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No. 15 Longhorns facing Texas-sized Sugar Bowl test vs. No. 5 Georgia

The Bulldogs are likely the best team the Horns have seen this season.

All State Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Ohio State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns and No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs will open the new year in New Orleans, meeting for the first time since the 1984 Cotton Bowl, and there’s a convincing case to be made that neither expected to end their season at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The first team left outside of the College Football Playoff, Georgia came just one scoreless fourth quarter in the SEC Championship away from solidifying their place as one of the nation’s top four teams, and yet despite the 35-28 defeat at the hands of top-ranked Alabama, many still argued for the Bulldogs to earn a playoff bid. In fact, Georgia enters the Sugar Bowl ranked No. 3 in S&P+; a metric that isn’t entirely high on the Horns, ranking Texas No. 36 and never slotting Tom Herman’s team higher than 30th throughout the entire season.

While that metric may be more skeptical about the Longhorns than most, the general expectation was that a Texas team that limped to a 6-6 regular season finish in 2017 before beating Missouri in the Texas Bowl would see seven or eight wins in Herman’s second season. Even those projections seemed generous following the Longhorns second season-opening loss to Maryland in as many tries.

Six consecutive wins followed that 34-29 loss to the Terps, and then another three wins to cap the 2018 regular season, solidifying a spot in the Big 12 title game, and ultimately, the Sugar Bowl, despite coming up short against the Sooners the second time around.

Now that they’re Sugar Bowl-bound, though, marking the program’s best bowl bid since Texas’ national title run in 2009, the odds aren’t in favor of the Horns heading home with win number 10.

Pitted against a Georgia team that navigated the nation’s 11th-most difficult schedule with relative ease en route to an 11-2 record, Texas owns only a 22.3-percent win probably in the Sugar Bowl, per ESPN’s FPI, and even less optimistic odds according to S&P+, which gives Texas just a 15-percent chance to win as 18.3-point underdogs. Such odds shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that Georgia was just one quarter away from a trip to the College Football Playoff, but the Longhorns have been underdogs before and walked away with a win, doing so three times this season.

Coming out on top this time around, however, will require Texas to pass arguably its tallest test of the Tom Herman era.

The Bulldogs enter the Sugar Bowl boasting the nation’s third-best offense, per S&P+, and everything begins with their elite backfield. As we previously detailed, Georgia features arguably the nation’s top ball-carrying tandem in sophomore and second-team All-SEC selection D’Andre Swift and junior Elijah Holyfield. Setting up shop behind a big, bruising offensive line that ranks 10th in opportunity rate, thanks in large part to second-team All-American tackle Andrew Thomas and first-team All-SEC center Lamond Gaillard, Swift and Holyfield combined for 19 scores and nearly 2,300 total yards of offense.

Essentially serving as the headliner with 1,037 yards and 10 scores, Swift is the shiftier of the two backs with plenty of breakaway speed, though at a stout 5’9, 215 pounds, he still presents the power and willingness to lower his shoulder and bulldoze would-be tacklers. A no-nonsense back who won’t waste much, if any movement, Swift excels at finding his spot, making a cut — or two if necessary — and exploding upfield.

Yet another big body in Georgia’s backfield at 5’11, 215 pounds, Holyfield would rather run through you than around you, though he’s also plenty capable of running right by you as well. Just as Swift’s shiftiness and speed are complemented by his powerful running at the point of attack, Holyfield’s steamroller style comes equipped with plenty of speed and shiftiness of his own, and he, too, displays one-cut decisiveness and impressive change-of-direction ability.

When packaged together, along with some help in the form of 562 yards and five touchdowns from James Cook and Brian Herrien, the pair provides Georgia with a rushing attack that ranks 7th in S&P+ and rushing marginal efficiency, which will mark the second-best ground game Texas has seen this season — the best being Oklahoma, which leads the nation in rushing S&P+.

