Being that he is from Texas and played for a second at Tulsa, Bulldogs safety J.R. Reed is as close to a first-hand expert on Oklahoma football as you’re likely to find in this part of Georgia.
So, this Baker Mayfield guy. He any good?
“He reminds me a little of Johnny Manziel,” Reed said recently, invoking the troubled quarterback who won the Heisman at Texas A&M five years before fellow QB Mayfield got his at Oklahoma.
“But,” Reed quickly amends, “he’s better than Johnny.”
How so? “I just think he’s better than Johnny. Competitive toughness, he’s very tough. He doesn’t want to go down.”
Those of Bulldogs bent like to crow that in the pass-happy Big 12, Mayfield has yet to meet a defense with the fundamental ruggedness and grit of Georgia’s.
But it bears mention that neither has the Georgia defense encountered any quarterback with the volatility of Mayfield.
The numbers that Mayfield and his offense have manufactured are a little stunning. His 2017 season reads like Matt Ryan MVP credentials: 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns.
He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every college game he’s played. And this from Oklahoma Diehards.com: “Since 2015, Baker Mayfield has accounted for 135 combined rushing and passing touchdowns. Georgia, as an entire team in that same span, found the end zone 127 times on a pass or rush.
“That’s right. Baker Mayfield alone has eight more combined rushing and passing touchdowns across the past three seasons than the Bulldogs’ entire offense has managed.”
A little bit on playing style (the ability to wing it and to improvise) and a little bit according to personality (the ability to jump the tracks and to infuriate), Mayfield frequently gets compared to the tempestuous Manziel – the giant-killing Texas A&M version, not the lost soul he has become.
“Yeah, (Mayfield) is really elite,” said Georgia’s Kirby Smart, requiring little effort or imagination to build up this opponent.
“It goes up beyond Johnny Manziel when it comes to creativity with the ball. He can make all the throws from all the angles. It's not just the scrambling. It's the fact that when you get to him, you sometimes still can't get him down. He's strong. He's built lower-body like a running back. It's like having a wildcat quarterback that can throw it really good. His release and finding guys open has really been amazing.”
You had to love the response of Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter when he was asked last week what makes Oklahoma special.
“Uh, the Heisman Trophy winner,” he said, inviting the questioner to appreciate the obvious.
“He makes everything go,” Carter said.
As Georgia was authoring its first public comments on dealing with the Mayfield threat last week, two critical approaches revealed themselves.
Muzzle Mayfield: “He’s going to go out there and make plays, but he’s going to let you know about it. We got to try to limit that and make sure there’s not too much talking going on,” Carter said.
And, in a bit of clever phrasing from Smart: “Prevent the bang.”
“The best thing they do is make explosive plays,” Smart said. “So, you look at them and they'll go, three (yards), three, three, three, BANG, three, three, BANG. They’ll get those explosive plays. You've got to prevent the bang.
“You've got to prevent the big play from happening. Hopefully, you'll get the turnover. You've got to stop them in the red area, get turnovers. You do have to affect (Mayfield), and you've got to be smart because he's seen it all. It's not like this guy hasn't seen a pressure that we might be running. You're not going to reinvent something that he's never seen before.”
As a footnote: Oklahoma can run the ball a little – 216 yards a game, 27th best in the FBS.
But that just distracts from the discomforting truth that there is one player inside the Rose Bowl most capable of taking over the stage. One huge reason to be nervous about Oklahoma. One defining test for the Bulldogs defense. One imposing obstacle planted between the Bulldogs and a championship game just 70 miles from campus.