Peach Bowl keys to victory: How Georgia, Ohio State will win semifinal

The helmets, the brands, the coaches, the Heisman Trophy finalists, the future NFL superstars – the Peach Bowl between No. 1 Georgia and No. 4 Ohio State may be one of the most hyped College Football Playoff semifinal matchups in the format’s history despite the Buckeyes’ backdoor route into the top four.

After limping into the playoff after getting blasted by Michigan in the regular-season finale, Ohio State has a chance to press reset against the defending national champions. But if the Wolverines ran over, around and through the Buckeyes, what does that say about Georgia’s chances? 

The Peach Bowl won’t be determined only by quarterback play, though related issues such as each team’s pass rush and pass protection could end up as the deciding factors. The two passers are terrific, though, with Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud easily one of the best in program history and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett one of the great success stories in Football Bowl Subdivision history.

Whether one or both quarterbacks will feel the pressure and which offense can unlock explosive plays will go a long way toward deciding which team advances to the national championship game. These are the factors to keep in mind:

Keeping pressure off the quarterbacks

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One year after finishing fourth in the country with 49 sacks, Georgia’s defense ranks in the bottom half of the FBS with just 26 sacks during the regular season. Ohio State’s defense has posted 32 sacks through 12 games, with a few impressive performances in wins against Penn State, Indiana and Maryland. There are other ways to measure the success of a pass rush, and the Bulldogs have remained very capable of breaking down pockets and forcing rushed and off-timing throws. But this defense is not as dominant coming off the edge, which in turn has led to some breakdowns on the back end of the secondary – more on this in a moment.

The play of both offensive lines in pass protection may be the deciding factor in this semifinal. Both have been wonderful in this regard: The Buckeyes have given up just eight sacks and Georgia just seven across well over 400 designed passing plays. Two ideas to keep in mind are the Bulldogs’ recent production in getting to the quarterback – four sacks against Georgia Tech and another four against LSU to cap the regular season – and how they stepped up when facing Tennessee’s similarly quarterback-driven offense. Georgia stepped out to an early lead and finished with a season-high six sacks against the Volunteers.

Winning (or losing) on first down

You either beat Georgia’s defense on first down or not at all. The Bulldogs give up 3.5 yards per carry on first down but just 1.7 on third down, and have allowed opponents to convert five of 10 fourth-down tries. Through the air, quarterbacks have completed 62.9% of attempts on first down on 6.5 yards per attempt; those totals are cut down to just 49.1% and 5.5 yards per throw on third down. And it gets worse in even more obvious passing situations. Offenses trying to convert on third down and 10 or more yards have hit on only 41.3% of attempts on a measly 3.8 yards per pass. 

But if any team can reverse that trend, it’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes lead the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 181.1 on third down, with 12 touchdowns against two interceptions and 39 conversions in 89 attempts. Overall, Ohio State ranks 20th in the Bowl Subdivision in converting 46.1% of third-down tries. The Bulldogs’ defense ranks third in giving up a first down on 26.7% of all third downs.

Ohio State and explosive passing plays

OSU is adept at unearthing explosive gains through the air and in the running game. The Buckeyes have 14 passing plays of 40 or more yards, good for 11th nationally, and another eight runs of 40 or more yards, tied for 10th in the FBS. The ability to put together scoring drives with one or two plays gives OSU a real shot at wobbling a pass defense that has struggled putting a cap on explosive gains. The Bulldogs rank 96th in allowing 21 completions of at least 30 yards, 112th with 12 completions of 40 or more yards and are tied for 88th nationally with five completions of 50 or more yards.

Georgia and explosive running plays

But the Bulldogs are outstanding against the run: Georgia leads the country in giving up just 26 rushes of 10 or more yards and has allowed just four gains of 20 or more yards. Ohio State is in the same ballpark. The Buckeyes have given up just 35 gains of 10 or more yards, though they’re also one of just six teams to allow three or more gains of at least 70 yards. While Georgia ranks seventh in the FBS at 5.5 yards per carry, the Bulldogs are more likely to pound away with consistent gains of six, seven and eight yards than break off one or more long touchdown run. But over time, a successful ground game could loosen up the OSU defense and lead to a second-half breakdown that sends Georgia back to the championship game.

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