For some further perspective in regards to just how impactful Georgia’s ground game has been throughout the season, the Bulldogs are averaging a hair over 100 more rushing yards per game than the Longhorns — 251.6 vs. 151.2 — despite totaling only 17 more carries across 13 games. As the backbone of Georgia’s elite offense, which also ranks No. 3 in marginal efficiency and success rate, such a stat is an ideal example of the Bulldogs’ backfield — and thus, the offense as a whole — doing more with less. For example, Georgia ranks 101st nationally with only 67.9 plays per game; a figure that’s fewer than all but three of Texas’ 2018 opponents — Oklahoma (67.6), Iowa State (65.3), and Maryland (63).

Surprisingly enough, though, despite sitting outside of the top 100 in plays per game, Georgia’s 39.2 points per contest is the 13th-best effort nationally. How effortlessly the Bulldogs move the ball is largely to blame for such a discrepancy, as 77.6 percent of Georgia’s first downs come on first or second down, which ranks fifth nationally, as does their average third-down distance (6.4).

The byproduct of such manageable circumstances is an offense that ranks 11th in third-down efficiency (47.7%) and 17th in third down-down success rate (47.4%). Much of that success is attributable to the Bulldogs’ balance offensively.

While a defense is largely focused on defending against haymakers from Swift and Holyfield, sophomore gunslinger and Manning Award finalist Jake Fromm, who ranks third nationally in passer efficiency rating (175.8) and eighth in completion percentage (68.4%), delivers quick jabs and body blows to help provide the Bulldogs with one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the country.

While some of his raw stats may not reveal his status as a budding star, as his 2,537 yards ranks 55th nationally, Fromm orchestrates Georgia’s pro-spread offense to a T, guiding the Bulldogs to the fourth-best passing offense per S&P+, and the fifth-best mark in passing marginal efficiency. With 27 touchdowns and only five interceptions, Fromm boasts a 5.4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio — a notch above Sam Ehlinger’s 5:1 ration — and he’s done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around to a deep cast of pass-catchers in a tremendously balanced manner.

A pass-catching corps headlined by speedy slot Mecole Hardman Jr. (33 receptions, 529 yards, 6 TD) and elusive junior Riley Ridley (39 receptions, 509 yards, 9 TD) has seen six players haul in at least 20 passes this season, which includes Swift (27 receptions, 267 yards, 2 TD). On the outside opposite of Ridley is Jeremiah Holloman, a possession receiver who’s hauled in 23 receptions for 387 yards and five scores this season. After finished as the team’s second-leading receiver throughout the past three seasons before battling injuries in 2018, Terry Godwin has proven impactful as well, totaling 20 catches for 340 yards and three touchdowns. Isaac Nauta is blossoming into a key piece at tight end, as the former five-star prospect has caught 29 passes for 427 yards and three scores, and more notably, he boasts a tremendous 85.3-percent catch rate.

Simply put, while Georgia’s big guns are in the backfield, an offense that ranks No. 6 in marginal explosiveness and No. 6 in big-play rate (11.8%) has weapons at virtually every position.

Arguably the biggest news entering the Sugar Bowl is that the Bulldogs will be without star defensive back Deandre Baker. A defense already adjusting to life without defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who departed for the head coaching job at Colorado, will now be without its star cornerback and the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner, as the nation’s best defensive back has elected to bypass the Sugar Bowl and shift his attention towards the NFL. Georgia will enter the Sugar Bowl featuring arguably the nation’s best pass defense, as the Bulldogs rank No. 1 in passing downs S&P+, No. 3 in passing defense S&P+, and No. 7 in passing marginal efficiency, but that bunch will obviously be shorthanded without its best player.

With Baker becoming a spectator, the Bulldogs will start a true freshman and a redshirt freshman at cornerback in Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, respectively.

However, the two aren’t exactly lacking in the experience department, and that’s certainly not the case from a pure talent perspective. Campbell, a former five-star prospect and the No. 2 cornerback in the 2018 class, started the first 10 games of the season at the corner role opposite of Baker, totaling 43 tackles and one pass breakup. Stokes took over for Campbell as the starter throughout the past three games and enters the Sugar Bowl with eight pass breakups.

Though the two freshmen will undoubtedly have their hands as full as ever in hopes of slowing Texas’ star receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, they’ll enjoy some top-tier help from one of the nation’s top safety tandems in Richard LeCounte III and J.R. Reed. Essential in both pass prevention and run support, LeCounte and Reed rank first and third on the team in tackles with 67 and 58, respectively, and the duo has combined for three interceptions and five pass breakups.

