Back Matchup Breakdown: Georgia-Oklahoma

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Matchup Breakdown: Georgia-Oklahoma

By Jim Johnson
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It’s the Heisman Trophy winner against the best linebacker in college football, in the “Granddaddy of Them All”, under the setting Pasadena sun. What more could anyone ask for?

Oklahoma and Georgia are set to do battle in what may be college football’s greatest venue -- the Rose Bowl -- with what appears to be the College Football Playoff’s most fascinating matchup yet.

There aren’t two more disparate squads, stylistically, within the ranks of the nation’s elite.

It’s the Heisman Trophy winner against the best linebacker in college football, in the “Granddaddy of Them All”, under the setting Pasadena sun. What more could anyone ask for?

As great, and greatly different, as these teams may be, though, each holds some specific advantages in each facet of the game. Here are the mismatches to keep an eye on:

Oklahoma’s Offense: Mark Andrews

Oklahoma has the best offense in college football and it’s not particularly close. They rank first in offensive success rate (gaining 50% of the necessary yards to move the chains on 1st down, 70% on 3rd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down), IsoPPP (equivalent points per successful play; a measure of explosiveness from SB Nation writer Bill Connelly), FEI (an opponent adjusted drive efficiency measure that filters out clock kills and garbage time), rushing S&P+, passing S&P+, total offense per game and per play, as well as points per drive.

2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, deservedly, grabs most of the headlines, given that he could go down as one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time. However, with one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the country, a trio of dynamic running backs, and two of the nation’s fastest, most explosive receivers at his disposal, there is no shortage of talent around him.

Yet, bearing all of that in mind, it is tight end Mark Andrews that provides the Sooners’ greatest offensive matchup advantage against Georgia. UGA head coach Kirby Smart, himself, called the 6’5”, 254 lb., pass catcher “the hardest match-up probably in all of college football.”

The team’s leading receiver, Andrews boasts 906 yards and eight scores on 59 catches, getting 21.4% of Mayfield’s targets for 15.6 yards per catch, and 11.1 yards per target, with a 71.1% catch rate and a 63.9% success rate.

Andrews’ 2.78 yards per route run would rank just outside the national top 25 among true wide receivers, much less tight ends, amongst whom it ranks first. Naturally sure-handed, he has only dropped three catchable balls all season, for an elite drop rate, none of which came on deep balls, from which he boasts the highest catch rate of any pass catcher. He’s also in the national top five for slot receiving.

Georgia does have the luxury of possessing arguably the best overall defender in college football, Roquan Smith, who, aside from being one of the nation’s best in literally every other facet of playing defense, is also one of the best coverage linebackers in college football. So, while Georgia is uniquely equipped to try to neutralize Andrews, there’s not really a good, or even feasible option to do so, beyond the star inside linebacker.

It’s a double-edged sword. Georgia could utilize Smith to take away Andrews, thus removing Smith from everything else that he does so well, potentially simply opening up the door for the rest of Oklahoma’s myriad playmakers to take over. Or, Smith could operate as he would otherwise, and just let the Oklahoma big man cook. Either way, it’s a positive for Lincoln Riley’s group.

Georgia’s Offense: Big Plays

No matter which way it’s spun, Oklahoma’s defense just isn’t very good. Plain and simple. The unit did seem to find its footing, to some extent, down the stretch, but the overall body of work is severely underwhelming. As it stands, they rank 58th in success rate, 108th in IsoPPP, 61st in FEI, 95th in S&P+, 62nd in rushing S&P+, 52nd in passing S&P+, 71st in yards per play allowed, and 72nd in points allowed per drive.

Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, ranks 13th in success rate, 14th in IsoPPP, 3rd in FEI, 18th in S&P+, 8th in rushing S&P+, 4th in passing S&P+, 13th in yards per play, and 8th in points per drive.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the alpha and omega, on that side of the ball. The pair have combined for the second most rushing yards by any running back duo in FBS history, needing 236 yards to pass SMU’s Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Led by those two, Georgia ranks 15th in rushing success rate and 7th in rushing IsoPPP, on 5.8 yards per carry (9th in FBS), with 39 carries of 20+ yards (5th).

Jake Fromm and the passing game have been great in their own right, albeit on a smaller sample size, ranking 29th in success rate and 16th in IsoPPP, as a whole.

As it relates to Oklahoma’s defense, while the Sooners have been less than stellar across the board, they’re at least middling when it comes to defensive efficiency, as denoted by the aforementioned ranking of 58 in allowed success rate. It’s that 108 ranking in IsoPPP that is truly detrimental. More specifically, they rank 71st in rushing IsoPPP and 113th in passing IsoPPP, having allowed 63 rushes of 10+ yards (68th), and 46 passes of 20+ yards (99th).

Georgia’s backs are especially adept at turning middling plays into big ones -- Chubb and Michel rank 6th and 7th, respectively, in missed tackles forced per touch -- and upon reaching the second level, Chubb averages an extra 6.2 yards per carry, Michel an extra 7.2, and breakout freshman star D’Andre Swift an extra 8.1.

Throwing the ball, Fromm, who is already in the upper echelon as far as efficiency and accuracy, is absolutely elite stretching defenses with his deep ball in the downfield passing game. On throws of at least 15 yards downfield, the freshman ranks second among power five quarterbacks with a 54% completion percentage and first in QBR, with a 13:0 touchdown to interception ratio, the most of such scores without a turnover.

Georgia seemingly has a reputation as a team that grinds out drives with the occasional big throw to Javon Wims. Realistically, against Oklahoma, the Bulldogs may not be able to help but rip off one big gainer after another.

