ATLANTA — He does not like to dwell on past games, the good ones or the bad ones, but Georgia Coach Kirby Smart knows the College Football Playoff’s agonies better than most. Twice in the last eight years, he has stood on the sideline of a playoff game and watched a fourth-ranked team outlast his.
There was the 2014 season, which for Smart ended when No. 4 Ohio State broke No. 1 Alabama, where he was the defensive coordinator. Then, on the final play of the 2017 season, Smart’s quest for his inaugural national championship as Georgia’s coach sputtered against fourth-seeded Alabama.
Now the prospect of a redemption — and the promise of a fresh data point in sports’ eternal debate over the value of history and memory — has arrived by way of Saturday’s Peach Bowl, the playoff semifinal where Smart’s top-ranked, reigning champion Bulldogs will meet No. 4 Ohio State (8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN). With Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium about 70 miles from Georgia’s campus, and with the Bulldogs having crushed Louisiana State and Oregon in Atlanta this season, there is no cozier setup this playoff, the past’s headwinds notwithstanding.
“We talk all the time about limiting regret, and I think one of the ways you limit regret is through a lot of detail and thought about the way you plan,” Smart said on Thursday as he considered the night the Buckeyes upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. “There’s a lot of detail and thought into that plan, and a lot of detail and thought into this plan.”
Besides, he added, the seedings at this point are no more than “two numbers in front of somebody’s name.”
On paper and in the pregame judgments of oddsmakers, at least, the Bulldogs, who are 13-0 and won the Southeastern Conference title with ease, face an especially formidable obstacle to reach the Jan. 9 championship game against No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Texas Christian, who will joust in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State, the first program to vault from No. 4 seed to national champion in the playoff era, arrived in Atlanta with an 11-1 record, its Michigan-induced scar an awfully big one. (“Every game you play at Ohio State has got huge magnitude,” Coach Ryan Day said, “and if you don’t think so, try losing a game.”)
But the Buckeyes, like the Bulldogs, have very often shined.
Ohio State averaged 492.7 yards per game this season; Georgia had 491.9. Georgia’s defense, the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision at stopping rushers, is far more vulnerable through the air, where Ohio State led the Big Ten Conference. The Bulldogs surrendered about 292 total yards a game, the Buckeyes allowed about 304, and both defenses proved expert on third downs.
“Those guys are great,” Sedrick Van Pran, Georgia’s starting center for this season and last year’s championship run, said with a measure of awe as he freehanded a drawing of his university’s mascot. Overconfidence, he suggested, was not endemic in Georgia’s locker room because the Bulldogs knew it would be detrimental against a team as fast and physical as Ohio State.
The playoff’s top spot is not necessarily a gift. More No. 2 seeds have won championships than No. 1 teams, and teams ranked fourth have captured just as many titles as those seeded at the top. Still, teams ranked No. 1 have been three times as likely to reach title showdowns. Their margins of victory in semifinals have averaged about 20 points.
To the chagrin of administrators and broadcasters, the last few seasons have not exactly offered tense semifinals involving No. 1 teams. Alabama, absent from the playoff field for only the second time in the system’s nine-season history, was all but penciled into the title games before it faced Cincinnati and Notre Dame. In 2019, No. 1 Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow sized up Oklahoma in a semifinal in Atlanta and threw seven touchdowns — in the first half.
Even though Georgia’s closest game this year was an intrasquad scrimmage, few are forecasting a rout in a game in which the Bulldogs are favored by roughly a touchdown. Smart, a member of the Crimson Tide coaching staff when Alabama won back-to-back national championships under the Bowl Championship Series model, suggested he was applying few turnkey lessons from that run to this season’s pursuit of a second consecutive title.
“There’s no, like, this magic potion, let me go to the book where you have a team go twice,” he said. “There is no book for it. You just manage each and every team and each and every season as best you can.”
Few coaches anywhere would disagree, but Ohio State has still been delighted this month to tap into its 2014 history. The university’s success back then, players and coaches said, was a handy antidote to narratives about Georgia’s effectively unchecked menace and power this year.
“It’s a different time, but I think the biggest thing is that it can be done,” said Larry Johnson, a member of the 2014 Ohio State staff who is now the associate head coach. “There’s a blueprint.”
The 2014 team, Johnson mused in the lobby of the College Football Hall of Fame this week, was stocked with players who believed that they could conquer their sport.
Surveying the group in Atlanta, he said he saw similar traits and acknowledged that the coaching staff had tried to capitalize on one of Ohio State’s most glorious chapters. Far from Smart’s past-is-past approach, Ohio State’s coaches have sometimes summoned the sensibilities of William Faulkner and shown tape from the 2014 game, when the Buckeyes trailed Alabama by as many as 15 points.
After all, quarterback C.J. Stroud, now a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, was 13 years old when the Buckeyes won, 42-35. They went on to beat Oregon, 42-20, in the title game.
“That’s why you have to share your stories, because you’re reminding them, ‘You’ve never been in it, but this is what happened,’” Johnson said.
There are limits to the technique. Cade Stover, a tight end from Mansfield, Ohio, has gawked at the fearlessness of the 2014 team but said there was only so much one could glean from tape and Johnson’s tales.
“I would have liked to have been in the locker room and see how things went that way more than on the field,” he said. “On the field, everybody’s got a job to do, and that job is different than it was in 2014. But as far as the leadership and how people handled themselves, that’s what I like to focus on.”
But the history lessons have had their desired effect, Stover and other players said.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we think we can do this,” he said.