All eyes will be on Kirby Smart.
His team was humbled. His quarterback decision is being questioned. His lights-out defense was lit up.
In less than a month, Georgia will face Michigan in its return to the College Football Playoff, and the Bulldogs coach has a lot of work to do by New Year’s Eve.
Following the Bulldogs’ surprising 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, Georgia fell from first to third in the CFP rankings. No longer is the SEC East champion considered the odds-on favorite to win it all, not after it was shredded by the Crimson Tide, and quarterback Stetson Bennett IV was incapable of picking up the defense on an off day.
After the game, Smart didn’t indicate he was considering making a change at quarterback, despite the presence of one-time starter JT Daniels. Daniels, the USC transfer with the much bigger arm who possesses a downfield element the more mobile Bennett lacks, has a 7-0 record as the Georgia starter. He lost the job when he missed time with a lat muscle injury. Kirby, it should be noted, has mishandled his quarterback situation before, keeping Justin Fields on the sideline as a freshman, which led to his decision to transfer to Ohio State. He’ll really hear it if the Bulldogs fall to Michigan and he sticks with the one-time walk-on Bennett.
Below are three other playoff storylines to follow in the weeks ahead:
Alabama star receiver John Metchie III is expected to be done for the season with what coach Nick Saban described as a “significant” knee injury he suffered against Georgia that could be a torn ACL. That puts even more pressure on Jameson Williams, the former Ohio State receiver who came out of nowhere to lead the Crimson Tide in receiving yards (1,445) and touchdowns (15). Williams obliterated Georgia, catching seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
But the absence of Metchie will enable Cincinnati to have lockdown cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner follow him wherever he goes. Gardner, a projected first-round pick, has never allowed a touchdown in his career. This is the best one-on-one matchup of the semifinals.
A few weeks ago, Michigan fans seemed resigned to another good — but not great — season, a 10-win campaign in which they would have to settle for an irrelevant bowl game. Now, they are thinking national championship. So much changed for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines when they vanquished their Ohio State demons.
They enter the playoff seeded second, the hottest of the four teams following the 42-3 Big Ten Championship game rout of Iowa. Michigan opened as a 7.5-point underdog to Georgia, but it is a live dog, with the strength up front on both sides of the ball to upset the Bulldogs. Most importantly, Harbaugh’s team believes it can beat anyone. The win over Ohio State changed everything for this program.
Maybe defense does win championships. At least, this year it will. In the age of spread offenses and shootouts, this year’s playoff is a throwback. It features four teams all ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense.
Three of the teams — Georgia, Michigan and Cincinnati — are in the top four. All four are in the top 13 in total defense. Cincinnati and Georgia are ranked second and third, respectively, in passing yards allowed per game. Georgia and Alabama are third and fourth in rushing defense. This has all the potential to be a different kind of playoff than the one we’re used to seeing.