Sugar Bowl preview: All eyes on Fromm as Georgia tangles with Texas
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Sugar Bowl
Who: No. 15 Texas Longhorns (9-4, 7-3 Big 12) vs. No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs (11-2, 7-2 SEC)
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
TV: ESPN
Odds: Georgia -13
Over/Under: 58

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Texas Georgia
Points Per Game 31.3 (48) 39.2 (13)
Points Allowed/Game 26.2 (57) 18.5 (T-15)
Rush Yards/Game 151.2 (92) 251.6 (12)
Pass Yards/Game 264.5 (33) 227.2 (69)
Total Yards/Game 415.6 (54) 478.8 (14)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 135.9 (36) 130.6 (28)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 265.2 (113) 180.5 (15)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 401.2 (68) 311.2 (13)
Third-Down Offense 46.3% (17) 47.7% (13)
Third-Down Defense 44.2% (109) 32.6% (21)
Red-Zone Offense 80.4% (T-94) 89.5% (T-18)
Red-Zone Defense 75.0 (T-15) 87.9% (101)
Team Sacks/Game 2.31 (56) 1.69 (101)
Turnover Differential +7 (T-22) +5 (T-35)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season review

Texas

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Texas is still in the embryonic stage of the Tom Herman cycle, though things are pointing in the right direction. The Longhorns upset Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown and pushed the Sooners to their limit in the Big 12 championship game.

Herman has carved out a weird niche, as his team is a dominant underdog and an underwhelming favorite. When the Longhorns need to punch upward, they do it easily and dominate. But when they’re a heavy favorite, they drag their feet and beg the opposition to make it a contest.

The 2018 season was no different. Vexing losses to Maryland and Oklahoma State clouded impressive wins over Oklahoma, USC, and Iowa State. West Virginia tacked on an extra defeat, knocking off Texas as a slight dog just for good measure.

The odd season left Texas 36th in overall S&P+, a fairly disastrous finish by the school's standards. Yet at 9-4, and with the team trending up, positivity surrounds Texas.

A win over Georgia could be the launching point for Herman’s program.

Georgia

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Georgia came agonizingly close to knocking off Alabama in the SEC championship game and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Bulldogs will settle for a bowl game against Texas.

Head coach Kirby Smart has built an impressive program in a short period of time. Georgia has the athletes, scheme, and mentality to compete with the best in college football. The Bulldogs have pushed Alabama to the brink twice, and fallen short twice.

But this is the start of the Smart era, not the end.

Georgia's 2018 season is even more impressive when we remember the insane amount of talent the team lost to the NFL. Some of the league’s best rookies on both sides of the ball were suiting up for the Bulldogs 12 months ago. That includes four top-50 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Sure, the Bulldogs aren’t quite at the same level as a year ago. But they still have the third-most talented team in the country. Smart restocked; he didn’t need to reload. That’s the hallmark of a true juggernaut - see Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State.

Georgia has now entered that conversation. A bowl game against Texas is a chance for Smart and his players to establish themselves as members of the elite.

Brush the Longhorns aside with ease, and they will once again occupy that odd collegiate purgatory. Everyone will know Georgia is one of the nation’s best teams, but the Bulldogs won't be in the competition for the ultimate prize.

This will be the most fun stylistic non-playoff matchup of the 2018 bowl season.

Players to watch

Texas WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey

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More than a cool name, Humphrey has burst onto the scene with a handful of near-unstoppable performances. He caught 79 balls this season at a 75 percent clip, top-tier numbers by any measure. Add on his 1,109 receiving yards, the damage he does after the catch, and 10 touchdowns, and you have one of the most feared offensive weapons in the country.

Texas LB Gary Johnson

For football snobs, the main attraction during the Herman era has been watching his defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando, go to work. Orlando has updated an old-school defense while rooting his unit in a “Tite” front. He uses three down linemen to plug the interior gaps, freeing up his linebackers and allowing rotating safeties to fly to the ball.

Orlando wants to take away the A-gaps - the lifeblood of spread-to-run offenses - and spill runs wide while also having an extra body in coverage against pass-happy Big 12 teams.

Gary Johnson, the inside linebacker who's always in attack mode, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Orlando's system. He knows his job: See the ball carrier and go hit him.

Johnson leads the Longhorns in tackles, and he's been a constant threat behind the line of scrimmage. He finished the 2018 regular season with 15.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks.

