Florida State was ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason poll; the Seminoles lost their starting quarterback in the fourth quarter of their opener and needed to reschedule a gimme game to become bowl-eligible. Georgia was ranked No. 15 in preseason; the Bulldogs lost their starting quarterback on the third series of their opener and have a chance at the national title.
How, someone asked Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney the other day, does such a thing happen? “Damnedest thing, ain’t it?” he said.
Then: “I don’t know the answers to those questions, other than sometimes you’re just luckier than you are good.”
There is in every championship season a spoonful of pixie dust. The Bulldogs won the SEC East in a year the rest of the division was putrid and Florida and Tennessee sank to generational lows. They were given a chance to hit “undo” on their only loss, and the second time around Auburn’s best player was hurting. They lost a ballyhooed quarterback and, in his understudy, found a better fit for their design.
Which isn’t to say the Bulldogs have reached the Rose Bowl by the hair on their chinny-chin-chins. They haven’t been outrageously lucky. In six games at Sanford Stadium, they trailed for six minutes and 21 seconds -- and then only 3-0. They clinched the SEC East with two conference games remaining. Their second-closest victory saw them win by two touchdowns.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear Georgia insiders express wonder that this team has gotten where it is, but in every championship season you’ll find some form of harmonic convergence: A good team gets it going, winds up touching on greatness and gets handed a trophy at the end.
Really, though: Who saw this coming? The other three entrants in this College Football Playoff were an aggregate 39-4 last season. Georgia was 8-5. What the heck changed?
Said Chaney: “We understand our temperament. We know who we are. We know one another a lot better now. We know the objectives. We know there’s no false pretenses. We’re all out for the same thing. ... At the end of the day, we believe in what we’re doing and we’re playing super hard. Are we the most talented offense out there in the history of the world? I would argue probably not. But I could argue that you could turn on the tape and we might play as hard as most people. That’s our goal. Our goal was to be the hardest-playing team that we can be.”
Kirby Smart has sought to graft the Alabama Way onto his alma mater, but part of the Alabama Way is to have the nation’s deepest reservoir of talent. Georgia isn’t there yet. (Although, given Smart’s recruiting, it’s not far off.) But Georgia does play with the Alabama focus and the Alabama fury, and there’s a cohesion about these Bulldogs that even the mighty Tide would envy.
Example: Nick Saban’s experiment with Lane Kiffin yielded one national title, but the distractions of the latter’s impending exit for Florida Atlantic – Saban wound up changing offensive coordinators between the semifinal and the championship game – might have cost the Tide another. Georgia has had almost no distractions. The guys you expected to be good have been, and Jake Fromm’s takeover after Jacob Eason was injured was actually a best-case scenario.
Chaney is careful not to suggest that he simplified the offense to suit Fromm. “I don’t feel that way,” he said. “You just go. When the season starts, you play this game and play this game and play this game – you have very little time for reflection. ... I just feel like we kind of got on a roll becoming who we were, and I try to stay with that identity the best that we can.”
And that’s the point: With Fromm, Georgia did more of what it does best – ground and pound, throw off play-action, control the clock. The defense is excellent, but the defense was good last year. The Bulldogs became division and then conference champs by finding an offense that dovetailed with those defenders. Even as college football has been festooned by the curlicues of spread offenses, an ancient truth remains: If you can run the ball and play defense, you can win.
Georgia’s Rose Bowl opponent is Oklahoma, owner of the best offense and the best quarterback in the land. But the Sooners’ defense is so porous – it yielded 662 yards and 52 points to Oklahoma State – that it’s difficult to imagine Georgia being halted. (Only Auburn has halted Georgia, and then only the first time.) It’s also difficult to envision a defense with Roquan Smith being dragged into a Big 12-style shootout.
Good pitching stops good hitting; bad pitching never stops anything. The Bulldogs will find a way to slow the Sooners, and that will be enough to send this charmed team winging home to Athens with another game to play, this one in Atlanta, this one for a championship. Georgia 31, Oklahoma 24.