Outside of the three College Football Playoff games, few of the 39 bowls feature high-profile matchups with national appeal, but this year’s Sugar Bowl brings together two blue-blood programs in one of the juiciest matchups of the entire bowl season.
Fresh off conference-title game losses, number 5-ranked Georgia will face number 15 Texas in the 85th Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night, the teams’ first meeting since the Georgia Bulldogs topped the Texas Longhorns 10-9 in the 1984 Cotton Bowl.
Georgia (11-2) blew a 14-point second-half lead to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship, while Texas lost by 12 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference title game. The loss was particularly devastating for the Bulldogs, who missed out on the College Football Playoff as a result of the crushing defeat. Georgia is far and away the more talented and complete team, but will the Bulldogs still be as motivated after falling short of their major post-season goals?
Georgia Offense vs. Texas Defense
The Bulldogs have weapons, and lots of them. Led by sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, the Georgia offense averaged nearly 34 points in SEC play this season, failing to score less than 27 in just one conference game (a 36-16 loss to LSU). Fromm led the SEC in completion percentage (68.4), finished second only to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa in touchdown passes (27), and played one of his best games of the season in the SEC title game, finishing with over 300 yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore quarterback is joined in the backfield by one of the most fearsome running-back tandems in college football. D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield blistered SEC defenses this season, combining for 1,993 yards and 17 touchdowns, with both finishing in the top five in rushing yards per attempt (6.69 and 6.50, respectively).
The Longhorn defense is accustomed to facing high-powered Big 12 offenses, having faced four of the top 12 offenses in college football during the season. Unfortunately, Texas allowed nearly 40 points per game to those opposing offenses and finished 2-3 in those five contests. One of the Longhorns’ biggest defensive weaknesses is getting off the field in third-down situations, and Georgia is more than able to take advantage. The Bulldogs will not have a problem putting points on the board in New Orleans.
Texas Offense vs. Georgia Defense
The Longhorn offense is capable of scoring in abundance, but has often played to the level of its competition. Texas scored 48 to beat Oklahoma in October, but averaged just 22 points against lesser Big 12 teams Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has carried the offensive load for the Longhorns, accounting for 38 total touchdowns this season. In a conference filled with gunslingers, Ehlinger passed for over 3,100 yards and 25 touchdowns, many to his favorite two targets: Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson. Humphrey proved to be one of college football’s best playmakers this season, with 79 catches, nine touchdowns, and over 1,100 yards, while Johnson is 55 yards away from a 1,000-yard season.
The Longhorns’ offensive unit will be tested by a formidable Georgia unit—ranked 13th in total defense—that made Alabama’s Tagovailoa finally look mortal. Led by All-American and Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Deandre Baker, the Bulldogs held Tagovailoa to 10-of-25 passing and forced two interceptions, doubling the Alabama quarterback’s season total. Linebacker D’Andre Walker and safety Richard LeCounte will look to terrorize Ehlinger all night. In short, this is easily the best defense the Longhorns have faced all season, even without defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who accepted the Colorado head-coaching job earlier this month. If the Dawgs are still hungry after the Alabama game, watch out.
After botching a costly fake punt against Alabama in the SEC Championship and a fake field goal against LSU, Georgia should avoid any unnecessary special teams risks.
EDGE: Georgia (but be wary of the fake kicks…)
The Sugar Bowl would be another milestone victory for third-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart after making the national championship last season, while a Texas win would be the most important post-season victory for the program in a decade, propelling the Longhorns back into the nation’s elite in Tom Herman’s second season. The Bulldogs, however, have too much talent, and Smart is not the type of coach to let his team hang their heads after a tough defeat. Texas may be on the upswing, but the program is not back just yet.
PREDICTION: Georgia 38, Texas 24