Georgia QB Jake Fromm

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The focus is on Fromm as we watch a young quarterback grow up and master his craft.

A false narrative from last season carried into this one: that the talent around Fromm is carrying him. Nonsense! Fromm makes his teammates better, and he makes Georgia's offense sing.

Fromm is given the freedom to switch things up at the line of scrimmage. That may not sound like much, but it’s a big deal. It means he can flip to any play based on reading the defense's front, its strength, the coverage, or the leverage of an individual defender.

These days there's a lot of check-with-me offense, with the entire unit standing up, looking toward the sideline, and checking for a signal to switch the play. The opposing defense does the same and then the ballet continues.

Fromm switching the play, even at a minor level, changes the rhythm for a defense. There isn’t always enough time for the defense to make or communicate its countermove, and defenders are left out of position:

Sure, he’s accurate, has a big arm, can move well, and is quick to digest three-tiered route concepts. But it’s Fromm's pre-snap reads that separate him from some of the other top college quarterbacks. Fromm is asked to do an awful lot, and the 20-year-old delivers.

Biggest mismatch

Georgia’s offensive line vs. Texas’ defensive line

On paper, and on tape, the direct matchup between Georgia's offensive line and the Longhorn's defensive line shouldn’t be much of a contest. However, that doesn't include Texas’ linebackers and the team's rotating safeties, which could help even it out somewhat.

Georgia’s O-line has been overwhelming this season. This group is as good as it gets with its immense athletes who are technically proficient across the board.

The Bulldogs' linemen really get out and run, whether it's on designated perimeter runs or simple outside-zone calls:

Between the tackles, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney likes to run insert-ISO plays with man blocking along the line while an H-Back or secondary tailback isolates a second-level defender.

That means this team is always rolling downhill. Georgia doesn't give many opportunities for a defender to win quickly unless he whips his blocker in a one-on-one matchup.

That shouldn’t be much of a concern against this D-line, as Texas doesn’t create many negative plays up front. The Longhorns' defensive line ranks 83rd in the country in run stops.

Texas' keys to victory

Win vs. heavy formations: Texas has to win this matchup. We’ve seen the Longhorns struggle all season with this personnel decision. When Orlando opts to go super light with smaller defenders, he opens his defense up to gigantic runs right down the middle of the field:

Chaney is fond of split-zone runs and likes to crash his offensive line one way, with a tight end slashing across the formation to seal the backside. That's Georgia’s most destructive play, and slowing down the Bulldogs' rushing attack will be Orlando’s top priority.

Keep an eye on whether he switches his personnel, or if he decides to slant and stem his line from a three-man front.

After facing spread attacks all season, Georgia represents a new challenge for Texas. The Longhorns have no chance if Orlando gets his plan wrong against heavy personnel groupings.

Perimeter Leverage: The Bulldogs have a downhill-running offense that features plenty of play-action. That’s how they win games.

But Chaney also chucks a lot of perimeter fluff at a defense. He knows he has better athletes outside than most opposing defenses, and he likes to add in some perimeter constraint plays to help clear out the box and create mismatches in space.

The bubble screen and jet sweep are his favorite plays. Both rely on wide receivers being willing blockers. They don’t have to be great, they just have to play with great effort.

And his players respond, making Georgia an excellent blocking team on the edges:

Chaney will make Texas defend every blade of grass. The Longhorns had issues in both games against Oklahoma this season with positional leverage against screens and tackling in space. Both must be on point this weekend to win.

Georgia's keys to victory

Block Charles Omenihu: It will be fascinating to see which team adapts schematically in this matchup. Georgia likes to use heavy formations, and Texas typically uses small fronts. Will Georgia stay big? If so, does Texas match?

If Texas is confident its front three can be disruptive enough against an excellent offensive line, the Longhorns will stick with their Tite front, cramming linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage to make up for the team's lack of size.

That’s where Charles Omenihu comes in. He leads the Longhorns in run stuffs, tackles for a loss, and sacks. He’s the team's most feared defensive playmaker. If he consistently penetrates into the backfield, Texas will be able to use its normal front. If he can't, Georgia will move the ball easily.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest this battle will determine the outcome of the game.

Prediction

Georgia 42, Texas 21

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Sugar Bowl preview: All eyes on Fromm as Georgia tangles with Texas
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