To cap a turnaround 2018 campaign, the Texas Longhorns and Georgia Bulldogs will open the new year in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl. Given that Georgia was just recently on the cusp of a College Football Playoff appearance and boasts one of the most efficient teams in the nation, the Horns will have their hands full not only as a unit, but across various one-on-one matchups — matchups such as star receiver Collin Johnson lining up across from All-American cornerback Deandre Baker.
Any notions vouching for Johnson in the matchup may, at first glance, appear to be a bit of a stretch. However, Johnson stands at 6’6 while Baker is just 5’11, which gives him a considerable height advantage. So, to properly forecast their Sugar Bowl matchup, we must look at Johnson’s performances versus corners of Baker’s size.
In Week 3 win over USC, Johnson lined up against 5’10 cornerback Greg Johnson. Despite being just a freshman, he was a four-star prospect out of high school. But, (Greg) Johnson fell victim to (Collin) Johnson’s length, height, and skillset, as he was able to utilize slant and crossing routes to catch six passes for 79 yards. In Week 4, Johnson had seven catches and 124 yards against TCU cornerback, Jeff Gladney, a redshirt junior who has started three consecutive seasons under defensive guru Gary Patterson. More importantly, Gladney is 6’0, roughly the same size as Baker with equal years of experience. Throughout the matchup, Johnson was able to exploit Gladney using his height and length downfield, and use his size to turn slant routes into easy first-downs.
His success against corners relatively close to Baker’s height is evident. Johnson can exploit Baker’s height as he did versus USC and TCU. This could lead to some crucial first downs and significant gains for a Texas offense that will need to produce, as Georgia’s defense is ranked 16th nationally in yards allowed per game.
From Georgia’s perspective, Baker looks to add to an impressive track record against Biletnikoff-caliber receivers. Early on, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, who totaled nearly 900 yards on the season, was limited to just 33 yards pitted against Baker, despite voicing total confidence via social media before the game. Two short weeks later, Baker prevented Missouri’s Emmanuel Hall from hauling in a single pass — Hall entered the game averaging six catches and 143 yards per contest. Most recently in the SEC Championship, Baker lined up across from Alabama’s Henry Ruggs, limiting him to an unimpressive 49 yards on three catches.
But, let’s dive deeper into how this matchup of two elites will ultimately impact the outcome of the game.
Firstly, it’s of note that Texas is an offense that passes 47 percent of the time and lacks a serious rushing game outside from quarterback Sam Ehlinger. 30 percent of Ehlinger’s passer are thrown to Johnson, reiterating what we already know: Johnson is crucial in the offense. However, when Johnson loses effectiveness, how does that bring down the rest of their offense?
Quite a bit, actually.
Of Texas’ three regular season loses to Maryland, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia, Johnson has averaged four catches and 57 yards. Respectable, yes, but pedestrian compared to the 5.6 catches and 75 yards he’s averaged in regular season wins. If Baker can shadow Johnson and keep him at, or under four catches as he did versus Henry Ruggs and Emmanuel Hall, he’s more than done his part to slowing Texas’ offensive attack and putting them against winning odds. But that’s a tall task, even for Baker.
Furthermore, when Johnson has struggled, not only has Texas lost football games, but Lil’Jordan Humphrey has yet to score more than a single touchdown, and Keaontay Ingram has averaged just 40 rush yards, as opposed to his usual 62 yards.
Johnson has been a catalyst for the Longhorns offense throughout the entire season, and it’s statistically evident that when he’s average, the team suffers. If Baker can win this matchup, this sets off a trickle down effect to the rest of team, limiting Texas’ production when they need it most.
This is more than two elite players on the same field, this one matchup sets the tone for the remainder of the game.