Whether or not the Georgia secondary will be able to maintain its elite level of play without Baker in the mix remains to be seen, but if not, it could prove tremendously beneficial to Texas, as the Bulldogs aren’t nearly as formidable up front.

This isn’t to say talent isn’t there, because it certainly is, but the overall productivity isn’t that of an elite front seven.

Names such as senior defensive end Johnathan Ledbetter (51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack), and outside linebackers D’Andre Walker (45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups) and Monty Rice (59 tackles, despite missing the past three games with a foot injury) spring to mind, but nevertheless, the numbers haven’t been quite as notable.

Georgia ranks just 57th in rushing defense S&P+, 81st in rushing marginal efficiency, 82nd in stuff rate (17.7%), and 109th in opportunity rate (50.3%), which collectively speak volumes about the talent in the trenches’ inability to have their way against opposing ground games. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Texas isn’t exactly elite in that regard, as Ehlinger, Tre Watson, Keaontay Ingram, and Daniel Young have combined for 44 fewer rushing yards than Swift and Holyfield as part of a rushing offense that ranks 93rd in S&P+.

What could prove problematic for the Bulldogs, however, is the potential that Ehlinger is afforded plenty of time to set up shop in the pocket and sling the ball around the Humphrey and Johnson. Through 13 games, Georgia ranks 82nd in sack rate (5.8%) and even worse on standard downs, coming in at 99th (3.7%).

Even on blitz downs, Georgia gets to the quarterback only 10.6 percent of the time, which ranks 60th nationally. Again, this isn’t due to a devoid in talent, as Tyler Clark, massive nose tackle Jordan Davis, and Tae Crowder are among Georgia’s most impactful talents in the trenches, but the overall productivity simply hasn’t been as overwhelming as previous Bulldogs defenses.

This season, though, the whole has often been greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s evident through the key statistics. The Bulldogs have been elite at preventing big plays, ranking fourth in passing marginal explosiveness, sixth in big-play rate (4.4%), and eight in overall marginal explosiveness. Furthermore, the find ways to get off the field more when the opportunities present themselves, ranking 13th in third-down efficiency.

Unsurprisingly, when a team excels at preventing big plays and gets off the field on third down, they often prevent points, as Georgia did en route to the nation’s No. 16 scoring defense (18.5 PPG), which will be the best Texas has seen this season.

If it isn’t overwhelmingly apparent already, Herman and the Horns are going to have their hands as full as they have at any point throughout the past two seasons. Top-to-bottom, Georgia is likely better than any team Texas has seen in recent memory, as evident by the Bulldogs nearly beating Alabama in the SEC title game, as well as last season’s national title game with much of the same talent.

Of course, as noted, the odds aren’t in Texas’ favor, nor should they be, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a recipe for success.

Barring a miracle, Texas is going to be overmatched man-to-man along the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense, which means Todd Orlando will have to dial up creative and effective blitzes to assure a mismatch doesn’t balloon into an outright overwhelming edge.

Texas’ secondary holding up its end of the bargain and having success in one-on-one matchups will have a substantial say in regards to just how much pressure Orlando can send towards the line of scrimmage without sacrificing much in coverage, and regardless of where it comes from, some turnover luck is seemingly a must.

Offensively, it’s obvious that Texas will require big games from its talented pass-catching pair, but going against a not-so-dominant rush defense, getting the ground game going will not only be essential in opening up opportunities for Humphrey and Johnson, but keeping the clock churning and Georgia’s elite offense sidelined. And just as the defense forcing turnovers will vital, the same can be said for Texas protecting the ball on the offensive end.

How much of this must-do list Texas can complete should have a substantial say in the outcome at the Sugar Bowl, and ultimately, the narrative surrounding the Longhorns offseason.

With a win, Texas would clinch its first 10-win campaign since the Longhorns last national title run in 2009, and the win would have come over a Georgia team widely recognized as one of the nation’s premier programs. With a loss, though, Texas would cap the 2018 slate with back-to-back losses and four defeats throughout its final seven games after once sitting at 6-1 and No. 6 nationally.

The latter is more likely. Georgia 41, Texas 34.