely on the front line. Despite these struggles to defend the run, the Sooners were able to pull out victories due to their offensive firepower, which could be slowed down by the vaunted Georgia defense.
For the Sooners to be successful stopping the run, guys like Duvonta Lampkin, Neville Gallimore, Marquise Overton, D.J. Ward, Kenneth Mann and Amani Bledsoe need to continue to play well. In particular, Lampkin and Mann will be key against Georgia. Over the last few games, Lampkin has done a great job stuffing the run and eating up blocks from the inside while Mann has done a great job on the outside. If the guys up front can control the line of scrimmage, then that will not only slow down the Georgia running but will also free up the linebackers to make plays.
The Oklahoma linebacking corp is full of talent but has struggled at times this season with both tackling and gap discipline. They often leave too many open gaps and fail to wrap up when they need to. Although there have been plenty of good moments for this unit, the group as a whole needs to be more disciplined and physical then usual if they want to stop the Georgia running attack. This means that Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Emmanuel Beal, Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray all need to step up and keep both Sonny Michel and Nick Chubb (and others in that deep backfield) in front of them as much as possible. The good news is that the quartet of Murray, Ogbo, Kelly, and Beal improved steadily throughout the season and just need to carry that momentum into the Rose Bowl on Monday. If they can do that, it will give the Sooners a huge edge against the Bulldogs.
Stay balanced on offense
As we all know by now, this Oklahoma offense is scary good. They put points up at a frantic pace and run like a finely tuned machine for most of the game. Like most great offenses though, they are successful because the opposing defense can never really figure out what they are going to do. One of the big reasons opposing defenses have such trouble with Oklahoma is because they have such a balanced attack. Some drives they run the ball eight out of 10 times, while on other drives they throw it nine out of 10 times, which makes them very difficult to figure out.
This balance starts with running the ball. Luckily for the Sooners, they have a stable of talented backs, a do-it-all fullback in Dimitri Flowers and a QB in Baker Mayfield that is a better runner than people give him credit for.
Out of their impressive stable of backs, Rodney Anderson definitely stands out. After icing the game against Kansas State back in October, Anderson has been on an absolute tear. He totaled 960 rushing yards on the season with 16 total touchdowns while really only seeing significant action in the final 7 games of the regular season. To complement the impressive speed, vision and power of Anderson, the Sooners have both Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams. These backs serve as a great complement to Anderson because Sermon can just flat out run over guys while Adams can fly past them with his breakaway speed. To be successful against the stout Georgia defense, Lincoln Riley will likely have to rely on all three guys to carry the ground game.
Once the ground game gets going, the Sooners are nearly impossible to stop. Once the linebackers and safeties start focusing on the run, weapons like Marquise “hollywood” Brown, Mykel Jones, Ceedee Lamb, Jeff Badet, and Mark Andrews can exploit openings in the defense. If Oklahoma is able to run the ball on Georgia early on, then they could get an early lead and not look back (provided the defense keeps its end of the bargain). Again, that is a big “if” because of the strength of the Georgia defense.
Unleash Roquan Smith
Just like Batman needs the Joker, Baker Mayfield needs Roquan Smith. Smith spearheaded a dominant Georgia defense this year by compiling 113 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. Smith is so good that in addition to winning multiple national awards and being a consensus All-American, he even garnered a few Heisman votes. Smith flys around the field and has the ability to rush the passer, stop the run and drop back in coverage. Smith is at his best when he plays aggressive, which he should be able do against the Sooners. Expect defensive guru Kirby Smart to use Smith on blitzes as well as in a spy position on Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl.
In order for Smith to play at his usually high level, he needs his supporting cast to continue to do their job as well. This includes linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, who play next to Smith. Both players have the ability to get after Mayfield and slow down Rodney Anderson, which means that the Oklahoma offensive line cannot solely focus Smith. In addition to the strong linebacker play, Georgia also frees up Smith with their imposing defensive line. Headlining the defensive line is stud defensive end Trenton Thompson, who has been compared by to Ndamukong Suh by some NFL scouts. Next to Thompson, there is space-eating nose tackle John Atkins, who can stuff the run, eat up blocks and get inside pressure on the opposing QB. With guys like Thompson and Atkins eating up blocks, the talented Smith has more room to operate. If these guys are able to dominate the powerful Oklahoma offensive line, which is a tall task, then it could be a long day for Baker Mayfield.
Ground and Pound
When Oklahoma last appeared in the playoff in 2015, they were absolutely dominated on the ground (particularly in the second half) by the Clemson Tigers en route to 312 rushing yards. This dominance led to a 37-17 victory for Clemson and ended the Sooners’ 2015 season. If the Sooners are unsuccessful against the run against Georgia, they could suffer a crushing playoff loss for the second time in three years.
One of the reasons Georgia is so dominant on the ground is because they have two NFL-caliber running backs in Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel. Chubb is a power back, very much in the Samaje Perine mold who always manages to get extra yards after contact. Since Chubb is a power back, the skill set of Michel complements him nicely. Michel is a home-run threat who is also lethal catching passes out of the backfield like Joe Mixon was during his time in Norman. Add in talented freshman D’Andre Swift and this backfield is arguably the best in the nation. They have been running over teams all year and are more than capable of doing exactly what Clemson did to Oklahoma in 2015.
In addition to overpowering the Sooner defense, the powerful Georgia run game would be able to run the clock and keep the ball away from Baker Mayfield in that scenario. If the Bulldogs are able to run the ball well, especially early on, things could go south for Oklahoma quickly. The Sooners have to hope for an early lead, which would effectively force Georgia to get out of its comfort zone.
I think this game will be tight for most of the first half, but Oklahoma should pull away in the latter stages. I do think Georgia will be able to put up some points on the Sooners. However, it will likely not be enough to keep up with the potent Oklahoma offense. Just as William Tecumseh Sherman did to turn the tide of the Civil War back in 1864, Baker Mayfield will lead his troops on to Atlanta for another battle.
Oklahoma 35, Georgia 24