Less than a month ago, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley took a jab at the mighty SEC, the conference that has set the standard in college football for most of the last decade.
“We didn’t have any problem moving the ball against SEC defenses,” Riley quipped on Nov. 6, responding to a question about Big 12 criticism, and referencing the Sooners’ 35-19 win over Auburn in last season’s Sugar Bowl.
Now, Riley and his offense will get a chance to make another statement against an SEC defense. Only this time, it will come on an even bigger stage.
No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia, two of the more prominent programs in college football, have never played each other. That will change on Jan. 1, when the Sooners (12-1) and Bulldogs (12-1) face off in the Rose Bowl semifinal for a shot to play in the national championship. The Rose Bowl winner will take on the Sugar Bowl victor, either Alabama or defending national champion Clemson, in the title game on Jan. 9 in Atlanta.
The Rose Bowl will be the ultimate contrast in styles. Oklahoma, which won the Big 12 championship game handily over TCU and opened as a three-point favorite over Georgia, is underwhelming defensively, giving up 384.8 yards per game. But they are the best team in college football offensively, piling up 44.9 points and a nation's-best 583.3 yards behind likely Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, the most dynamic quarterback in the country.
Mayfield (262-of-369 passing for 4,340 yards, 41 touchdowns and just five interceptions) carries himself with undeniable swagger, a big-time playmaker who craves pressure-packed situations. He’s helped offensively by a consistent ground attack, with three backs who average at least 49 rushing yards per game. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on ESPN that he anticipates “a lot of sleepless nights over the next 30 days or so” as the Bulldogs prep for Mayfield.
Georgia, which won the SEC title in convincing fashion over Auburn, is the opposite. Like most SEC teams the Bulldogs can run the ball with authority — Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combine for almost 170 rushing yards per game — but they’re best known for their defense. Led by junior linebacker Roquan Smith, who’s totaled 113 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, Georgia hold teams to just 270.9 yards of offense per game, fourth best in the nation.
The Bulldogs are particularly good against the pass, allowing just 158.3 passing yards. They are the only playoff participant to start a true freshman at quarterback. Georgia native Jake Fromm has completed 145-of-230 passing attempts for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns, tossing only five interceptions on the year.
This is also new territory for both head coaches. Riley is in his first year as head coach with the Sooners and Smart in his second year with Georgia. However, both have College Football Playoff experience (Riley as the offensive coordinator at OU and Smart as the defensive coordinator at Alabama). If there’s any experience edge, it goes to Oklahoma because Mayfield also started when Oklahoma lost to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl semifinal.
Another common thread for these programs: They’ve both received pep talks from legendary coach Bob Stoops. The longtime Okahoma coach, who stepped down in June before handing the program over to Riley, has been a staple at all the big Sooners games this year. And earlier this season, Stoops swung through Athens and spoke with the Bulldogs, preaching the importance of staying focused every day.
Joked Riley of Stoops’ talk to Georgia: “Hopefully he didn’t give them too many of our secrets.”