Ohio State’s blueprint for winning the College Football Playoff championship will be staring the No. 4 Buckeyes in the face when they play No. 1 Georgia in a semifinal game at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Saturday.
The Buckeyes (11-1) are coming off a 45-23 thrashing by second-ranked Michigan on Nov. 26 in Columbus, Ohio, and are only in the playoffs thanks to Southern California losing to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, enabling Ohio State to be awarded the final spot.
Critics would say the Buckeyes don’t deserve a shot at the Bulldogs (13-0) after being manhandled by the Wolverines for the second year in a row.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said his players understand their underdog role.
“I see a team that realizes that not a lot of people give us a chance,” he said. “We know what we’re in for, we know what the challenge is. Years and seasons and life doesn’t always go the way you plan. It’s about how you react to it and how you respond to it.
“As much as that (Michigan) loss hurts, we’re not going to overreact on it. It’s not worth it. We have a game against Georgia ahead of us that we’re focusing on.”
Day has never coached in the Peach Bowl, and he understands Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs have the perceived “home” edge in Atlanta. Smart played in the Peach Bowl twice and has also been a coach in the game.
This is Georgia’s second game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta this month. The Bulldogs whipped LSU, 50-30, on Dec. 3 to claim another SEC title.
All the Buckeyes wanted was another opportunity to redeem themselves, just as Georgia did a year ago. The Bulldogs lost 41-24 to Alabama in the 2021 SEC title game but as the No. 3 seed in the CFP downed No. 2 Michigan 34-11 before defeating No. 1 Alabama 33-18 for the national championship.
The Bulldogs have continued to dominate, beating LSU for their first conference crown since 2017.
“I feel like this year, coming off of a conference championship win we have worked harder than we did last year coming off of a loss,” Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson said. “It’s crazy because people may look at it as we’re complacent, we’re happy, it’s just another box we wanted to check, one of our goals. Our season is not complete yet. We still have goals that we want to reach. The Peach Bowl is the next thing we want to accomplish.”
The Bulldogs are second nationally in scoring defense (12.8) while the Buckeyes are 13th (19.2). Ohio State is second in scoring offense with 44.5 points a game compared to the Bulldogs’ 11th (39.2) in a matchup of Heisman Trophy finalists.
Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud led the nation in passer efficiency rating. He threw for 3,340 yards, 37 touchdowns and six interceptions but will be without receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson due to injuries.
Even so, Marvin Harrison Jr. had 72 receptions for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the Buckeyes have plenty of big-play ability.
“One of the most talented (receiver) groups we’ve faced,” Smart said. “When you combine it with the talent of the quarterback, it really grows because he has the ability to get the ball to him all parts of the field — vertically, horizontally, side to side.”
Stetson Bennett returned for a chance to win another title. He powered Georgia’s passing game with 3,425 yards, 20 TDs and six picks and is 27-3 as a starting quarterback. Bennett will look for Brock Bowers, the recipient of the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
“Obviously he’s shown up big and that comes through in all the preparation that we do,” Bowers said of Bennett. “It’s his personality to show up in these bigger games and be able to perform on the biggest stages.”
Ohio State, playing in the Peach Bowl for the first time, is 3-3 in four previous CFP appearances, having won the inaugural championship after the 2014 season and finishing runner-up to Alabama in 2020 the last time they made the playoffs.
In the Buckeyes’ three wins they’ve averaged 44.3 points. In the losses they’ve averaged just 15.6.
Former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, who was at the helm at Georgia for 15 seasons with six SEC division titles and a 145-41 record, will be honored with enshrinement to the Peach Bowl Hall of Fame along with former Miami (Fla.) playmaker Devin Hester.
Georgia is 3-1 in their two playoff appearances. In 2017, they lost to Alabama in the title game before last season’s triumph over the Crimson Tide.
The winner Saturday plays either Michigan or TCU for the championship in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9.
–Field Level Media