Oklahoma’s Defense: Pass Rush

If it wasn’t obvious in the last section, there wasn’t a whole lot to choose from here. That said, Oklahoma’s pass rush could be a genuine concern. Although, frankly, it’s less that the Sooners’ are particularly threatening to opposing signal callers as it is that there are some problems with Georgia’s pass protection.

Oklahoma’s defense ranks 51st in adjusted sack rate, bringing down the quarterback on 3.4% of standard downs (96th) and 9.7% of passing downs (27th), but that, more than anything, simply suggests a certain aggressiveness when opponents get knocked off schedule.

Comparatively, Georgia’s offense ranks 64th in adjusted sack rate, giving one up on 6.8% of standard downs (101st) and 6.7% of passing downs (57th).

Edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, easily the best player on Oklahoma’s defense, is the player that Georgia must keep an eye on. With eight sacks, putting him in the top 30 in the country, and over 40 QB pressures, good for the top 20, at his position, he is genuinely one of the best pass rushers in college football.

Okoronkwo aside, there’s no one Sooner that is especially scary as a pass rusher. Maybe Kenneth Mann.

Look, I know this isn’t a very compelling case. I tried to explain that they were pretty bad on defense. What do you want from me?

Georgia’s Defense: Third Downs

Georgia has one of the five most elite defenses in college football and will be the best that Oklahoma has played. It ranks 10th in allowed success rate, 5th in IsoPPP, 4th in FEI, 8th in S&P+, 8th in rushing S&P+, 6th in passing S&P+, 6th in yards per play, and 3rd in points allowed per drive.

Having already highlighted Oklahoma’s virtually unstoppable offense, though, it may not much matter, as it’s not as is if the Sooners haven’t played any good defenses. The group performed just fine at Ohio State, a top ten unit, and a very good second tier TCU defense… twice.

Mayfield and company rank first in S&P+ on both 1st and 2nd down, but it does drop to 34th on 3rd downs. Defensively, Georgia is steady on all three downs, ranking sixth on 1st down, fifth on 2nd down, and ninth on 3rd down. The Sooners’ 43.06% 3rd down conversion rate ranks 39th in the country, to Georgia’s ranking of 23rd on allowed 3rd down conversions, at 33.15%.

It’s not as if Oklahoma falls off a cliff, it’s still in the top third of FBS teams in this respect, but it does offer a rare sign of mortality. It’s imperative that Georgia take advantage of these opportunities.

Oklahoma’s Special Teams: Nothing

Georgia may well have the best overall special teams in the game, ranking first in the nation for combined special teams S&P+.

Rodrigo Blankenship, making 88.2% of his field goal tries (5th in FBS), ranks in the top ten in the nation in average field goal value. Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert is solid, converting 88.2% of his attempts, for the 26th ranked average field goal value, but he isn’t Blankenship.

Georgia is in the top 20 and top 5, respectively, in punt and kickoff success rate. Oklahoma’s return units rank 76th and 104th. The raw numbers show a similarly pronounced disparity, with Oklahoma ranking 95th in both punt and kick return average, while Georgia ranks 36th and 50th in opponent punt and kick return average.

The Bulldogs are also in the top 30 for both kick and punt return success rates, ranking 40th on punt return average and 15th on kick return average. Oklahoma’s punting and punt coverage is another significant disadvantage, where they rank 98th in success rate and 128th in opponent return average. The Sooners’ kickoffs and kick coverage is a little more comparable, ranking 29th in success rate, but 91st in opponent return average, so it still isn’t even a debate.

UGA is the better team here in every aspect of this facet of the game.

Georgia’s Special Teams: Kickoffs

With that knowledge, it’s simply a matter of determining where Georgia’s biggest special teams advantage lies. There a number of ways one could go, but kickoffs seem like the favorite. On the legs of Blankenship’s 73.2% touchback rate, Georgia’s has the fourth highest kickoff success rate in the country.

Oklahoma, as previously stated, is 104th in kick return success rate and 95th in yards per return.

This could prove to big for Georgia, as the team that wins the field position battle wins the game over 70% of the time. Oklahoma’s average starting field position on offense is the 27.6 yard line, putting them in the bottom 25 in the FBS. Georgia’s defensive average starting field position is the 27.5, putting them in the top 25.

It may not matter all that much, given that Oklahoma still averages 3.41 yards per drive on drives starting inside its own 20, but that’s still half a point per drive less than their outrageous overall average. Granted 3.41 points per drive would rank 5th in the country, across all drives, but Georgia will need every yard it can get, er give, in the Rose Bowl

Deciding Factor: Turnovers

Frankly, neither team may punt all game. Georgia may well be the most complete team in the country, factoring in all three phases of the game.

Offensively, the Bulldogs should gash Oklahoma for four quarters.

On the other end, despite being the best defense Oklahoma will have played, it’s still yet to be seen whether that will even matter versus Mayfield and that transcendent attack.

So, if no one’s getting stops, it will take some mistakes, and the capitalization thereof. For what it’s worth, the two squads have identical turnover margins on the season, because of course. As far as turnover luck, both have had positive fortunes, but neither are outliers, so it’s still too close to call -- fittingly for this intriguing, befuddling, fascinating, confounding matchup that made me want to quit my job out of sheer anxiety over who to pick.

Ultimately, there are only two sure things in this one:

1) There is no telling what on earth is going to happen until it does.

2) It’s going to be a thing of downright ethereal beauty.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP