Irresistible force, meet immovable object: Oklahoma, Georgia prepare for playoff collision

  • Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, right, speaks as Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley listens during an NCAA college football news conference, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. Oklahoma and Georgia meet at the Rose Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) Bob Andres

  • Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm throws a pass during team practice on Friday for the Rose Bowl at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. AP

  • Helmets for Georgia and Oklahoma are displayed at a news conference in Los Angeles on Thursday. Georgia will take on Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl tonight. AP

Washington Post
Sunday, December 31, 2017

LOS ANGELES – Stack the appeals and the curiosities of the 104th Rose Bowl, and you end up with a grandaddy of a heap.

There’s the freshness of Oklahoma and Georgia, old codgers of football ambition, tangling for the first time in the 148 years since the nation started going cuckoo, somehow, for football played by collegians.

There’s the electricity that flows from doubling as a College Football Playoff semifinal, the winner advancing to Jan. 8 and to Atlanta opposite the winner of the Sugar Bowl between No. 1 Clemson (12-1) and No. 4 Alabama (11-1).

There’s the unnecessarily silly case of the flu-like illness of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, which apparently hasn’t prevented practicing, and which Oklahoma watered with secrecy until it grew into some sort of state secret across recent days, until Mayfield appeared at Media Day on Saturday and said, “Yeah, I’m not dying.” (He did speak of tea, honey, coffee and antibiotics.)

Yet at the top of the pile, there’s X-and-O caviar: a tremendous offense against a tremendous defense, and all the football details that entails. Oklahoma’s offense towers at No. 1 in the country; Georgia’s defense bruises in at No. 4 (behind Wisconsin, Alabama and Michigan). Oklahoma’s offense spent only three games languishing in the indignity of not getting to 500 yards, zero games below 461. Georgia’s defense spent only two games letting anybody have more than 300, and only one with more than 312, and it later took the team that did committed that traffic violation (Auburn, 488 yards, Nov. 11, in a 40-17 romp) and avenged it, in an SEC championship game where Auburn sputtered to 259.

Oklahoma averaged 8.44 yards per play, almost a full yard ahead of the national runner-up, UCF (7.6). Georgia allowed just more than half of 8.44, with 4.45.

No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) flourished.

No. 3 Georgia (12-1) prohibited flourishing.

Now, get out there and sort this thing.

“Comparing our defense to their offense, it’s, okay, now it’s about when the road meets the road,” Georgia nose guard John Atkins said. “Now, you’ve got to see, ‘Okay, both of y’all are good. So now, can each one of y’all show me, each play, consistently show me who’s the better player, and who’s the better offense or defense?’ ”

There might seem diminished space on the field.

“It’s hard to exploit a team that’s so good throughout the board,” said Mark Andrews, the tight end who led Oklahoma with 58 catches.

It would seem vital to expect hardship.

“We’re prepared for a grind, a bloodbath; you have to,” Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter said, while Oklahoma assistant head coach Cale Gundy said, “You’d better not be thinking anything else (but a grind), because if you’re thinking anything else and you get out there and then (a grind) happens, you’re in trouble.”

It would seem, to competitive sorts, even a privilege.

“When you’re a great defense, you love going up against a great offense,” Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith said, an ideal magnified when there’s a Heisman winner. “I mean, I love it, because he’s the Heisman (winner) ... The same thing: He’s got to show us why he’s the Heisman, we’ve got to show him why we’re the best defense.”

Uppermost, it’s a game for knowing one’s numbers, from film study. When Georgia’s Smith spoke of his respect for Oklahoma’s playmakers, and an esteemed reporter briefly misspoke and referred to Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma’s ball-catcher of a running back, as No. 37, Smith corrected to say Flowers wears 36. (Such evidence of homework.) When Mayfield spoke of Georgia’s defense, he spoke of the “playmakers” and disguised blitzes and disguised coverages and “guys that pop out on film,” before concluding, “Obviously number three is the biggest one.”

No. 3 is the mighty Smith.

“I like 24 and 4,” Atkins said of Oklahoma runners Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon.

When Kirby Smart, Georgia’s second-year head coach, addressed the matter of Mayfield’s NFL future, Smart found that future bright and said, “Confidence. I mean, the guy believes he can make every throw. He’s seen every defense known to man. He’s made every check known to man. He knows how to check and adjust. The hardest thing in that league is to block great pass-rushers. He gives you the flexibility that if you can’t block ‘em, he can run, create time. He can create time.

“So it’s more like Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre where he’s not trying to outrun them and break tackles. He’s just trying to buy you four extra seconds to throw the ball. He’s tremendous at doing that.”

In a sense, when a great offense plays a great defense and vice versa, the players, sideline coaches and coaching booths engage in a big, mad grasp for extra seconds, especially with Oklahoma present. “The speed of the football,” Atkins said of Oklahoma. “They snap the ball within four to five seconds. They snap the ball really fast, and they want to put you down and just keeping going, pounding and pounding you. You just get tired, and you don’t do the things that you’re supposed to do.”

To simulate Mayfield, Georgia has had a preferred-walk-on freshman, a 6-foot quarterback from Blackshear, Ga., with a lyrical name, Stetson Bennett. “It’s hard to catch little Stetson,” Atkins said. “He’s running around every which way.”

To get a sense of their grind, Georgia has had “a little mind-set-training,” Atkins said, a video of an historic fight that preceded their births by just about a generation: “when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman (in Kinshasa in 1974), and everybody thought George Foreman was going to win, because he was undefeated. And it’s kind of like, okay, now you see how it’s going to be. It’s going to be four quarters, punches landed, punching strong, every time, you’ve just got to keep going.”

In such uphill strife, Atkins concluded, “Discipline will take you a long way.”