Georgia entered the season with national championship dreams. It ends it in New Orleans, but not for the national championship game. Instead, the fifth-ranked Bulldogs are vying for the consolation prize known as the Sugar Bowl when they meet No. 7 Baylor on Wednesday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Georgia (11-2) has an excellent defense and has been tested in SEC waters, which helps explain why FanDuel has the Sugar Bowl odds as Georgia a 3.5-point favorite.
Sugar Bowl odds: Georgia (-3.5, 42.5 over/under) vs. Baylor, New Year's Day at 8:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)
But its less-than-excellent offense makes it a risky pick.
More to the point, that offense against an opportunistic Bears defense makes it a dicey proposition to lay coin on the Bulldogs and give the points. Yep, Baylor is that rare Big 12 team building its program around defense.
But coach Matt Rhule, who is becoming a possibility to run to an NFL team sooner rather instead of later, has used the stop unit to bring Baylor from the abyss in which Art Briles' scandal-plagued tenure left it.
Sure, the Bears can be potent on offense, averaging 35.2 points per game behind quarterback Charlie Brewer. But it's the defense that has enabled Baylor (11-2) to become a top 10 team and nearly dethrone Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference.
It doesn't take long to read the roll call of the teams who forced 30 turnovers and bagged 40 sacks before the bowl season.
And that's it. That's the entire list.
“The big thing is it's contagious,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said Sunday. “If you get enough guys that like the turnover deal and have a knack for it, the other guys start to really feed on it. You can go from 10 to 30. I'm proud of that. That's a big jump from one year to the next.”
Tripling the turnover total has enabled the Bears to be the winner everyone calls lucky. Now you can say they've been fortunate to win five games by one score — including two in overtime — and you'd be right, but you also make your luck in those games.
There was the Nov. 9 game at TCU when Baylor outlasted the Horned Frogs 29-23 in triple overtime despite gaining only 294 yards. But its defense forced three turnovers and notched three sacks.
Emblematic of the Bears' emphasis on making big plays defensively is safety Grayland Arnold. A cornerback for two injury-filled years, Arnold was moved right before fall camp. He took so well to the change that he finished with six of the team's 17 interceptions, which are tied for fifth nationally.
By contrast, Baylor managed just seven picks in 2018 and only three in 2017.
“It's got to be like, 'No, this ball is mine' every time the ball is in the air,” Arnold said. “It has to start in practice. But once you create those good habits, it will lead over to the game.”
The Bears might need some of those big plays on defense to help an offense that will face a stiff test from Georgia. While most fans' last memory of the Bulldogs was watching Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow carve up that defense in the SEC title game, it might be more instructive to remember this was the same defense that tossed three shutouts this year.
One shutout in a season is pretty remarkable in this age of spread offenses, NASCAR tempo and quarterbacks who develop at microwave speed. Three in a season? Give Georgia a hand.
And it should be pointed out that prior to running into the Burrow buzzsaw, no opponent managed more than 20 points when facing the Bulldogs. That even includes good offenses such as Notre Dame, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M.
“Everyone has a role and does it really well,” defensive tackle Michael Barnett said. “We do not really try to go outside of our role, because everyone knows their role is the key to helping the defense. Once you play outside of your role is where you hurt the defense.”
As for the Bulldogs' offense, the buzzword seems to be meh. On paper, the numbers don't look bad, as they average 31.2 points while gaining just over 410 yards per game with nearly a 50-50 split between running and passing.
D'Andre Swift has rushed for 1,216 yards, the second 1,000-yard season of his career, and quarterback Jake Fromm has thrown for 2,610 yards with a 22-5 touchdown-interception ratio. Making matters worse is that Swift is nursing a shoulder injury and said Sunday he was unsure if was going to play. Left tackle Andre Thomas is out after declaring for the draft, where he could be a top-five pick, and right tackle Isaiah Wilson is also sitting out to prepare for the pros.
The sum of the parts on Georgia's offense has come up short for some critics who are panning coach Kirby Smart for a vanilla offense.
“I don't think what I want to do has been held back,” offensive coordinator James Coley said of those theories. “What I want to do, I've done. It's our job to get it better.”