Georgia will play Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day in the first of two College Football Playoff national semifinals. Though it will be Kirby Smart's second season as the coach of the Bulldogs, it won't be his only meaningful postseason game in January 2018.
Georgia is set up to win its first national championship since 1980. Here are the reasons why the BUlldogs will not only topple the Sooners in Pasadena, California, but also either Clemson or Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta.
1. Defense wins championships: It's a cliche, but it holds true in Georgia's case. The Bulldogs' defense has been the stabilizing force of this year's squad. It has allowed the offense to play inside its comfort zone for the majority of the season (save for the first Auburn game) and stands loaded with depth and versatility that will allow it to match up well with all three other CFP teams.
Georgia is led by Butkus Award winner and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Roquan Smith at middle linebacker -- a tackling machine in 2017. He had 113 tackles on the year and leads the SEC with 72 solo tackles (10.5 for loss) heading into bowl season and was named MVP of the Bulldogs' 2017 SEC Championship Game win over Auburn. "Roquan took on a leadership role in the time in the spring when it was hard because he was injured," Smart said. "He's embraced that. He's had two or three really good practices. He looks fast out there. Really competitive, playing fast."
It's not just Smith, though. Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Trent Thompson and the entire Bulldog defensive front seven has grown up since last year. They're stout in the red zone, giving up touchdowns on 46.43 percent of their opponents' red zone trips (No. 7 in the nation), and their 4.45 yards per play average ranks No. 6 in the country. Simply put, they don't give up the big plays.
"Defense wins championships" is a cliche, and it has changed over the last few years. "Just enough defense" is more accurate. The definition of "just enough" changes based on the offense your own teams has (more on that in a minute) and the offenses a team is facing off against. The Bulldogs shut down an ultra-dynamic offense in the 28-7 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, did the same in a dominating win 31-3 win over Mississippi State and held a Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushing attack that averaged 279.08 yards per game on the ground to just 55 (and 1.49 yards per play) at their house. The Bulldogs have "just enough defense" for any situation.
2. Growth potential: There's a myth that Georgia's offense is one-dimensional. Where that comes from, I'm not sure. True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has been awesome in a pinch for the Bulldogs. He's mastered the art of the back-shoulder fade and has made NFL throw after NFL throw on a consistent basis. Fromm finished second in the SEC with a 168.18 passer rating, tossed 21 touchdowns, only five picks and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt -- second in the conference. That's great for a veteran, but Fromm wasn't supposed to be here. He was supposed to be Georgia's "2B" option behind Jacob Eason -- the guy who has his redshirt burned only if Eason were to miss a prolonged period of time. It just so happened that it had to be burned in the first quarter of the first game of the season, when Eason injured his knee against Appalachian State.
He's never been the No. 1 quarterback in a camp-like setting, but has had that chance during bowl preparation leading up to the Rose Bowl. "Jake continues to grow and mature," Smart said. "There were times that we were on the road and he led to help the team do seven on sevens. He's grown as a leader among the team. With each game in each situation he gets involved in, he tends to play better and understand the offense better."
Combine the ability to expand the offense now that Fromm has a chance to breathe with an offensive line that has showed tremendous improvement from last year and a punishing running game that features Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, D'Andre Swift and a small village of backups, and the "Georgia 2.0 offense" is going to be a force to be reckoned with come January.
Here's a look at how Pro Football Focus ranks the top running backs in the College Football Playoff.
3. Team of destiny: I'm not one to believe too much in destiny, but this Georgia team feels different. Much like Fromm, Chubb, Michel, Carter and Bellamy weren't supposed to be here. Unlike Fromm, though, they were supposed to be making millions playing on Sundays. The four decided to return to Athens last winter and that has made a world of difference for a program that had waited multiple generations to get over the hump.
"I think every time I talk, people talk about those guys deciding to come back and what impact they had," Smart said. "I think the greatest impact it had was it gave the younger players, juniors, sophomores and freshmen, confidence in the regime. It showed them that, hey, man, these guys have only been with this staff one year, but they're willing to stay. I think that gave a quiet confidence to the spring.
"Then I think the leadership of those, I don't know, 7-8 seniors has been tremendous for the offseason workouts and setting the tone. But the value of experience, I mean, you could have a freshman that's better than the senior, but the senior plays better in the big moments because he's got poise. He's got an understanding of it. You think of Davin's played against Notre Dame, played against Auburn who were both kind of momentum-changing plays. I don't think you can put a number of wins on that. So I think it played a major factor for us."
The importance of that can't be understated.
Those players buying into what Smart and the staff were selling set the tone for the entire offseason, allowed the staff to supplement the roster with quality younger players through sensational recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017, and have transformed Georgia's roster into one that closely resembles the one Smart worked with at Alabama for nearly a decade as an assistant. Georgia isn't a flash in the plan; it has staying power. Those players who stuck around set the tone for a program that is not only going to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta but will have many more chances to do so in the immediate future.