|Oklahoma takes aim at Georgia's defense in Rose Bowl|
LOS ANGELES -- For No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia, the chance to etch their names into the rich history of the Rose Bowl Game in Monday's 104th edition also marks a step toward a national championship.
The Rose Bowl, college football's first postseason game, also hosted the first-ever College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1, 2015. The playoff makes its return to Pasadena, Calif., pitting two programs with one appearance each in the long and illustrious history of the Granddaddy of Them All.
Oklahoma (12-1) earned its way into the semifinal with a Big 12 Conference championship -- its third straight and 11th since 2000. The 2017 conference title also marked a successful debut for first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, who replaced Bob Stoops following a surprise retirement in June.
For Riley, leading Oklahoma to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2002 season has a surreal quality.
"That was just always one of those places that you kind of put on the bucket list," Riley said. "It kind of seems like a dream."
The Sooners' dreamlike run to the playoff included quarterback Baker Mayfield winning the Heisman Trophy with 41 touchdown passes and 4,340 yards through the air. He also ran for 310 yards and five scores.
An obvious narrative ahead of Monday's semifinal focuses on Mayfield's response to a vaunted Georgia defense, which is fourth nationally at 13.2 points per game allowed.
The Bulldogs (12-1) rode that stifling defense to the program's first Southeastern Conference championship since 2005 -- a familiar formula for second-year head coach Kirby Smart, who is actually making his third appearance in the playoff. He coordinated Alabama's defense in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the latter of which culminated in a national championship.
"It's a different style," Smart said of Oklahoma's 44.9-point per game offense.
"They do a tremendous job of throwing the ball down the field, up-tempo, do a really good job of that. ... Baker Mayfield is the great equalizer because he extends that time, and he makes those plays go longer where you have to cover longer."
Mayfield owes his gaudy statistics in part to that unique style under Riley, as well as his own playmaking ability, but the quarterback also throws to a diverse corps of pass-catchers. Wide receivers Marquise Brown, Jeff Badet and CeeDee Lamb, tight end Mark Andrews and running back Dimitri Flowers all caught between 23 and 58 passes, with anywhere from three to eight touchdowns among them and none going for more than 981 yards.
Combined with an equally multifaceted run game -- featuring a trio of running backs in Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams -- Oklahoma's variety will test a Georgia defense led by All-American linebacker Roquan Smith.
But while the clash of Sooners offense and Bulldogs defense takes center stage, the opposite sides of the ball may shape Monday's contest.
Georgia averaged 34.9 points per game, leaning on a stable of running backs in Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D'Andre Swift; they carried the load for the nation's 10th-most prolific rushing attack.
Michel credits the depth of the rotation for the Bulldogs' success running the ball.
"It's just the competitive nature that's in us that keeps us pushing each other to be better," he said. "If I see something on the football field that he does that's out of character, even in practice, I would tell (Chubb)."
An Oklahoma defense that surrendered at least 38 points three times in the regular season showed improvement down the stretch, particularly in holding TCU to 20 and 17 points in their two meetings.
"There were some games that we didn't play like ourselves or we didn't play like we're capable of playing," said Sooners safety Steven Parker. "Pride has really taken a toll on us. We really showed a lot of pride, and our practices have been even chippier."
Expect the Sooners to sell out on stopping the run, emulating the game-plan Auburn successfully enacted in Georgia's sole loss of the season. The Tigers forced freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to pass a season-high 29 times while limiting the Bulldogs to 1.4 yards per carry.
That first Auburn game was on the road, but Georgia got revenge on the Tigers in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Monday's game is played on a neutral field at Rose Bowl Stadium -- but after a hiatus of 74 years since the Bulldogs last appeared in the Rose Bowl, Georgia fans eager to make the trek to California could make it a de facto home game.
"Dawg Nation travels well," Michel said. "Everybody in the Georgia program is expecting all the fans to be there. They traveled well all year. I don't think this game will be any different."